Central Florida native Michael James Scott heads back to Agrabah (and Orlando) to play the Genie in ‘Disney’s Aladdin’

By : Jeremy Williams
Comments: 0

Michael James Scott has run the gamut when it comes to appearing on Broadway. He has been in “Mamma Mia!,” “Hair,” “Elf,” “Something Rotten!” and “The Book of Mormon” to name a few, but there is one role above all that he is most associated with — “Aladdin’s” Genie.

“I call it my ‘Genie journey,’” Scott says. “I never expected it to be a part of my life for this length of time and for it to literally take me all around the world.”

For those of you who have been living inside of a magic lamp for the last 30 years, “Disney’s Aladdin” is the story of a poor, streetwise kid named, you guessed it, Aladdin who is granted three wishes by the Genie of the lamp. Aladdin uses those wishes to try and win the heart of Jasmine, princess of Agrabah, before the evil Jafar and his wisecracking parrot Iago take over.

Scott first came to the big, blue behemoth of a role as the standby in the original Broadway show, but he would go on to originate the role in Australia and perform as the Genie on the North American tour, in London and then finally, this past year, on a Broadway stage.

As the current national tour makes its way through the U.S., the Central Florida native returns to the role of the Genie for the production’s Orlando stop at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts Jan. 22-Feb. 9.

Scott spoke with us ahead of his trip back to The City Beautiful about love, marriage and the role of a lifetime.

WATERMARK: You were born in Baltimore but you were raised here in Central Florida?

MICHAEL JAMES SCOTT: Yes, I came to Orlando when I was like six years old, so I grew up there and went to elementary, middle and high school in Central Florida.

What do you remember most about your time in Orlando back then?

It wasn’t as developed then as it is now, but there was still a really cool openness and sunshine to it. It had a small town feel that just happened to be a tourist destination.

You got into performing when you were quite young. You started doing commercials when you were a kid?

All of that was going on while I was in school. I went to Dr. Phillips High School and across the street was Universal Studios with Nickelodeon Studios, and I remember going across the street to shoot different TV shows and for auditions, and the same with Disney. As a young kid I was also doing things for Disney. I grew up working in the parks when I was in high school too, so entertainment was always a part of growing up.

Was there a lot of encouragement for performing in the arts in your house when you were growing up?

Basically my mom said I sang before I spoke. Truly, like this crazy little chubby black kid who just wanted to sing and dance. Then when I was in elementary school, at Rock Springs Elementary School, my choir teacher — Belinda Brewer, who is now passed away — saw something in me and asked my parents if she could expose me to this crazy industry of performing arts and that’s kind of how it happened.

You know, I call them my angels, but I had so many angels who really believed in me and went out of their way to give me these opportunities so my parents were extremely grateful for them, and obviously I am extremely grateful for them, but my parents just said yes. They saw that my little face lit up performing in front of people or just being a ham and they let me go for it. Your children show you who they are at a very early age and I think my parents really saw how much I enjoyed it and just allowed me to do that.

My mom was kind of like my momager. We really learned together this industry because we didn’t have an agent, it was my mom, and growing up in Orlando there were so many opportunities for child actors and children in the arts. I’m still so thankful for Orlando being a city that really supports the arts because I’m a product of that. I’m a product of the opportunities Orlando gives to a child.

You were a part of Broadway Theatre Project and you have worked with theater legends like Gregory Hines, Ben Vereen, Julie Andrews. What are a few of the lessons you learned during that time that you still utilize today?

Broadway Theatre Project was a huge, huge part of my foundation growing as an artist. I think one of the biggest things for me was really seeing these old school masters of the arts embodied by their work ethic. That was I think the biggest thing for me that I got to witness seeing the work ethic of these old school legends. There’s so many amazing people, some who have passed away, that I got to work with one-on-one and the thing I’ll always take with me wherever I go is the work ethic those legends had.

I had the fortune of working with Gregory Hines and Ben Vereen, men of color in this business who I never would have gotten to know and work with if it weren’t for Broadway Theatre Project. To see somebody who looked like me, to see what they were doing and seeing how they went into this business and how they approached things was a lesson that I didn’t even know I was getting because it was right in front of me. Now when I look on it, I see that it was teaching me exactly what I needed for my foundation and for my career, learning all of that from these masters.

You were a part of the original cast of “The Book of Mormon,” which is a musical not for the faint of heart. What were your first thoughts when you read that show?

I was a part of the very first secret reading of the “Book of Mormon,” like over 10 years ago, and I had just come off of doing “Jerry Springer The Opera” at Carnegie Hall. I never thought that I would ever sing any words like that on the Carnegie Hall stage, let alone anything worse [laughs].

So I got the call to come in and do this show’s secret reading — it wasn’t called “The Book of Mormon” at the time — it was called “The Untitled Musical Project,” and it was just the first act, maybe like 30 pages or something, it was very small. I remember the thing that struck me the most was how brilliant the writing was. I also did not grow up watching “South Park” and I also didn’t really know who Matt Stone and Trey Parker were.

I obviously did my research after and realized who I was in the presence of and they’ve become friends and are amazing, but I think the biggest thing that we all took from it, there was seven of us I believe that were a part of the whole thing all the way through, we all knew that there was something special about it because the writing was so good.

You know, you do readings, you workshop new shows and some you see potential in and some you’re like absolutely not, but there was something special about “The Book of Mormon,” and I was like I have to make myself available no matter where I am. When they moved forward with it I was in London doing “Hair” and they asked me if I would come back and I left early to come back and do a reading of this because I just knew how special it was.

Michael James Scott (Genie, center) and ensemble perform “Friend Like Me” during “Aladdin’s” North American Tour. (Photo by Deen van Meer)

You went from “The Book Of Mormon” to “Disney’s Aladdin.” You didn’t originate the role of the Genie but you were a part of the original Broadway production?

I was the original standby for the Genie in “Aladdin.” As the standby I knew that there would be a future with this role, and this role of the Genie was unlike anything I had ever done in terms of it literally is a do everything plus the kitchen sink kind of role.

Also, James Monroe Iglehart — who originally played the Genie — is a friend of mine and we both wanted to work together for a while, he’s like my brother. He was a really amazing partner in terms of being able to standby for somebody who I really respected and who also respected me, and we would talk about all kinds of Genie things together.

So I was kind of looking past what it was that I was doing in terms of what the future could be with the Genie and me playing the role. So that’s how that came about. I was a part of the original production as a standby for a little less than a year before leaving to go to another show and then coming back to play the Genie.

You went on to originate the role in Australia, and also play the Genie in London and on the U.S. national tour, and just recently performed as the role on Broadway.

The role has taken me all around the world and it has been a crazy and unbelievable journey that I never ever really expected. The Genie has been a part of my life now for five years, off and on, and it’s been kind of insane. In Australia I won their version of the Tony for Best Actor, and again I never expected this journey.

What is it about the Genie that you enjoy playing so often?

Oh, gosh. Well first of all, it’s nice to get to play a subtle, very low-key and laid-back character [laughs]. I mean, to be able to get to play a role who is so loved by so many people in the world, like it’s such an iconic role because of the late, great Robin Williams. The foundation that Robin laid down is what made everyone fall in love with this character of the Genie.

The Genie is full of laughter and love and I’m able to do that. I mean, I’m someone who loves to laugh, I love it be silly. I’m still that same little boy who just wanted to be a ham growing up and now I get to be a ham as a grown man, why not? I get to tell the audience to give me more applause, what actor doesn’t want to do that? I just think that there’s something special about the role, he is so loved by so many people and he’s all about love and is a big kid at heart and that, to me, is really fun to play and it’s really fun to explore and find new things every night with the audience.

Even though the show is called “Aladdin,” I think most people know that the star is the Genie and I think that comes from, like you said, the originator of the character, Robin Williams. How Robin voiced that character, did that influence how you approached the Genie or did you make a conscious effort to separate your Genie from his?

First it’s a huge daunting task to take on the role of the Genie because of the foundation that Robin laid down, but what was really cool about this production in terms of me approaching the Genie was that the creative team gave such freedom for me to bring Michael into the character and once I got that permission, I just ran with it.

The cool thing about the Genie and the stage production of the show is there are original elements of the Genie that they brought back that that were written but didn’t make it into the film. So while it is a different version of the Genie, it is still the same foundation, this bigger than life character that Robin created. I definitely took it and molded it into what my version of it is. My Genie has inspiration from the old school song-and-dance men like Fred Astaire, Sammy Davis, Jr., Gregory Hines and Ben Vereen. Then I mixed in people like my grandfather and my father, and a little Beyonce. It’s this combination from a bunch of different people who I’m inspired by put into one role. That was how I was able to bring in my influences and pay homage to all of the original, incredible performers in my life.

As a member of the exclusive club of Genies, I’m sure you get asked this question all the time but if you found a magic lamp, what are your three wishes?

Fried chicken will be first, an abundance of it. The next thing would be, as cliché as it is, I would wish for the people in my life to be taken care of. I’d put this protective shield around them so that they are always safe. Then my final wish would be to be able to be invisible because I’m just so nosy.

Sticking with wishes, if you could have your wish granted to be in any show and star in it with anyone, what would be the dream gig for you?

I don’t think that the role is a written yet, but it would be fun to get to do a show with Audra McDonald. I would love to do a show with Stephanie Block again. So maybe I just want to do a show with big fierce women and me. Life of the divas and we will bring on Bernadette Peters and Patti Lapone. You know, I feel like as I’m saying it out loud. Maybe that’s what it is, a big beautiful divas show.

I do want to say congratulations. You recently got married to filmmaker Jeremy Merrifield. You two have known each other for 20 years, been together for a decade. Why did you guys decide to get married now?

You know, we talked about getting married before, like “sure when it becomes legal we’ll discuss it,” and then it became legal in this country and we honestly never thought we’d see it. You know, Jeremy and I have been together, and known each other, for quite some time and I think when it came down to it it just seemed like the right next step.

I’m so grateful for a man in my life who lets me be me and vice versa, and we both thought it was really important to celebrate that love in front of the people that we love. We also thought, in these divisive times, what a wonderful opportunity to bring people together in love, so it just felt right to do it now.

Did you go big, Genie-style fairytale wedding or was it more of a low key kind of affair?

I guess people might say it was a little over the top [laughs]. I did have three costume changes, so there was that. Broadway.com did this whole thing about it and said “the ultimate goal of a Broadway wedding is to have three Elphabas, an Olaf, King George, a Genie, Mormons and a drag queen all in one place.” There was something like 10 Tonys, five Emmys and four Grammys, and we didn’t even think about that until it was said to us. But when you say an over-the-top wedding, I think the thing that was over the top was how much love there was and I think to us that’s what was really important.

“Disney’s Aladdin” plays at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts in Orlando Jan. 22-Feb. 9. Tickets start at $31 and are available at DrPhillipsCenter.org.

Share this story: