Genie out of the bottle
- June 9, 2014
By Leba Hertz
SF Chronicle Entertainment Editor
James Monroe Iglehart, who won a featured actor Tony Award for his performance as the Genie in “Aladdin,” is a Bay Area native and “still a Californian through and through.” He spoke to Chronicle Correspondent Steven Winn by phone from New York, the day after lighting up Radio City Music Hall during the Sunday awards telecast with “(You Ain’t Never Had a) Friend Like Me” from the Disney Broadway musical.
Q: Where did you grow up?
A. I was born and raised in Hayward and went to Mt. Eden High School. My mother was a music teacher, and my dad had been an actor.
Q: Did you always want to be in musical theater?
A: Not at all. I was a show choir kid. I thought I might be and r-and-b singer or rapper, something like that.
Q. So what got you started?
A. I was a music major at Cal State Hayward, doing terrible, failing my classes. I was in “A Game of Chance” for the school’s Opera Workshop, and one of the other students said I should audition for a summer theater production of “Oklahoma.” That put everything together for me. It was the one place where I could sing, act and dance and maybe make a living at it. I told my mom, “I can really do this.”
Q: How did TheatreWorks, where you were in “Ragtime,” “Bat Boy” and “Into the Woods,” change you?
A: I felt like I could be myself there. I got to do this incredible variety of roles. And then they were the first theater to do “Memphis,” which got me to Broadway.
Q: What happened?
A: Randy Adams, who had left TheatreWorks and formed a production company, invited me to do a workshop of the show in New York. The plane ticket cost more than what they were going to pay me, but my wife and I budgeted and decided to go for it. And I got the part.
Q: What else did you do before “Aladdin?”
A: I was in the Bay Area company of “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” that later went to New York. I joined a hip-hop improv group, Freestyle Love Supreme, and still perform with them. I’m back and forth to the Bay Area. My wife is a scientist. She works forIllumina in San Mateo.
Q: Was that the whole “Friend Like Me” on the Tonys?
A: No, that was about half of it. The number is eight minutes long. It felt like I’d been shot out of a cannon. It went by so fast.
Q: And what did it feel like winning the Tony?
A: That was like the video was running in slow motion and super fast at the same time. I told my wife, “I love you,” and then I was up there with the statue in my hands.
Q: How did that praise song dance come over you?
A: There are moments when a blessing hits and there are no more words and all you can do is dance.
Q: What did you do afterwards?
A: What my wife and I always do on opening nights. We went to McDonald’s. It was late, after the parties, and we had to find one that serves burgers and fries and nuggets. I hate the late-night menu. I was in my sparkling tux, and a few people recognized me. We got our food and drove home to our place across the river in New Jersey.