Friday, September 9, 2016

A Look at Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida

By Rebekah Coley

Ever since Walt Disney began producing feature-length animated films, audiences have fallen in love with the concept of cartoon musicals. To no one’s surprise, the movies’ colorful locations, lovable characters, and catchy melodies have translated well into several stage productions. Starting with Broadway’s extremely successful adaptation of Beauty and the Beast (1994), Walt Disney Theatricals has gone on to produce several smash hits. Many Disney fans are familiar with these shows; however, one had fallen under the radar for Disney Avenue contributing writer, Rebekah Coley. Musical lovers will definitely want to check out today’s article to read her thoughts on Elton John and Tim Rice's fantastic musical Aida...

Specifically, this production fell off my Disney “radar” because to date, this is the only musical produced by Disney to not be based off an animated or live-action film. Yet, when I discovered that my local theatre would be performing the show, I was intrigued. After all, considering that Disney musical favorites were the geniuses behind the songs, I knew I would walk away enchanted (if not entirely blown away). I was not disappointed. The soaring belter pieces and heartbreaking plot made for a poignant night of theatre.

Interesting enough, Aida was intended to be an animated hit, but Sir Elton John envisioned this story as a musical. Converting Aida to a cartoon would’ve certainly presented a great challenge as the story is beautiful, but undoubtedly dark. Based off of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera of the same name, the ending is satisfying yet Shakespearian. (If Disney had gone through with a movie, I imagine that product would’ve required a little more glitter, similar to their interpretation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.) As it stands, I feel that a stage production was the right move, as the themes in the show are too juicy to abridge for children.

The plot of both the opera and the musical are near identical. The title character Aida, is a captive Nubian princess who has been enslaved by the Egyptian empire (in the opera, she is native to Ethiopia). Upon her enslavement, she is given as a handmaiden to the Princess Amneris, and ends up falling in love with Amneris’s betrothed, Captain Radames. As her forbidden love affair blossoms, Aida finds herself torn between her passion for Radames and her fierce loyalty to her people. I will resist giving away the ending, but I can say that although it is “pixie-dust” free, the musical has a much kinder conclusion than its Verdi counterpart.

Production of the show started in the early 90s, and by 1999 Aida (originally called Elaborate Lives: The Legend of Aida) had its first tryout run in Atlanta, GA. Revisions were made and a second tryout run was held at the Cadillac Theatre in Chicago. Finally, the show had its Broadway debut at the Palace Theatre in March 2000. By that point, the title role had been won by Heather Headley (Tony Award Winner) and Amneris was originated by the theatrical favorite, Sheri Rene Scott. Adam Pascal (who had just found success originating the role of Roger in Rent) filled the role of Radames. (It is worth noting that this was the second musical Pascal starred in that was based off of an opera.) Unfortunately, I didn’t have the pleasure of seeing the original cast, but I would highly recommend listening to the cast recording. For a studio-based performance, the vocals are just as emotionally charged as the ones I heard during a live show.

Speaking of which, the production I saw was put on by the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera. Their summer musicals series always features a roster of local professionals and occasionally, noteworthy principles straight from the Big White Way. For this production, the role of Aida as played by Emmy Raver-Lampman (straight from the original cast of Hamilton). Radames was played by Mark Evans (who had launched the tour of The Book of Mormon as their Elder Price), and Kathryn Boswell flawlessly executed the role of Princess Amneris. Big names aside, the cast as a whole was vocally on point and gave the somewhat pop inspired score a haunting and resonating effect. Backed up by a simplistic set (a pyramid with a simple balcony), the tunes carry the show.

Frankly, this show absolutely cannot be pulled off with Herculean singers. Similar to Webber’s Evita, all principles are required to perform like Olympians with each song presenting greater and greater challenges. If performers of lesser caliber had played the leading roles, the musical would’ve certainly been a letdown, if not somewhat painful to endure. The score is just too good and has too much variety to be wasted on subpar singers. The song collection includes gems like Amneris’s upbeat number “My Strongest Suit” in which her and her handmaidens sing about their love of fashion; and the plaintive duet between Aida and Radames, “Elaborate Lives”. (The other love duet, “Written in the Stars” became a billboard chart-topping hit when the cast recording was released. Despite this, I stand by my opinion that “Elaborate Lives” is the superior song. Unlike other romantic tunes that carry you away with the melody, this piece instead creeps up on its listeners and warms them slowly like a glass of red wine. Enchanting.)

Still, no show and no production lack a weakness. In this case, the choreographed dances left something to be desired. Although every member of the ensemble was a skilled dancer, many numbers seemed ill placed. For example, I couldn’t help but feel that the twirling, pirouetting dance number during the villain’s song seemed… silly. Also, Amneris’s solo number had a particularly catchy musical break that would’ve lent itself to great dance segment. Instead, the handmaidens simply paraded gaudy outfits on a makeshift runway. A waste.

Still, this musical is overall worthy of praise. It perfectly strikes the balance between being entertaining, yet thought-provoking. That being said, this show is much more likely to resonate with Disney fans who prefer darker tales. I would encourage any musical lover to become familiar with Aida, whether you are catching a local production, watching YouTube videos, or memorizing the soundtrack. (In fact, I’ve listed a video of the soundtrack below to help you get started. Please remember to pause the Disney Avenue Music Player prior to starting the video below if you are on a desktop computer.)

Happy listening! Remember, if the opportunity arises, this musical is not one to miss!


Rebekah Coley is a Pittsburgh native who has been obsessing over Disney films (and the corporation in general) for her entire life. Starting with a childhood of constantly dressing up in princess costumes, memorizing songs, and watching the newest Disney VHS tapes on repeat, her love and passion for Disney magic has not faded over time.

In addition to loving the most popular Disney movies, Rebekah has a soft spot for underrated works that didn’t receive the same fanfare (e.g. A Goofy Movie, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, etc.) It is a passion of hers to remind other fans of their existence and excellence.

By day, Rebekah works in professional development and holds a Bachelors degree in Human Resources Management from Point Park University. By night, she performs in community theater musicals, reads and exercises compulsively, and strives to stay on top of any Disney-related news. As a lover of entertainment, Rebekah’s blogs focus on reviewing Disney’s theme park productions, stage adaptations, films, and books.

You can find additional examples of Rebekah’s work on her personal blog-

You can find all of Rebekah's articles here.

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