It’s like night and day.
Inside The New Amsterdam Theater, Major Attaway’s presence is inescapable. Embodying the role of the beloved Genie in Disney’s Aladdin, the Texas native sets the tone for the audience by dismantling the fourth wall and bringing them into the fictitious world of Agrabah. His voice booms, he’s light on his feet and his high kick can strike lightning.
But when Attaway is off stage, his robust voice lowers to almost a whisper. His presence, still warm and welcoming, has an added layer of gentleness that’s divorced from his performance. Attaway is a three-part entertainer: singer, dancer, and actor, but when it’s just one-on-one, he’s soft-spoken and tender often requiring you to lean in to fully hear him speak.
In Manhattan’s Milk Studios, Attaway sat with Vibe and several other media outlets to discuss the Genie–who’s equal parts Aladdin’s best friend, moral compass, and ultimate wingman, as well as the true inspiration behind one of Disney’s most enchanting figures.
As a little kid, you made a wish. What did you wish for that you’ve seen come true now into adulthood?
Major Attaway: Oh that’s easy. Well, when I was 10 years old, I’m not sure of the actual age. I know I was sitting in the ninth row at the New Amsterdam Theater where I saw The Lion King on Broadway for the first time. I said to my mother as I was squealing from the edge of my seat ‘This is what I want to do’ I knew I liked to sing and I knew I wanted to do something in this business but I wasn’t sure. Seeing The Lion King made it very clear to me, so now every day it’s a full circle moment because I work in the New Amsterdam Theater, and every performance I make sure to give a little love to whoever’s sitting in that chair just in case I see someone who looks a little like me.
Tell me the feeling you had when you saw The Lion King
I knew that I wanted to perform. I had been in the Texas Boys Choir, started singing in church and I had been learning new languages because of the Texas Boys Choir. We learned to sing phonetically in German, Italian, and all these different things. But The Lion King was the closest thing to me that I saw. There was absolutely nothing like it because even on TV there was only so many shows I could watch. I was watching UPN or something like that, but The Lion King gave me all of it. It gave me singing. It gave me acting. It gave me a story that I already loved. A story that was reimagined and the puppets the majestic visual experience that I got, it just told me what I knew all the time that imagination–that was always hounding me–I can use it and I can funnel it into a way that I can make a living as well as help people at the same time. It gave me all of that, so much.
And the importance of this role to you during Black History Month?
Oh my! Well, the version of the Genie that I play is based on Fats Waller and Cab Calloway, because the original design of the genie character was this. When Robin Williams was given the part he changed their idea for the character. So, I get to be a song and dance man on one of the oldest stages in Broadway. Where Stepin-Fetchit may have graced the stage, but couldn’t come in the front door. And so every once in a while I meet a certain person at the stage door and they say thank you because I haven’t seen someone like me up there.
Not only that, I’m the first voice and the first face that anybody sees when they’re coming to see that show. So I have to represent, and I understand that not only am I giving someone their first Broadway memory, it’s their first live performance memory. You know, a lot of people see the film and say ‘Who can do what Robin Williams does?’ I don’t do what Robin Williams does. He’s a stand-up comedian. I am full, three-part entertainer. So that’s what you’re getting when you come to see me and I’m showing you that a man of my size, and where I’ve come from, and how hard I’ve had to work that you can do it. It’s possible.
How do you keep that magic going? How do you keep that fire in your belly?
Lots of things can attribute to it. You have to take care of yourself outside of the work because if its all that you are, then it’s gonna drain you. You have to know how to take mental breaks. In telling of the story in itself, I have a unique situation with the Genie because I am required to break the fourth wall. I am required to check-in to the energy of the audience because I am the narrator as well as one of the characters so
I have to make sure that I set the tone of energy. So I feel like its easier for who’s ever playing the Genie because we don’t just have to check in with the actors around us we have to talk the audience. So if their energy is up and down I can affect that. I can push against it, I can pull back to let them catch up or something like
The Genie himself, I ask myself different questions daily to keep the characters fresh. You see me come out of the lamp and offer him three wishes. No one asks me who was my last master? How did I obtain my Genie powers in the first place? What was I doing right before I rubbed the lamp? What does it look like in the lamp? These are questions that I can ask myself to keep my reaction to Aladdin fresh. Different ways to add to the story so there’s depth in me answering his questions that I answer every day.
Will Smith is going to be playing the genie in the live-action remake.
Oh, I’m so excited.
Have you spoken to him? And if you haven’t, do you have any pointers you could give to him?
They’re two separate entities. Yes, they’re both under the Disney family but Disney theatricals and Disney films are living their own separate lives. Now, what I would say if I got to meet him, it wouldn’t be about things I could tell him because the grind I do is different. The way he put together the character he had a certain timeline and form these things and it was done. Mine is, I’m telling that same story every day so I have to find nuances that keep it new and fresh for me.
I would love to meet him and have him watch my performance. That would be awesome, but other than that I think that I’m just excited that you just mentioned mine and his name in the same breath. That’s the best part about that question to me. [Laughs]
After the show, there’s a standing ovation for you, clear as day. How does that make you feel?
Grateful. I’m there to serve the moment and to tell the story. I’m just glad they enjoy it, to be honest. I understand how many people want to be here and the hunger is so real for so many people who want to do this job. Every moment I’m just grateful to be in this space and when they respond in that way and stand on their feet and clap. An ovation is not something that is expected and I don’t think its something that needs to be given every time just because I’ve completed a song or just because I’ve completed the number you enjoy. If I’ve moved you then you should move. If not, that’s okay and I respect that.
Talk a little bit about your hustle as a black person on Broadway.
I will tell you something specific to my career that has to do with me being a black person in musical theater. I realized at a young age, with all of the characters that were available to me for me to play, I’m telling history stories and I might have to be a slave. If I’m telling a fantasy story, I can be anything I want. If I want to tell someone’s story who has been black and lived a black life, there’s going to be some hardships at some point. There’s no question. There’s going to be something I have to tell or live through on stage.
I auditioned for everything but sometimes I would be more excited to receive the opportunity to play something that is based in fantasy because when you have to do that over and over again you have to do the work. One way or another you have to find your way to that emotional place, and so I spent one year of my life where I did Rag Time and Rent and then Rag Time again and I said ‘Oh that’s about six months of funerals where the black man I’m playing has to lose.’
Of course, there are lessons learned and things like that, but given the choice, in the long run, I love playing the Genie. Yes he may be in shackles in doing the work, but he’s the most powerful being in the place and he will always be. That is a plus for me as a black man.