Since I was small, Aladdin has always been my favorite Disney movie. This remains true to this day. So much so that whenever my father sees something with Princess Jasmine on it, he buys it for his adult daughter. There may or may not be a box of Princess Jasmine cereal in my pantry. When Aladdin was announced as a stage musical, my dad and I could not buy tickets fast enough. Like anyone else who loves something, I was protective of the material I loved, but equally excited to see how this work would be adapted for the stage and the theatrical changes made. Many of my students have come back to me to tell me they’ve seen the show, and wanted to know what I knew about “all the things that weren’t in the movie.” It only made sense for me to reach out to Chad Beguelin, who wrote the book and lyrics of the stage musical. Here’s our conversation!
S: What got you interested in theatre?
C: My parents took me to see a community theater production of “Oliver!” when I was a kid. I was immediately transported and knew right then that I wanted to be involved with live theater. I had no idea that you could actually make a career out of it at that point, I just knew I wanted to be around the magic of theater.
S: What drew you into writing for theatre versus performing?
C: I originally went to NYU as an actor. I quickly realized that I wasn’t that good. There were so many talented actors in my class and I just wasn’t one of them. In high school, I had written skits for our annual variety show. I decided at NYU to take a class in playwriting. I was encouraged by my professor to pursue a double major in Drama and Dramatic Writing. I enjoyed it so much that I stayed on and got my Masters in Dramatic Writing at NYU.
S: For my students, editing can be really tough. So can finding the main idea or summarizing. Many of my students are working on these skills in speech and wanted to know how this translates into writing lyrics?
C: When you’re writing words to music, you are limited to how many syllables you can use. This means that you have to pack as much meaning into each word as you can. It forces you to edit the writing down to the bare essence. There is a duet for Aladdin and Jasmine in Act One where they dream of escaping their lives. An earlier version of the song was called “Just A Dream Away”. I quickly realized that it was too vague. What does that mean? I rewrote the song and it became “A Million Miles Away”. That was something much more tangible for an audience to understand. Aladdin and Jasmine literally want to run “a million miles away” from their day-to-day lives. This became a theme that I could build upon throughout the song. “We’ll join a caravan tonight!” or “Maybe we’ll journey on the sea!” So finding a main idea is crucial in lyric writing, as is editing thoughts down to their essence. I’m constantly asking myself, “What is the point of this song?” Finding the main idea makes it easier to elaborate.
S: What is the difference between writing the book of a show and writing lyrics?
C: The book of the show is the script or all of the spoken words. The lyrics are all of the words that are sung. There is a lot of freedom when you’re writing the book because you aren’t limited to words that fit a musical phrase. However, the goal of writing lyrics or a line of dialogue are the same. Everything said or sung should either advance the plot or reveal character – or in the best-case scenario, do both!
S: Do you have any advice for how to get beyond frustration when you’re brainstorming or get stuck?
C: If it’s possible, I always find it’s helpful to talk it out with another person. It’s great to bounce ideas off of someone else. If I’m by myself, I will actually talk to myself as I pace the room. “Why isn’t this working? If there another angle that I’m missing?” It sounds crazy, but I need to pace and talk out loud.
S: You’ve gotten to work on both The Wedding Singer, Elf, and Aladdin, all of which were adapted from film. What is the most exciting and challenging part of contributing to projects that may already have a strong fan base?
C: It’s important to give the audience the big moments from the movie that they are expecting. However, it would do no good to just put a carbon copy of the movie onstage. People would just watch the movie if they wanted a straightforward adaptation. So there’s always a tricky line that has to be negotiated. The key is to create something that honors the movie, but is its own creation.
S: What inspires you to write?
C: As a professional writer, I’m given deadlines by producers and have to honor them. This means that even if I’m not entirely inspired to write, I have to find a way to become inspired. Thankfully, writing musicals is a collaborative process. I usually get inspired while talking to my co-writers or the director of a project. We spend a lot of time as a group discussing song ideas or how scenes should build. This makes it much easier when it’s time to sit down and do the actual writing.
S: In terms of theatre, you are considered part of the creative team. Do you have any advice for my students on how to be a productive partner in collaborative work?
C: I am extremely supportive of the other people on the creative team. You have to create a safe space where people can say what they think are dumb ideas, because dumb ideas usually lead to good ones. We all try to encourage one another and we also are very respectful even when we disagree. When someone comes up with a good idea, everyone wins. It doesn’t matter who came up with what, it matters that the show is successful. So we are quick to praise one another and delicate with our criticisms. This creates an environment where we can trust one another and come up with a bunch of ideas, both bad and good.
S: You got to write for Aladdin, which is such a beloved Disney film, and my personal favorite. Was it as magical for you to help create and add to the theatrical experience as it is for the audiences to watch?
C: The development process was actually very difficult and daunting. We had two “out of town tryouts” where we performed the show outside of New York to gauge audience responses and perfect the show. The tryout right before Broadway was in Toronto and the critics trashed the show. It was very hard to figure out why they disliked the production so much. We had to rethink and rewrite almost the entire show. It was a very difficult time, but we had to dissect what wasn’t working and why. Thankfully, when the show got to Broadway the reviews were great and the audiences where cheering. But we had to do a ton of work between Toronto and Broadway.
S: For Aladdin, were you encouraged to use the movie or other source material inspiration?
C: The movie was a launching pad for the script and score of the musical. However, there were several songs that were written for the movie that got cut before it was released. The composer, Alan Menken, wanted me to incorporate as many of those cut songs into the stage version of the show. So it was my job to figure out how to make those songs work. This meant adding new characters and reshaping the story line to fit them into the show.
S: What is it like to have lyrics that have such a life of their own that adults and children can recite them?
C: It’s very exciting when we’re listening to Sirius radio in the car and a song I wrote the lyrics for comes on. That’s very surreal.
S: What should audiences know about the work that goes into writing the lyrics for a show that they may not realize?
C: Lyrics are very tricky. They have to rhyme, but the audience shouldn’t anticipate the rhyme. And when words are being sung, the writer has to make sure that the correct stress is on the right syllable.
S: My students love to be creative in their own way, which may or may not include performing. Would you encourage them to explore the creative/backstage aspect of theatre?
C: I’d encourage anyone interested in theater to get involved in any aspect of putting on a show. When I was a kid, I didn’t get cast in a community theater production of “My Fair Lady”. That didn’t stop me. I volunteered to work backstage and had a blast. I also made a bunch of new friends. It was a great experience.
S: Every week I challenge my students and readers to do something outside of their comfort zone. What would you challenge them to do?
C: I would say write something and share it with someone you trust. It’s a cliché, but the old saying “writing is rewriting” is very true. Share something you’ve written and discuss it with that person. It will make you look at what you’ve written in a whole new light.
As a theatre-goer and fan, I learned so much from this discussion, and am so grateful to Chad for agreeing to share his knowledge with me. I absolutely love everything about the stage production, especially “A Million Miles Away.” My students share my passion for this show and were so excited to get writing advice from the man who worked on a stage production that’s left them awestruck. I can’t wait for them to take on this challenge, and their classroom teachers will appreciate it too!
Keep playing with words and see what your message creates!
–Stef the StageSLP