He is, as Iago puts it in the classic Disney movie, “all-powerful evil.”
“Sneaky traitor!” says the Sultan.
And for a short time, as he himself states, “the most powerful sorcerer in the world!”
Jonathan Freeman first voiced the Disney villain Jafar in the animated film Aladdin back in 1992, continued to taunt in subsequent films, and then went on to play the role in a Broadway production that opened in 2014. since then in hundreds of performances, playing this role for almost eight years.
That is, until Sunday night, when the show he decided would be his last.
Backstage that evening, Freeman’s dressing room was mostly cleaned. The walls were bare, there was no couch. The tokens of gratitude included flowers, alcohol as a gift, and a letter of thanks from the helpers.
An insert in the playbill warned viewers that Freeman would have a “last bow” in Aladdin. The show said he was the only person in the Disney universe to bring an animated character he voiced to life on stage, the cornerstone of his career, which includes appearances on 11 Broadway shows.
After the play ended, the cast and crew paid tribute to Freeman for a minute during the curtain call.
“I just had to come over tonight just to say thank you to this wonderful person,” show director Casey Nikolav said. “We’re really going to miss you here.”
Freeman, 71, replied: “No one wants to see a villain cry.” He added that “nobody does it on their own”.
Freeman then formally handed over his cobra staff — “the power given to me by Mickey Mouse,” he said — to Dennis Stowe, Jafar’s assistant, who will take on the role this week.
After a few short backstage speeches, where most of the crew wore Jafar T-shirts, and numerous hugs, Freeman sat down for an exit interview at the nearby Disney Theatric offices.
These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
You were some version of Jafar for 30 years. How do you feel about letting go of Jafar – and letting go of a part of yourself a little bit?
After it turned out that the show was going to be successful and Disney wanted to have a few productions, it was like this little island of Jafar that I lived alone on for a while, it kept breaking off and splintering. And I was happy and excited, to be honest, just to know that I got to a certain point where it becomes a kind of template that other people can reproduce. So it’s nice – nice to know it’s still going on.
Why leave now?
Well, actually when we started the 2020 season – our year actually starts in February – I thought maybe this would be my last year doing this.
And then the pandemic happened, and then there was nothing. Nobody knew – it would be two months, six months? So, I think I thought, “Well, if they start again, I can’t help but go back and try to pick up the pieces,” because then I would just vanish in the middle of this pandemic. It would be too strange. And I didn’t want to leave right before the holidays, because that means putting the troupe in rehearsals. And so I thought to wait until the end of the year, and February is the end of the contract anyway. It just seemed like the right time.
What do you think you were able to bring to Jafar on stage that you might not have been able to do by voicing him for the film?
When we first started in Seattle [a pilot production of the show in the summer of 2011], it was just me and another person connected to the original project in the room, which was [the composer] Alan Menken. So when we got the first reading, it was like a glass of cold water on my face because I was hearing new voices portraying characters that I had heard for so many years.
Along with new voices came new ideas, and people became physically different. So I needed to figure out how I would fit in. And I really had to recreate a bit.
How do you think your views on Jafar and Aladdin have changed over the years?
As for Jafar, to be honest, I never thought of him as anything other than a Disney villain. I never considered him to be from North Africa, the Middle East, Asia or South Asia. I never thought about these things. I have always considered him a villain. The makeup I put on was never meant to be race. It’s always been the make-up of the villain. It had to do with the arch of the eyebrows, with a sneer.
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Not that no one thought about it. I think everyone thought about it, and everyone thought it over carefully.
Let’s do a quick round of speed. How often and in what context are you asked to voice Jafar?
I’m on this platform called Cameo. I receive requests almost every week.
How much are you charging?
Very low, like $35 or $50. I guess, you know, if people need it, I’ll give it to them, and the volume will make up the difference.
Can you confirm that Jafar is a Slytherin??
Oh absolutely. No questions.
Five words to describe Jafar?
mercury; vicious; jealous (not to be confused with envious); in vain; and narcissistic.
You must have had a million interactions with kids, Disney fans, Aladdin fans. Do you have a favorite?
One night in Seattle, we came out of the service door, I went down the stairs and walk down the alley, and a young woman comes behind me and says: “Excuse me? Were you the gentleman who played Jafar today? I said yes. And she said, “You sound just like the guy in the movie!” And I said, “Thank you very much. That’s a great compliment.”
What’s next for Jafar? Maybe I read something for Cirque du Soleil?
Cirque du Soleil has signed a Jafar. I’m not even sure what it is.
I think it will be a fresh install. It has something to do with drawing. This is not Vegas. It will be in a theme park. I mean, it won’t be me personally. It could even be just a movie reference or something like that.
What’s next for Jonathan?
I am considering a couple of projects. I would like to play a simple piece again. Jafar is very greedy. It takes a lot of time.
I rediscovered time during the pandemic. And what I’ve learned about rediscovering time is that it’s very rewarding to have it.