Broadway’s Genie in Disney’s Aladdin discusses what gives him Pride
Michael James Scott has worked with Broadway luminaries throughout his whole career, from Julie Andrews to Gwen Verdon to Andrew Rannells. One thing he has not done though, is live anywhere but firmly within his own truth. As he brings the Genie and the rest of the cast of Disney’s Aladdin to the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia this month.
I caught up with him recently and during our talk, Scott dropped some real truth on pride, living your truth and acceptance. It is an amazing conversation to share during Pride month.
Michael Cook: For a Broadway veteran like yourself, tell me about Michael James Scott’s path to the role of the Genie in Aladdin.
Michael James Scott: My path to the Genie was a very unexpected one. I worked with our director/choreographer; Casey Nicholaw. We have done about five shows together before. And we have had a beautiful relationship for many years. Casey was working on Aladdin. There was a reading after their out-of-town tryouts in Seattle. And James Monroe Iglehart who originated the role of the Genie in Aladdin was the only one who could not make the reading. James is like a brother to me, and I was lucky to get a call when he could not make it.
Neither Aladdin or the role of the Genie was not on my radar at the time. I was asked to play the Genie for the reading, learning it in a day, in Ton Schumacher’s office! What they didn’t tell me was that in this reading, all of the Disney executives, designers, and everyone was in one room for this closed reading. (laughs)! I just kind of went for it. And I was then asked to be the original standby on Broadway. I did some thinking and thought that for black men, especially roles like the Genie do not come along every day. I knew that it was special and I said yes. I had left to do another show in between and I was then asked to open the show in Australia.Then I opened the show in Los Angeles. And then I opened the North American Company. My path is kind of insane; the role was never on my radar. I never knew where it would take me.
For you personally, you joined Broadway Theatre Project, and worked with Broadway luminaries like Gregory Hines and Gwen Verdon. That is one of the strongest pedigrees you could have!
MJS: I know! It is so weird. I don’t think about it that often, and then it will come up and I will realize how true that really is. It is such a blessing that I got to work with people like that. Gwen Verdon choreographed a duet for me. I got to assist Ann Reinking for two summers as her assistant with dance numbers. From Gregory Hines to Julie Andrews, the list just goes on and on. It was incredibly and unbelievably humbling and inspiring to, as a young artist, get to learn from those masters, those legends.
What do you think you learned from Ann Reinking, who started the Broadway Theatre Project that you have taken with you throughout your career?
MJS: Two things, first, your work ethic. The old school work ethic is something that I definitely learned from her. I also learned about being kind. That has taken me very far. It is taken every actor and every singer and every performer in this industry very far as well when you are kind to those around you. You never know when that one intern or that ensemble member to the left of you is going to be casting you in a show. Soon they are starring next to you. Being kind I believe is something that you have to be. Learning those skills, and seeing the graciousness of seeing her carry the artist that she was and still is, how she walks the walk. As hard as she was on us, with tough love, it was an incredible lesson to learn from her. And I am beyond grateful for that.
You played the role of Doctor Gostwana in The Book Of Mormon, and what connects many people to that production is how so much of the production is about thinking outside the box. Do you think you as a performer connect to material like that?
MJS: Yes and no. I feel that I am able to find a connection to any material. The brilliant thing about The Book Of Mormon specifically is that you are exactly right about that; it is able to be very outside the box. I have been lucky enough for my career itself to be outside the box. When you grow up and don’t see a lot of you, you always wonder if there is a place for you. I have learned that there is a place for everyone. Truly a place for all of us.
You’re unique and authentic self is what people want from you and want to see. When you can actually capitalize on that, and really believe in that, a whole new world opens up. I feel that my career was that, and has really been that. The Book Of Mormon is one of those shows that really is that as well. I was a part of the very first secret reading of The Book Of Mormon seven or eight years ago. We did not even know what it was. I had actually just finessed doing Jerry Springer The Opera at Carnegie Hall. That’s another show that is very much outside the box. I mean, I was saying the craziest words that I never knew that I would say, on the Carnegie Hall stage! So The Book of Mormon, it was like, I can even go further now! (Laughs). I think it is amazing that that show went so far outside the box. and it’s a show I connected with. It forced people to think and have a discussion about so many things in our world right now. It pushed some buttons and without it being a preachy kind of show; it was much more of a discussion. Once you get a discussion going, anything is possible.
So when you go to a tea dance and you hear that quintessential song “I Just Wanna Dance” from Jerry Springer The Opera come on or a drag queen performs to it, do you, Michael James Scott, still get your life?
MJS: (Laughs) I love it, I live for it! I have seen many a fierce drag show of “I Just Wanna Dance” and it’s always wonderful and a fantastic night!
What you do is so important, and how you live in your own truth as a performer right now is so crucial. People like you, Billy Porter, and Andrew Rannells who live in their truth of who they are and let it shine through their performances are some of our biggest names in entertainment right now. Has it always been that way for you?
MJS: I have been very blessed with a support system from my family and my parents. I say this to young LGBT theater people and young artists in general. My parents just simply said yes to everything for me. That changed my world. It changed my life. It was never a “well are you sure”? I think that that as a young age helped me be confident and really begin the process of believing in me. And believing that the thing that I had was special enough to be able to make a living with. I say it all the time, and it is corny. But if you believe in you and what you have to offer, and you believe the thing that you have to offer is more special than the person next to you — not that they are not special — but they are not you, that to me is what has separated and helped me be confident person to say this is who I am.
I have been surrounded by great people. Andrew Rannells and Billy Porter are friends of mine. Andrew and I have worked together several times, and Billy and I have worked together as well. When you are in your authentic self, you will see how things flourish. You will see that people around you respond to that. Whether or not they are members of the community or allies, they are with you. They can really identify with you if you are standing in your truth. I believe for me, it started at a very young age. I have always encouraged parents to just support and keep watering that flower. Nurture a child and simply let them be.
What gives you the most pride in your life right now?
MJS: I think what gives me pride is it really is standing in my truth. There are so many people around us who want you to succeed. I think the narrative a lot of times today is that there are lots of people who don’t want you to succeed. They don’t support you. And they are judging you. I actually believe that there are more people that want you to succeed. That could be false, but it has been my experience. And I see it everywhere. I really do. I am so prideful in the fact that more people want us to succeed than want us to fail. It resonates with me in a very resounding way. It is so easy to look at the negative. It’s like, for me whenever I am told no, whether it is for a job or anything, that means to me — “maybe.” It is always a way to go around it another way, and I believe that. When one door closes, a hundred fierce doors will open.
Disney’s Aladdin is in Philadelphia for a three-week engagement through July 1 at the Academy of Music on the Kimmel Center Cultural Campus. Tickets are on sale now and start at $20. Tickets can be purchased by calling (215) 893-1999, or visiting kimmelcenter.org