cover image by Deen van Meer
Disney’s Aladdin, which opened on Broadway in 2014, closes out the Kimmel Center’s 2017-2018 season. We spoke with actor Jonathan Weir who plays the villain Jafar in Aladdin. This veteran theatre actor also played evil in Disney’s The Lion King (Scar) on Broadway. National tours for Weir include Jersey Boys, The Lion King, and Scrooge the Musical, and many roles theatres throughout Chicago where he resides. He attended Temple University for his first two years of graduate school (MFA in Acting) and has a daughter who currently resides in our city.
Q: Tell me about your time at Temple University- what shows did you perform in while living in Philly? What were your favorite Philly hangouts/things to do when not studying?
A: Coming to Philly with Aladdin is a bit of a homecoming. I attended Temple in the mid ’80s for my MFA in Acting. I was fortunate to be in a class with so many passionate, brave and caring people. I made some lifelong friends and we had some truly inspiring faculty members. I ultimately left Temple and finished my MFA at The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. But while in Philadelphia I had the opportunity to work with Jiri and Blanka Zizka at The Wilma Theatre. This was back in the days when they were on Sansom Street in the 99 seat space. I did productions of The Hairy Ape and Happy End and having the good fortune to work with Blanka and Jiri and their bold, innovative and unique perspectives helped determine that type of work I wanted to do and how I wanted to approach my work. It was the best education I could wish for. I lived in South Philly and Queens Village during my time in Philadelphia. Some haunts were South Street, the waterfront and trips to the Jersey Shore. I waited tables at a great restaurant near South Street called Wildflower; it’s not around anymore, but it was one of those places, not unlike Cheers bar, where it was a family. And they had one of the best Sunday brunches I’ve ever had.
Q: You have performed in numerous national tours, as well as in The Lion King on Broadway. What have been your favorite roles to date?
A: I get asked this question a lot. It’s always a bit tricky to answer because I typically love the role I’m currently doing. I have been very fortunate in my career to have worked on several national tours and a few stints on Broadway doing The Lion King. And while I am proud of those works I’ve been based in Chicago for 32 years. It’s where I cut my teeth as an actor and where the majority of my work has been. Some favorites have been a production of 2666, an adaptation of Chilean writer Roberto Bolano’s 900 page novel by Robert Falls, Artistic Director at the Goodman Theatre, and co-adaptor/ co-director Seth Bokley. It was 5.5 hours running time and was a one of the most challenging and gratifying experiences I’ve had. I did a production several years back at Writers Theatre in Chicago of A Little Night Music in which I played Fredrik Egerman. I did a recent production of The Merry Widow at the Lyric Opera of Chicago starring Rene Fleming and to share the stage with her and hear those dulcet tones was humbling. She’s a class act. And I performed Malvolio in Chicago Shakespeare in the Parks production of Twelfth Night. We traveled to 28 city parks in the summer and performed outdoors and it was free. To have audiences from all demographics around the city and in particular little get kids turned onto Shakespeare was the best.
Q: Jafar- one of Disney’s villains! How did you prepare for such an evil role? What would you say Jafar and Scar have in common in regards to being so evil?
A: I have decided my memoirs should be titled “From Scar to Jafar”! The night before I auditioned in NYC I went to watch the show on Broadway. I’d never seen it before and I wanted to get a sense of the physical world of Agrabah and the blocking for the scenes I was given. Jonathan Freeman who originated the voice of Jafar in the animated feature and who plays the role on Broadway created a wonderful roadmap for the character. I had a callback a few days later and then flew home to Chicago. About a week later I got the offer. Once I knew I was going to be performing the role I did a bit of research on the history on the Grand Vizier of Egypt and The Ottoman Empire and their role as the de facto prime minister to the sultan. During the four weeks of rehearsals was when the bulk of exploring and creating occurred. Scar and Jafar have many similarities. Both have a desire for ultimate power, they both use humor, wit, cunning and tricks to get their goal. And ultimately both, like most of Disney’s villains, are a victim of their unbridled greed.
Q: Favorite musical number in Aladdin?
A: My favorite musical number is “High Adventure.” It combines smart and funny lyrics with swashbuckling choreography.
Q: Your daughter lives here now- is she going to school? Job? How does she like it so far?
A: Yes, my daughter Anna moved to Philly this past January for work. I have three amazing kids and I’m proud of them all. Anna moved from Chicago and away from family and friends and that’s been an adjustment for us all, but she wanted to explore and prove to herself that she could make the move on her own. I have great admiration for that. She’s about the age I was when I moved to Philly so I’m excited for us to share the city with each other.
Q: Aladdin plays in Philly for a little over two weeks. What are you looking forward to doing here in your downtime?
A: I loved living in Philly. I find it such a livable city. I love architecture, history and the scale of Philly so I’m looking forward to walking a lot. Taking some trips down memory lane and exploring the food scene. I also love to bicycle so I’m hoping to take in some of the sights via a bike.
Q: Why should the good people of Philadelphia come see this show?
A: Aladdin is truly a show with something for everyone. It’s of course based on the Disney animated feature, but the stage version offers some enhanced songs and characters and the familiar plot of Aladdin. But to see the Disney magic in the stage production is mind blowing. The costumes, set and orchestrations are stunning and the show is full of humor, offers a grown up romance, and a universal theme of a young man wanting to make his mother proud. You know for a lot of 20 and 30 year-olds, this was their Disney movie; their princess and hero. We see a lot of young couples at the show out for a date, families and grandparents.
The Philadelphia connections are strong in this show. Cast member Michelle West was born here and attending Temple University. Another fun fact about this cast- Clinton Greenspan (Aladdin) and Isabelle McCalla (Jasmine) aren’t just an on-stage couple. The two are dating in real life! Come support the city of Brotherly Love- and just love in general- with one of Broadway’s most magical shows.
Aladdin plays the Academy of Music from June 13th to July 1st. Tickets and more info can be found on the Kimmel Center’s website.