NEW YORK—Even in a show with plenty of magic, a special sort of it happens right after intermission at “Aladdin” on Broadway.
No sooner have you settled back into your seat than a revolving door of what seems like hundreds of dancers performs the song “Prince Ali” at a hyper-caffeinated pace. They. Never. Stop. Coming.
The dancers wear brilliant sequined costumes, brandishing everything from swords and banners to feather fans and parasols. They spin like dervishes and bang drums and leap on wooden boxes.
It’s perhaps the most exciting 3½ minutes on Broadway.
It’s also one of the most complicated musical numbers to create — some 71 looks created by only 24 actors in 47 quick changes, some lasting as little as 10 seconds.
“It’s really organized chaos,” said stage manager Holly Coombs.
What looks like a flowing, never-ending parade is actually a tightly controlled precision dance. It’s so elaborate that it required the creation of a flowchart.
“I have to say, it probably is the most complicated number I have ever dealt with,” said costume designer Gregg Barnes, a Tony winner in 2012 for “Follies” and for “The Drowsy Chaperone” in 2006. “It’s epic in a very short amount of time.”
Barnes and director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw sat down and worked out how they could give the illusion of dozens of performers announcing the arrival of Ali, a parade led by Tony Award winner James Monroe Iglehart, the genie who makes his own onstage quick change.
Once Barnes and his team got an idea of what was being asked, they had to match the clothes with the function of the dance. It wasn’t easy, especially during one proposed move where four male dancers sit down on the floor and scoot backward.
“I thought, ‘Oh my god. They’re going to rip their pants off right there in front of everybody.’ Believe me, this has happened,” said Barnes, laughing. “So part of it then is figuring out, ‘What can I make that can rip off instantly unseen by the audience but will be strong enough to be able to sit on the floor and scoot backwards?'”
One way Barnes created the feeling that the parade is never-ending was by constantly changing the color of the costumes, hoping to evoke the Silk Road energy of cultures colliding.
So “Prince Ali” begins with a gentle, Cotton Club-feel. Iglehart wears a zoot suit and the look has a turquoise-and-pink palate. Then come oranges and yellows, then deep reds, and finally white and purple. (At one point the flowing costumes even line up with the lyrics, which note “Purple peacocks, he’s got 53.”)
As dancers continuously melt offstage, a team of 15 dressers and a hair person are backstage to help them with their next outfits. Many dancers are wearing several costumes under their top one to help in the process, like Russian nesting dolls.
“We had to figure out what could the actor, while they’re running, actually begin to take off and which part did they need assistance with. That came into the planning as well,” said Barnes.
A peek at the backstage choreography reveals dancers rushing in coordinated patterns to makeshift stations, where they wriggle out of one costume, slip into the next and are handed their next prop. Some continue to sing. It’s like a NASCAR pit crew when a car comes into pit lane.
The creative team has even prepared for any potential wardrobe malfunction. In case too much gets accidentally yanked off backstage, the female dancers wear sequined bodices, while the men wear special gold underwear.
The overall effect of the song is stunning, part of the reason “Aladdin” finished 2015 as the third highest-grossing show of the year. But Barnes said all the work behind “Prince Ali” may actually be too good.
“Casey at one point said, ‘It kills me that I don’t think anybody knows what we’re doing. I just think they think we have 100 people every night,'” he said.