Interview by Christine Thompson
DISNEY’S ALADDIN At Hobby Event Center, Houston June 26th-July 14th, BUY TICKETS
From the producer of THE LION KING comes the timeless story of ALADDIN, a thrilling new production filled with unforgettable beauty, magic, comedy and breathtaking spectacle. It’s an extraordinary theatrical event where one lamp and three wishes make the possibilities infinite. Hailed by USA Today as “Pure Genie-Us,” ALADDIN features all your favorite songs from the film as well as new music written by Tony® and Academy Award® winner Alan Menken (Newsies) with lyrics penned by the legendary Howard Ashman (Beauty and the Beast), Tony Award winner Tim Rice (The Lion King, Aida), and book writer Chad Beguelin (The Wedding Singer).
Major Attaway, a Fort Worth native, is starring as The Genie. In our conversation, and he told us what it was like to be spreading all the magic dust from city to city, as well as how much fun it is for him to be performing in his home state. The role of The Genie is a dream come true for Attaway, and he tells us how and why assuming that identity night after night has fundamentally changed him.
AMFM: I understand that you’ve got a number that is about 14 minutes long.
Major Attaway: That is correct, yes. from start to finish. The scene where Aladdin meets the Genie is about 14 minutes.
AMFM: That is a lot of singing. How do you keep your voice good night after night? it’s a lot of stress on a voice.
Major Attaway: It’s like I had to do a little more here in the state of Texas because I’m home, and lots of press and lots of family functions by theater family. and I’ve done more than one fundraiser since I’ve been here in the past three weeks. But keeping the voice together is all about mental health and physical fitness. You want to be physically strong enough to handle eight shows a week. On top of that, I do a lot of vocalizations in the show, so there’s lots of technique involved with warming up the voice and body properly, and cooling down. It affects your diet and all of these things. It’s all a part of who you are, essentially we have to treat ourselves like athletes with the amount of physical exertion that we go through.
AMFM: How long does it take you to prepare every day? Do you go into isolation? I know you have to get your makeup on and that’s quite the process.
Major Attaway: It depends and I think that’s because I’ve been with the show for three years now. There are certain parts of the routine that had to be tweaked to get you where you need to be mentally and physically. Honestly I would say it differs depending on the day, but there’s always some music involved. There’s a rhythm that lives in The Genie’s spirit that I have to tap into whether or not my body is already living there.
AMFM: The rhythm of The Genie – what would that be? Do you look to listen to specific music?
Major Attaway: Sometimes, it depends. The rhythm is based on the design of the character,The original design from the film was a mix between Fats Waller and Cab Calloway. That was the design before Robin Williams was introduced to the character. So it’s jazzy, and usually some brass instruments help with that mindset because the music that is in the show, is a jazzed up version compared to compared to the film. . .that’s what helps me get there.
AMFM: It’s like a marathon isn’t it?
Major Attaway: Oh yeah. You start with The Arabian Nights and then you are headed up with Friend LIke Me, then it kind of tapers at the top of act two and then comes down just a little before Somebody Has Got Your Back, which is more like a buddy-buddy, or Fred Astaire/ Ginger Rogers moment.
AMFM: Have you been doing anything differently for this show in your native home state and your own town? Do you feel like you’re under more pressure or less pressure?
Major Attaway: Less pressure. It’s easy to find love in the building and in the city you grew up in. I felt very welcomed since I’ve been here, as much support as I can handle. It’s been pretty great. I mean, you still have the responsibility of being the Genie, that still is at the forefront of every performance. But it has been lovely to just see more familiar faces than usual, people that I haven’t seen in a decade or so. It’s been wonderful.
AMFM: There are a lot of people looking up to you right now. What would you say to a young person who’s just come to the theater for the first time and wants to follow in your footsteps? What kind of advice would you give somebody like that?
Major Attaway: The first, is simple. “Look what I can do. You can do it too.” It can be that straightforward, but could also be profound. Your talent will make room for you. There’s nothing I can imagine better than seeing a reflection of myself on the stage. Seeing “The Lion King” led me here. When I was younger I always hoped that I would get to play Mufasa, but I think this character’s a better fit. So I’m definitely happy about that. What I would say is that I hope you see in me on this stage, everything that you could be capable of and more. That’s what “The Lion King” did for me.
AMFM: It’s tough to be a role model sometimes, but I know that kids always look up to the stars. I know that there’s these great programs that vary from city to city and they start bringing kids in early. When did you start?
Major Attaway: Oh, I was singing by 5 and on stage by 10.
AMFM: What was your first role?
Major Attaway: I can’t really remember whether it was church or whether it was school, but I do remember the first professional show was “Babe, The sheep-pig” At Casa Mañana Theater, and I played a sheep rustler. I was young but I was a big kid, so I could be hired for free to play an adult in the background, and it really paid off in the long run for the sake of experience because I got to work with adult actors when I was just in my early teens. I learned what to do or what not to do when it came to professionalism, and I got to learn those lessons at an early age and hold on to them. They guide me when I’m dancing anywhere, especially on a Broadway stage or here in Dallas, Texas.
AMFM: So that was after you saw “The Lion King,” right? Then you got this part later when you were a teen?
Major Attaway: I was already at Casa Mañana as a Casa kid, and that’s how I saw “The Lion King.” We took a trip every year somewhere to perform and experience something. We went to New York and it was the very first Broadway show I ever got to see. I was already in Theater, but seeing “The Lion King” wanted me to do it for a living. It was a bit of a hobby. I mean, I enjoyed singing and I had already been in the Texas boys choir. So that was me expanding on my creativity, artistically.
AMFM: So that’s when you caught fire.This is a very beloved play. story and film. What does it mean to you? Two part question. What does it mean to you and secondly, what would you really like people to take away from this?
Major Attaway: What does the show bring me? This show means everything to me and I know It’s a broad term, but what I mean is this is the first role that showcases the most, for me, for the big black man. This is the most exciting role that exists currently for us.
We have others that are also fantastic, but this show has changed how I feel about myself as an actor and how I feel about what I’m capable of accomplishing. And so it’s that big. The character was already that big for me emotionally and in my mind because of him being the Genie. But I’ve gotten to step into the lamp, if you will. It really enhanced my entire life and it’s been a great thing. Every part of what I’ve worked on as an actor has been requested in this role, demanded even, and so it’s been nice to, to work on those things and to be able to call yourself a triple threat. I grew up as a chubby black kid… I always had rhythm and could dance, but that was always a question. Now it’s no longer a question, it’s a fact. And that’s a beautiful thing.
AMFM: It’s not a question now, it’s an exclamation point.
Major Attaway: it is! I joke with my mother that we’re getting a return on her investment for all the shows she took me to. (laughs) But what I want people to take away from this show? I feel like there’s so many underlying messages that could ring true for people depending on what mental space they’re in when they come see this show. Essentially we’re doing magical escapism. I need for the audience to take away something real from this performance, and that is how I approach it and why I come to work with such enthusiasm. You could ask anybody what their three wishes were, and they might have something for you. They might even be similar to be honest.
But it’s the power of those wishes that I want people to recognize. Playing a Genie who offers only three wishes at a time has made me change how I ask people questions in my normal life. It’s caused me to be more precise, to ask more important questions or to pare down things. Say I only had a certain amount of time with someone I need to ask something, and If I can only ask one question, I need to make sure it’s good.
The way that that Al and I talk about him being himself, and how we’re both confused on the idea of what freedom really means. It has trickled into my normal life. And so I think evaluate things differently on their actual worth, to what I need for my career to what I need as a person, as Major. It’s been a beautiful thing to talk to Al everyday and convince him that he is enough. I have to hear that myself every day. So that’s added to what I’m physically and mentally capable of.
I know that’s kind of broad, but what I want you to take away is something palpable. We show you magic, and we have a flying carpet (which will blow your mind) and everything is SO gorgeous to look at – we are covered in diamonds and crystals – but with all of that – I still want to see you take away that you can dream bigger.
AMFM: I love it. Now I understand you were a patient in one the Scottish rite hospitals, and you’ve had to overcome a lot of things. From what I understand, it looks like you’ve been doing it forever, and everybody’s amazed – some even saying that you should have your own play. So I’m sure most people aren’t even aware of that. How does that affect you and your desire? Did it make you more determined? This was a stumbling block, or even a roadblock, but you overcame it.
Major Attaway: I have Blount’s Disease, it’s a bone disease that causes your some of your bones to grow faster than the rest of you. My right leg was bowed when I was younger and I had surgery at the Scottish Rite hospital. My mother loves to tell the story that when I was under anesthesia and about to go into surgery, I told her that I had to get my legs fixed so that I could dance on Broadway. (laughs) There were times where the issue was both, there were days where I decided I can’t give up because I have this issue. And then there were also days where I thought I will let no one know that this could be a problem and we’re going to push and we’re going to find a way to make things work. And we have.
What I’ve learned about myself through the Genie has helped me remove that limitation. I mean, this guy may have ultimate power, but he’s stuck in this lamp. But when he’s out of this lamp, he is not necessarily flaunting it, but using it to its full ability. And so for me, that’s kind of what it is. I have this body and I thought that it was a setback, but it was not, it was a way for me to become more in tune with my vessel so that I could later learn how to use it to the best of it’s ability.