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Jonathan Freeman, Jafar in ‘Aladdin,’ Hangs Up His Cobra Staff

He is, as Iago puts it in the classic Disney film, the “all-mighty evil one.” “A vile betrayer!” the sultan says. And, for a brief time, as he …

Jonathan Freeman, Jafar in ‘Aladdin,’ Hangs Up His Cobra Staff
24.01.2022 21:24

He is, as Iago puts it in the classic Disney film, the “all-mighty evil one.”

“A vile betrayer!” the sultan says.

And, for a brief time, as he himself proclaims, “the most powerful sorcerer in the world!”


Jonathan Freeman first voiced the Disney villain Jafar in the animated “Aladdin” movie back in 1992, continued to sneer in the subsequent films and then went on to originate the role in the Broadway production, which opened in 2014. He has wielded his cobra staff in hundreds of performances since, playing the role for nearly eight years.

The show’s director, Casey Nicholaw, left, surprised Freeman during his final curtain call.Credit…An Rong Xu for The New York Times

That is until Sunday night, with the show that he decided would be his last.

Backstage that evening, Freeman’s dressing room was mostly cleared out. The walls were bare, the day bed was gone. Tokens of appreciation included flowers, gifts of alcohol and a note of thanks from the ushers.

An insert in the Playbill alerted audience members that Freeman would be taking his “final bow” in “Aladdin.” The show said he is the only person in the Disney universe to have brought an animated character he voiced, to life, onstage — a capstone to a career that includes credits in 11 Broadway shows.

Freeman and Don Daryl Rivera, who plays Iago the parrot.Credit…An Rong Xu for The New York Times
One of the evening’s many hugs from members of the cast and crew.Credit…An Rong Xu for The New York Times

After the performance ended, cast and crew members took a moment to honor Freeman during the curtain call.

“I just had to come tonight to just acknowledge this wonderful man,” the show’s director, Casey Nicholaw, said. “We’re really going to miss you here so much.”

Freeman, 71, replied, “No one wants to see a villain cry.” He added that “nobody does this on their own.”

Then Freeman formally passed his cobra staff — “by the power vested in me by Mickey Mouse,” he said — to Dennis Stowe, the Jafar standby who will assume the role this week.

After a few short speeches backstage, where most crew members were wearing T-shirts that featured Jafar’s silhouette, and many hugs, Freeman sat down for an exit interview in the nearby Disney Theatrical offices.

“I rediscovered time during the pandemic,” Freeman, 71, said. “And what I discovered about rediscovering time was that it was very nice to have it.”Credit…An Rong Xu for The New York Times

These are edited excerpts from that conversation.

You’ve been some version of Jafar for 30 years. How are you thinking about letting go of Jafar — and letting go of a part of yourself a little bit?

After it appeared that the show was going to be successful and Disney wanted to have multiple productions, it’s kind of like this little island of Jafar that I lived on by myself for a while, it kept breaking off and splintering off. And I was happy and thrilled, to be honest, just to be able to know that I had gotten to a certain place where it becomes some kind of a template that could be reproduced by other people. So that’s nice — that’s nice to know it’s still going on.

“I never thought of him, to be honest, as anything but a Disney villain,” Freeman said of his character. “It had to do with the arch of the eyebrow, it had to do with the sneer.”Credit…An Rong Xu for The New York Times

Why leave now?

Well, actually, when we started the 2020 season year — our year really starts in February — I was thinking that maybe it would be my last year doing it.

And then the pandemic happened, and then there was nothing. No one knew — was it going to be two months, six months? So, I think I thought, “Well, if they start again, I can’t not go back and try to pick up the pieces” because I would just be evaporating then in the middle of this pandemic. It would just be too weird. And I didn’t want to leave right before the holidays because that means putting the company into rehearsals. And so I thought wait until after the first of the year and February is the end of the contract anyway. It just seemed like the right time.

In addition to the cobra staff, Freeman’s costume includes a cape, rings and cuffs.Credit…An Rong Xu for The New York Times

What do you think you were able to bring to Jafar onstage that perhaps you could not in voicing him for the movie?

When we first started in Seattle [a pilot production of the show in the summer of 2011], there was only myself and one other person in the room who was connected to the original project, which was [the composer] Alan Menken. So when we got the first read-through, it was like a glass of cold water in my face, because I was hearing new voices doing these characters that I’d been hearing for so many years.

With new voices came new ideas, and people were physically different in it. So I had to figure out how I would fit in. And I did kind of have to do a little bit of re-creation.

It’s showtime: Freeman in an elevator at the New Amsterdam Theater, on his way to the stage.Credit…An Rong Xu for The New York Times

How do you think your view of Jafar — and “Aladdin” — evolved over the years?

As far as Jafar goes, I never thought of him, to be honest, as anything but a Disney villain. I never thought of him as being North African, Middle Eastern, Asiatic, South Asian. I never thought of any of those things. I always thought of him as being a villain. The makeup that I put on was never meant to be race. It was always villain’s makeup. It had to do with the arch of the eyebrow, it had to do with the sneer.

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It’s not that no one thought about it. I think everybody thought about it, and everyone thought about it carefully.

One final bow as Jafar. The show said Freeman is the only person in the Disney universe to have brought an animated character he voiced, to life, onstage.Credit…An Rong Xu for The New York Times

Let’s do a quick speed round. How often, and in what context, are you asked to do the Jafar voice?

I’m on this platform called Cameo. I get requests pretty much every week.

How much are you charging?

Very low, like $35 — or $50. I figure, you know, if people want it, I’ll give it to them and the volume makes up the difference.

Can you confirm that Jafar is a Slytherin?

Oh, absolutely. Without question.

Five words to describe Jafar?

Mercurial; malevolent; jealous (not to be confused with envious); vain; and self-important.

You must have had a million interactions with children, Disney fans, “Aladdin” fans. Do you have a favorite one?

We walked out the stage door one night in Seattle, and I went down the stairs and I’m walking down the alley, and a young woman came after me and was like, “Excuse me? Were you the gentleman who played Jafar tonight?” I said, yes. And she said, “You sound just like the guy in the movie!” And I said, “Thank you very much. It’s a great compliment.”

A standing ovation for Freeman and the “Aladdin” cast after Sunday’s performance.Credit…An Rong Xu for The New York Times

What is next for Jafar? I read perhaps something for Cirque du Soleil?

Cirque du Soleil did contract for some Jafar something. I’m not even sure what it is.

I think it’s going to be a new installation. It has something to do with drawing. It’s not Vegas. It’s going to be at a theme park. I mean, it won’t be me in person. It may even just be a lift from the film or something.

What is next for Jonathan?

I’m looking at a couple of projects. I would like to do a simple play again. Jafar is very greedy. He takes up a lot of time.

I rediscovered time during the pandemic. And what I discovered about rediscovering time was that it was very nice to have it.


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