By Chinwe Ugoezi
James Monroe Iglehart just came off his dream role playing the Genie in Disney’s Aladdin on Broadway. But don’t worry, he didn’t leave empty-handed. His show-stopping performance of “Friend Like Me” snagged him both a Tony Award and Drama Desk Award. Now, the actor is getting ready to take on another musical phenomenon with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: An American Musical. On April 14th, Iglehart will be joining the cast playing the dual roles of Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson. UPTOWN spoke with him about his career-changing role in Aladdin, what it’s like prepping for his Hamilton debut, and the roles he would love to play next on Broadway.
UPTOWN: Did you ever think that you would be where you are now?
James Monroe Iglehart: This is gonna sound really conceited, but yeah! As my wife likes to say, “We’ve worked hard for this, we sacrificed for this, we better be right here! (Laughs) That was the plan all along. I think it’s always funny when actors are like, “I had no idea this was about to happen.” I used to look at myself in the mirror, when I was broke, interviewing myself saying I will be there someday. The fact that this is happening, I am so happy. I’d be real depressed if I’d worked this long and not have come this far.
U: You got the Tony Award playing the character of Genie in Aladdin. Walk us through what was going on in your mind at that time.
JMI: It was going so fast to be honest. I had just got through performing, so part of me just wanted to sit down with my wife at the Tonys because I love it as a fan, but by the time I sat down it was my time to go up. I went up and as I got the award and was walking up, I was like, “Did I write a speech? No, I didn’t. I’ll just be fine.” When it was over my wife reminded me of all the people I forgot. It was the coolest experience ever because I literally dreamed about the Tony Awards since I was 17. That’s when I really started watching it. I was in high school and my teacher was like, “You love Broadway, you should watch the Tonys.” I got to be on the Tonys with Memphis, but to win one — especially with a Disney show. Disney actors don’t win. Only one other actor won a Tony with a Disney show and that’s Heather Headley. So to win one was a shock and honor. My wife and I looked at each other in the car with the Tony going, “Did that just happen?” It was one of the moments. It was so cool.
U: Let’s go back to 2011 in Seattle when you first transformed into the Genie. I know you have so many different memories. If you had to name your top three greatest moments playing the character, what would they be?
JMI: I would say the first time I actually got to perform a “Friend Like Me” in rehearsal, and I got to hear the full orchestra play, I started tearing up because I remember listening to that soundtrack as a kid over and over and over again. Now that same music was playing, but I was the guy singing it. Opening night on Broadway was another moment because right before we opened, New York wasn’t exactly friendly with Aladdin. They kind of said we weren’t gonna do well. After opening night, I knew we were going to do well. I felt really good about it. The other moment is meeting some of my heroes and that is the coolest thing. I got to meet Whoopi Goldberg, and she is one of my heroes. For my father to see me in the Tony Award-winning role was awesome. I got to meet people I’m a big fan of. I am huge WWE fan and I’m into wrestling like nobody’s business. I got to meet some of my favorite wrestlers and do so many cool Disney things because of Aladdin. I got to sing at D23, I got to sing for the CEO of Disney, and because of Aladdin I’m one of the voices of the new Tangled animated series that’s on Disney channel.
U: What are your all-time favorite Disney musicals?
JMI: My favorite all-time Disney musicals like on Broadway — this is gonna sound really conceited — I LOVE Aladdin. Don’t get me wrong, I love the opening number of Lion King. It’s one of the coolest, most amazing things ever. I love Tarzan. I cried when I saw Mary Poppins, when she flew over me. But as a whole musical, story-wise, music-wise, performance-wise, choreography — I LOVE Aladdin. My wife used to ask me all the time, “If you weren’t in it would you go see it? Would you want to be in it?” I said, “Yeah.” I would be so jealous of the guy playing it. I literally would have beat the door down saying, “I’m gonna be the next Genie!”
U: Let’s get into Hamilton. How did you get involved in the coveted dual roles of Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson?
JMI: I’m in a group called Freestyle Love Supreme and the founding members are Lin-Manuel Miranda; Chris Jackson; Bill Shurman, who’s one of the producers; Anthony Veneziale; and Daveed Diggs, who won the Tony for Thomas Jefferson/Lafayette, is also a part of Freestyle Love Supreme. We have other members as well. I knew about Hamilton years ago when Lin was part of In the Heights. We did a Hamilton concert around 2011/2012 at Lincoln Center, and I was a part of that concert. I played Mulligan at the time. I went on to do Aladdin and now I’m gonna do this. So I’ve known about the project for years and when the guys called me they were like, “Do you wanna be a part of this?” I told them that I’d love to be a part of it. When they asked me to audition I did, and they loved it. Even though we are all friends I still had to audition, they didn’t just give me the part.
U: How has the preparation been so far? Is Daveed Diggs helping you? Are you keeping up?
JMI: When I first got the role, I called Daveed and said, “Hey, talk me through this” and he did. He talked me off the ledge. He said I can totally do this and I’d be great. It’s been a long time since I had to learn a role that I didn’t originate, but it’s been fun and a great process. The group over there is amazing. I mean they are fantastic. They have been working and teaching me the show. There is a little bit of pressure because one of your friends created something that’s fabulous, and you don’t want to mess it up, but also the fans. There are fans of Aladdin that know the words to “A Whole New World” and “Friend Like Me.” With Hamilton, these fans know the words to every song in the show. I have to make sure that I am on it. So far so good and everyone seems to be happy with what I’m doing.
U: Your one-man show, How the Heck Did I Get Here?, had sold-out success. Do you see yourself doing more solo performances in the future?
JMI: Definitely. I really enjoy that. I love getting on stage and telling stories and making up stories, whether it be about my life or life in general. I hope to do more of that.
U: You’re so busy. How do you have time to do TV shows like Disney’s Tangled series and guest appearances on Unbreakable and Gotham?
JMI: I make time to be honest. I try my best to. If it’s time to work, I’m a workaholic. I’ve wanted this since I was a little kid. To be an entertainer is all I’ve wanted. So, if it’s a good project I’ll make time. There have literally been times where I have filmed in the morning and then went and did the show at night. I would record the Tangled series in the afternoon and then do the show [Aladdin] at night. I will work my schedule around it to do it and get as much sleep as I can when I get home. If I do too much my wife, Dawn Iglehart, of 15 years will tell me to stop. She is a magnificent support system and the smartest woman I know.
U: What are the top Broadway musicals that you’d love to be a part of?
JMI: I would love to be a part of The Music Man. (Laughs) I love that show, and I’ve been able to do so many different things in life, but that was a show that stuck with me since I was a kid. I would love to play the character of Harold Hill. If Disney ever decides to do Nightmare Before Christmas, I want to play Oogie Boogie.
U: What can we expect from you in Hamilton and any other upcoming projects?
JMI: You can expect Hamilton’s Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson to still have the fire and awesomeness that those two characters deserve, but just with a James Iglehart twist on it. Expect me to bring my swagger to those powerful people, and hopefully the audience will get it. I have a feeling they will. As far as upcoming projects look for Tangled the animated series. My character Lance Strongbow will be on very soon.
[Image: Joshua Dela Cruz]