Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find them ☛ Newt Scamander
For the last three years, Disney has been prepping its musical adaptation of Aladdin for Broadway—without bothering to cast any Middle Eastern actors in any of its 34 roles.
Almost no one has noticed.
In 1942, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope bantered their way through the third and most famous of their popular Road pictures. As usual, The Road to Morocco found them hamming it up with the locals in an “exotic” locale—on this occasion the stereotype-filled North African desert. A jazz comedy featuring Anthony Quinn as a comically violent sheik, it was nominated for the 1943 Oscar for Best Screenplay. The hit title song, which describes Morocco as a place where “the men eat fire, sleep on nails, and saw their wives in half,” was voted one of the 100 greatest songs of all time by the American Film Institute in 2004.
Thankfully, in the 70 years since Hope and Crosby sang and danced across a sound stage made to look like a desert, we’ve moved away from garish stereotypes and actors in yellowface.
It marks a return to the authors’ original vision: a loving homage to the Hope-Crosby road pictures with a score invoking the jazz sound of stars like Cab Calloway and Fats Waller.
So reads the casting breakdown for the 2013 open casting call for the New York production of Aladdin. If the preview is anything to go by, it’s more of what we got in the original animated film: a return to vintage exoticism, sword-wielding barbarism, and cultural appropriation.
Aladdin first came to movie theatres in 1992. It included a dizzying array of racist stereotypes, including an opening number which riffed off “The Road to Morocco” with a line that incensed Middle Eastern viewers: the fictional land of Agrabah is a “barbaric” place “where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face.” All in all, the film stayed true to its purpose: Aladdin could easily have been written in 1942.
Aladdin’s big hit, “A Whole New World,” was sung in the film by Filipino actress Lea Salonga. Salonga, a former child star, had exploded onto the U.S. musical scene the year before, in the latest extravaganza from the British theatre invasion, Miss Saigon.
Miss Saigon brought with it what was then the biggest production budget in Broadway history—as well as what remains its biggest casting controversy. Powerful theatre producer Cameron Mackintosh was determined to have star Jonathan Pryce reprise his role as a French-Vietnamese pimp alongside Salonga. Actors Equity, the theatre actors union, insisted that Mackintosh do a casting search for an Asian actor to play the part. Instead, Mackintosh threatened to cancel the whole production.
Equity ultimately backed down, and Jonathan Pryce won a Tony for the role, which he acted in literal yellowface—wearing bronzer.