Australian Ainsley Melham in Broadway Debut Returns to Rub Aladdin‘s Magic Lamp
By: Ellis Nassour
June 8, 2019: Disney’s Aladdin recently celebrated its fifth anniversary on Broadway at the historic New Amsterdam Theatre importing hot Australian Ainsley Melham to rub the magic lamp. He’s done it before: starring Down Under in the first Australian national tour, where he received a Best Actor in a Musical nomination. His Broadway debut is also a reunion — an aligning of the stars, so to speak. On the Australian tour, he co-starred with Michael James Scott, the current and absolutely irrepressible, wisecracking Genie, and Arielle Jacobs, the current Jasmine. [Trivia: her brother Adam was the original Aladdin.]
Melham, who’s been portraying bad boy street urchin Aladdin/Prince Ali for three years, said, “Arriving in New York and fulfilling a longtime dream of appearing on Broadway was joy enough, but to be reuniting with Michael and Ariel is evidence we have a wonderful universe looking over us. I vividly remember hearing them at our first table read back home and going wow!”
They are some hot trio. Jacobs first impressed as Gabriella in the national tour of Disney’s High School Musical then, on Broadway, in Wicked and In the Heights. She’s not only beautiful, but also possesses a gorgeous voice. Scott is a bigger-than-life, over-the-top force to be reckoned with who knows how to captivate audiences.
Melham is not only a handsome hunk, but also a dynamite dancer, belter, and acrobat — in the words of an Aladdin Act One tune, he’s always one jump ahead, especially when leaping and bounding over massive sets.
He grew up in a very large and extended family in the quiet country town of Bathurst, two-and-a-half hours northwest of Sydney. “My parents met growing up across the road from one another.” Though born in Australia, his father is Lebanese, his mother Italian, “quite a potent mix to say the least!”
He doesn’t know where it comes from but became enamored of music and theater from an early age. “I was always dancing,” Melham says “My parents thought dance instructions were a good idea. I started when I was three. That’s where the bug bit, so to speak. I loved musicals.
“When we got the Mary Poppins soundtrack,” he continues, “I played it until it was all but worn out. I listened so closely to the tap number that I was able to duplicated it and dance it in our living room.”
Following high school he trained at Western Australia of Performing Arts [fondly known as WAAPA] at Edith Cowan University, near Perth, following in the footsteps of Hugh Jackman and the late Heath Ledger. “Every chance I got, I’d catch shows when they toured through. I had dreams of Broadway, but they were simply unattainable.”
After WAPPA, his plan was to go to Melbourne or Sydney and audition for musicals to, hopefully, get an ensemble spot in a show and work my way up.”
However, there was a major side step, one that led to becoming part of a sort of Disney/Nickelodeon/Australian juggernaut and national treasure and months and months of being on the road.
At 21, Melham auditioned and for the immensely popular group Hi5. “It was a different tract from that I’d hoped I’d be doing.”
The band not only toured in sold-out concerts, but also was the anchor for a much-lauded TV series with music and educational content. It had a huge fan base among teens and pre-teens. The original cast remained for nine years. He became part of the new cast.
“It was an incredible experience, actually often overwhelming. For three years, we were not only on TV, but constantly playing stadiums at home, New Zealand, and throughout southeast Asia, and the Middle East.”
He left Hi5 in December 2015 and made a quick transition to theater, securing the role of Sonny Malone in a month-long run of Jeff Lynne, John Farrar, and Douglas Carter Beane’s Tony-nominated Xanadu, based on the 1980 film which starred Olivia Newton John and Michael Beck. He got more than his share of publicity and razzing for the short, short shorts he wore in the musical. A running joke was that if they were washed, they’d shrink to a Speedo.
In July 2016, Melham was cast in Aladdin. “We spent eight months in Sydney, eight months in Melbourne, four or five months in Brisbane and Perth. Then, for the better part of two years, we toured the country.”
He explains that Australia’s biggest theater hub is in Melbourne, but there’s no equivalent to Broadway or the West End where shows sit down for years and years, such as Phantom of the Opera and Chicago here. “Australia is vast and our population is spread, so when you bring a show down you want to move it so you can hit your various audiences. A big show, such as Aladdin, would do two to three years, and then hit the road, go on to New Zealand, and even Singapore.”
Down Under, theatres are much larger than here. A thousand seats is nothing! “I quite like it here,” says Melham, “because it’s nice and intimate.” Keep in mind that Disney’s historic, magnificently-restored and “intimate” New Amsterdam has over 1,700 seats.
Melham felt his training and Xandau helped prepare him for his Aladdin experience. “Music theater was my degree, then there was Hi5, which certainly acclimated me to huge audiences, not to mention screaming fans. I’d never been in a full-scale musical so Xanadu was a stepping stone.”
He describes a big difference between audiences in New York and Australia. “Here, audiences spring to their feet in a heartbeat, but at home it takes a little longer for audiences to feel they have permission to do something like that. We’re not so vocal. We’re a bit more reserved.”
Unlike Australia, audiences here are extremely international. “Tourism is incredible. We don’t have that. It can affect the energy of a show. For many, English isn’t their first language. They may not completely understand what we’re saying, but they know the story, know the original film, and the songs. They enjoyed the spectacle, costumes, and choreography.” He adds that it appears everyone seems to enjoy the show, because the response afterward at the stage door is amazing.”
Since Aladdin is such a high energy show and Melham is rarely off stage, he gets his exercise eight performances a week. “I do really try to eat healthy and I have a personal trainer three times a week to make sure everything functioning properly and that my mobility is correct.”
Being on Broadway is not only a dream come true for Melham, “but it’s like coming home to a reunion with old friends. Michael and Arielle and the entire company made me welcome. And what can I say about New York audiences? Even though I became quite acquainted with screaming fans in Hi5, nothing really prepared me for the reception here.”
Being in New York has had another plus. In Sydney, not long after he debuted in Aladdin, Brit singing and dancing dynamo Callum Francis, who’d been the Lola understudy in Kinky Boots on the West End, was sent over to open the musical. He had the opportunity to drop by Aladdin before his performances started. “Callum visited afterward and all of us welcomed him.” Also, a few sparks were ignited. “He liked what he saw,” smiled Melham, “and I liked what I saw. It was sort of like some enchanted evening when you see a stranger across a crowded room.”
They began to date and are now partners. Following his run in Kinky Boots in Australia, as kismet would have it, Francis was able to repeat playing Lola here during the last months of the show’s run.