Aladdin is pound for pound the best Disney movie of all time. Robin Williams working in full bloom of his comedic genius. Definitely in the “Top-Five Wokest Disney Princesses Pre-Moana” conversation. A soundtrack with so many hitters there was no need to enlist an A-List singer (10 points from House Lion King). My debate office hours are available upon request.
Enter Zach Bencal, an actor also in the throes of comedic mastery, hailing from New Hampshire and currently playing Babkak in Disney’s Aladdin at the Cadillac Palace Theater. Before a midweek show, we shared some coffee at my favorite cafe, Ipsento in Logan Square, so I could get his perspective on life in the neighborhood and if working with Disney is actual magic.
So welcome to Logan Square, Zach! I live in Hermosa just west of here. Where do you stay?
I’m off of California and Logan, right near The General and that new restaurant Mi Tocaya? We’ve got an awesome Airbnb near there, it’s great.
I used to live close by, off Altgeld, in a creepy basement apartment! Perfect area. You came from Florida, is that right?
No, I’m from New Hampshire. Grew up in New Hampshire about 45 minutes north of Boston, went to school in Connecticut at the University of Hartford, and then was just doing the New York thing for a bit. Ended up doing a cruise in Hawaii for about seven months, and it was incredible.
You pulled a Titus Andromedon. Do you watch Kimmy Schmidt?
No, not exactly! I do watch it though and love him so much.
So what kind of plays did you do before this? Were you always into musical theater?
Definitely. My family is super musical, so I was always singing. I did my first show when I was six, and my dad was the music director of it. It was Hansel & Gretel, and I’ve basically been in shows ever since. I grew up doing community theater. The southern New Hampshire theater scene is actually really big and prominent. At least 20 percent of the kids I grew up with are still actively working in theater. My mom sings and my dad plays piano, so I was always around that creative atmosphere.
What’s great is this apartment we’re staying in actually has a full upright piano. The owner had it tuned for us and everything, so I’ve been able to continue to write. We’re doing a cabaret at Sidetrack in Boystown in a couple weeks, too! I’ve always made it my goal to be in theater in some way.
Have you had the chance visit any of the theaters in Chicago? I’m sure it’s taxing working in a Disney production. But have you gotten a feel for the scene here?
It’s hard because we’re on that show schedule, but we’ve actually made it work. We saw The King and I at the Oriental when they were here, and we just saw Something Rotten!, which is directed by Casey Nicholaw, our director. We got a chance to see him, and he’s such an amazing director; fantastic vision and style. Definitely saw Hamilton, which is amazing. We’ve got a lot of friends now in that cast, so we’ve had the chance to interact a ton.
No, I mean many of the actors live near each other downtown. There’s a bit of a crossover, and they’ve been so welcoming to us. We talked about having a Hamilton and Aladdin Prom.
Please. This needs to happen.
We’re not sure if we’re going to be in full garb or something terrible like…tuxedo T-shirts. I have a few friends who work a Second City, another friend who works at Chicago Shakes; it’s just so hard on the show schedule.
How many shows are you doing a week?
Eight shows a week, Tuesday through Sunday. It’s a lot, but it’s so fun. What could be better, though? I pinch myself sometimes because I’m standing on stage in a costume covered in Swarovski crystals, handmade for me. There are over 350 different costumes in the show! In Prince Ali, the song at the top of -act 2, there’s a hundred costume changes in less than a minute.
Yeah, it’s just a wonderful set. A 17-piece orchestra that we’ve become great friends with. It’s just a dream. Actually, and this is funny, one of my best friends is in the show with me as part of the ensemble. We’ve been friends for five years, and he lives with me in Logan. We’ll have moments where we catch each other’s eye like, “This is in fact happening, right?”
Tell me about this casting. How does someone hear about shows this large? In the industry are there murmurings of shows soon to come?
My first interaction with Aladdin was senior year in college, 2013 maybe 2012 at this point. I knew they were developing the show, doing trials for it in Seattle and Canada, and knew that it was coming to Broadway. I saw a breakdown for it and after a couple months, they start having tryouts to build up their files ahead of launch, not looking for people for that exact moment necessarily. So I read the breakdown for this character Babkak and it says, “A chubby, lovable, desert dweller who’s a power tenor.” And I’m like well…that’s basically me.
[Laughs] In some circles, yes, I’ve been called this.
Right! I remember going with one of my friends towards the end of our senior year to auditions and being seen at the very last minute. Literally, had 20 minutes before we had to head back to Connecticut. So I got in with that last group and then didn’t hear anything for years. I’m talking four years.
While I was music directing a show for Fringe Festival, a fest that produces a bunch of original plays and musicals, found out I was helping a kid with his Aladdin audition. A friend says, “You should see if you can get into that,” and the second we walk into her apartment I get a phone call from the casting office asking if I saw the “email we sent you about a week ago for Aladdin callbacks?” Of course, it went into my spam folder.
Of course! Spam. *shakes fist*
She goes, “We have an appointment for you on Friday (this is a Wednesday, mind you), but we’ll just reschedule it for next week.” I go, “No, Friday will do!” and then a month-long audition process happens. Six call backs for this part with the final audition day in front of a table of 30 people! Me and two other guys auditioning for Babkak, four or five guys for Kassim, and five or six guys for Omar.
Now that is taxing.
Well, they need to make sure of their choice because these characters are very specific. They have to get a feel for the relationship between actors and everything, and I have to say that the big thing I hear from the company is everyone walked into the audition process declaring, “This is who I am. I’m not going to stress myself out about this, I’m just going to do the work.” I’ve been through so many auditions where I get to the very end and don’t get the part. That’s part of the gamble of a life in theater, you know? I think people in this company, and people in general really latch onto that.
Yeah, I mean there’s a fearlessness about that.
All people want to see is a fully-formed, good person who’s a hard worker. People genuinely want to work with good people, and that’s what has been so wonderful about working with Disney. Everyone has honestly been genuine, kind, welcoming and just so crazy of a family to jump into.
So they really are magic, both inside and out?
As cheesy as it sounds, it’s true! The reality of Disney Magic.
So growing up in a theater community, a theater family really, and now being here in Logan Square after performing in so many different settings, what stands out to you about Logan Square and its arts community?
I just love how eclectic Logan Square is. I’m a big foodie. If you want a list of the restaurants I’ve been to and the ones I’m obsessed with, there are too many. Table, Donkey & Stick was one of the first restaurants I went to and I just love. Revolution for just that burger and beer. Lula Cafe I definitely go to once a week.
Quite possibly Thee Brunch Spot.
Well, the ultimate…my ultimate is Longman & Eagle.
Yes! I prefer for the burger. The whole stab in the heart approach to meals.
I feel like walking down the street you’re liable to see people at a poetry reading, everyone’s got a dog, someones playing the guitar. You’re free to roam around with your kids and everyone just has a vibrant, happy way about them. Maybe it’s also because I come from New York where people can get a little sassy, but from the Lyft drivers to servers, everyone has been genuine and kind. That makes for a lively arts culture where I walk down the street and every other restaurant has live music or some performance in it.
It really is a great place for the arts and artists. I feel like in our generation — and in every generation — so much is converging, but I feel like the arts are taking hold of something right now with plays like Hamilton. I guess that’s my next question. In terms of what you’ve seen, with Aladdin being in that canon of best Disney movies of all time, what would you say is one of the fresh messages in this new take on Aladdin?
I mean there are all the classic elements of a love story that transcends class. The People of the Palace and then The People of the Marketplace, rich and poor, and how love is still boundless. That big message at the end of the show where Sultan changes the literal law, saying love is more important than any of that, doesn’t feel as focused on in the film. The fully formed relationships in the show help you appreciate and value the importance of friendship, too. In the film, Aladdin only has Abu. In our play, the friends really help to tell that story. Kassim, Omar and I (Babkak) get to highlight the depth of what it takes to make something great happen in life, which includes both love and friendship.
In terms of theater right now, what place do you think theater occupies in American life?
I think theater promotes the lasting desire to be transported. The world is in such a crazy place that there is really a craving, and will always be, to let go. That pure entertainment factor is something that Aladdin pulls off so well. You have kids dressed up as Jasmine, people on dates, families in the rafters all coming to glean something from this show. Theater carries that unifying ability wherever it goes.
And because I think people need this, and I have an unofficial niece getting into acting that just performed wonderfully in Hairspray, let me gather some wisdom. I feel like in the arts these questions come up all the time, but what would you say to the budding artist, actress/actor? What advice would you give?
I would say do not compare yourself to anybody else because everyone’s paths are different. That’s one of the biggest things I’ve seen get people down. You know what you’re getting into by signing up for acting — it’s competitive, it’s challenging, but when you compare your trajectory to other people you get clouded. Stay true to who you are, and in that, try to become the most fully-formed, happy person that you can. You have to have the training and the drive, but being a good person will really take you the rest of the way. You kind of just want to work with nice people? It’s sort of lost in my generation, too. Work your butt off and inspire others, too, but don’t compare yourself to anybody else.
Until you land the dream and you’re working for Disney. Strike that, working with Disney, not for Disney.
Please follow Zach Bencal on all his acting pursuits through Facebook and Twitter (@zbencal).
If you’re considering visiting the land of Agrabah at the Cadillac Palace Theater you can purchase your tickets here.