Seven Questions About Sweetee, Frozen, & the Influence of In the Heights with Jelani Alladin
May 3rd, 2017
by Josh Ferri
Newcomer Jelani Alladin is set to make his Broadway debut as Kristoff in Disney's highly anticipated adaptation of Frozen; but before he heads to Denver for the out of town run, Jelani stars in the off-Broadway premiere of Sweetee. He plays Cat Jones, a traveling musician who steals the heart of the show's leading lady in 1930s South. Directed and choreographed by Emmy-winning legend Patricia Birch, the new musical runs May 21-June 18 at the Signature Center.
BroadwayBox caught up with Jelani to talk about working with Birch, a memorable travel experience, and the Disney movie he watched every day.
1. What initially attracted you to this project? What stuck out when you read the script?
When I first read about this project on Playbill, and saw that the legendary Pat Birch would be at the helm, I instantly wanted to be a part of it. I was also just wrapping up a run of a two-person play (I and You by Lauren Gunderson) and really wanted to do a role that required me to sing and dance. I'm always chasing after new works. When I read the script I was excited about the way each of the characters seemed ahead of their time—trying to break free of their social and economic circumstances through music.
2. So what has it been like to work with Pat Birch? Can you share something she told you in rehearsal that really informed your portrayal?
I find working with Pat Birch to be a hoot. Something about her just makes me smile. She knows how to command a room unlike any artists I've worked with before; I mean, have you googled her resume?! As a director, she is adamant about allowing the truth of every moment to be the only thing present, no extra. She allows the actor space to explore the work off of instincts and has such a sharp sense of intuition to analyze what's working and what's not. I'll never forget on the very first day we staged Cat's first song in Act 1, she told me, "It is your job to inspire these kids to love music, make me laugh and charm them. Don't mess it up" I simply said, "absolutely", and we were off to the races.
3. Cat Jones is a traveling musician. Tell me about a place you traveled to that changed you.
Back in the day, when I was in high school, I was a part of a Madrigal Choir (I know hard to believe), and we took a two week tour to South Africa. We spent the time in three different cities, Pretoria, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town (every person in the world should stand at the top of Table Top Mountain before their time here is up). It is truly one of the most beautiful places on Earth. I remember feeling like we were celebrities after every performance, they loved our singing. We got to stay with families and experience a taste of their way of life. Every school or church we sang at were all so welcoming. The food was a huge, huge plus; my first time eating deer meat. The trip was also a testament to the universal connection that can be made through music.
4. What was your favorite Disney movie growing up?
Hard question, they are all so good. It's a tie for me between The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast. Lion King was my first Disney movie. But growing up, my little sister and I watched Beauty and the Beast every weekend on VHS. We'd get bored after homework and ask to watch it just because. My poor parents, it got to the point where we learned close to every line in the film and would reenact scenes and songs in our living room. It's a classic.
5. If you could join any TV show right now, which would you pick?
It would be an absolute dream come true to work with Shonda Rhimes. How to Get Away with Murder is for sure at the top of the list. I'm amazed how they always keep me hooked and have the craziest plot twists. Viola Davis is a master at her craft. I can't imagine the things I would learn working with her. Maybe Wes could have a long lost brother, or cousin.....
6. What was the musical that first got you obsessed with musical theatre?
I remember the exact moment. It was my senior year of high school and some family friends took me out to see In The Heights. I knew nothing about the show, as I was a newbie to MT (still feel like it these days, there's just so much to learn). But the second I heard Chris Jackson begin "Benny's Dispatch", I was sold. My whole body reacted in disbelief, that this man was rapping and singing R&B in a musical! I became obsessed with the show, each actor in it, and with Lin-Manuel Miranda. I learned every lyric to almost every song in that score. I finally saw people that look like me and have my taste in pop music celebrated on a Broadway stage. That's when I knew I wanted to act for the rest of my life.
7. What’s something you geek out over that doesn’t involve performing?
It used to be video games, but then I started to not have time to play them. Now I'm really getting into fitness. I find myself constantly googling about routines, best foods to eat, instructors around the city. I've even begun taking boxing classes at my gym. I think it's my current thing, we'll see how long it last.
Don't miss Jelani Alladin in Sweetee at off-Broadway's Signature Center May 21-June 18.