Excerpted from the Aladdin study guide. Adapted from an article by Albert Evans, with permission from The 5th Avenue Theatre.
The Aladdin story, on which the Broadway musical is based, has its origins in One Thousand and One Nights. Although the stories were compiled by Antoine Galland, a French translator, around 1710, the tales themselves are much older having been passed down for generations. The adventures of a street boy who uses genie-power to win a kingdom and a princess is one of the most popular tales found in this collection of classic stories from the Islamic Golden Age. Interestingly, no definitive Arabic source has ever been found for the story. Aladdin was added to the book, along with “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” and “Sinbad the Sailor,” by Galland claimed to have heard Aladdin from a Syrian storyteller.
In the original collection, “Aladdin” is set in China, though all the characters have Arabic names and the country uses Islamic law. China represented the land most distant from the original listeners’ homeland (nothing further east was known) and was probably chosen to emphasize the great distances traveled by the characters and the otherworldly use of magic. Before the convenience of modern travel and the Internet, China seemed like a far off, magical land.
One Thousand and One Nights is a collection of stories with a framing device. A legendary Persian woman named Scheherazade, sentenced to death in the morning, delays her execution by telling cliffhanger tales to the Sultan. In the original “Aladdin” story, there are two genies and two wicked sorcerers. For Scheherazade, the longer the story the better, which might explain why the original plot is more complicated than some future adaptations. After telling the Sultan a thousand stories, and delaying her execution for a thousand nights, she has no more tales to tell and prepares for her death. By then, the Sultan has fallen in love with her, and Scheherazade becomes his queen on the 1001st night.
Aladdin has served as the basis for stage plays, musical suites, ballets, and over two dozen movies, including the earliest surviving animated feature, a 1926 German film called The Adventures of Prince Achmed.
There is even a Bollywood version from the 1960s, in which Aladdin teams up with Sinbad for some crazy adventures (and musical numbers) and finally marries the Genie, who in this version is a beautiful woman.
In 1992 the Disney feature animated film Aladdin opened in movie theaters worldwide. Disney’s creative team took an entirely new approach to the story and simplified the more complicated plot of the original tale. Only one genie made the cut, and the two wicked sorcerers from the original story were combined to create the wicked vizier, Jafar. The setting moved from China to a fictional Arabian city called Agrabah, and elements like a magic flying carpet were borrowed from other One Thousand and One Nights tales. The creative team also adapted the story into a musical, with an iconic score composed by Alan Menken.
And now Disney’s Aladdin is a Broadway musical. “Aladdin” has come a long way since its origins in Scheherazade’s tales, but at its heart it has remained a magical story of honesty, bravery, and adventure.
June 13-18, 2023 • Buell Theatre