MOST RECENTLY KNOWN for dazzling three continents as Aladdin’s Genie — in the original Australian cast, West End production, U.S. national tour, and on Broadway — Scott launched his acting career as a high school Thespian doing commercial and TV gigs in Central Florida. He’s returning as the headliner and emcee of the 2021 Thespian Festival. Register now so you don’t miss your chance to hang with Genie!

“Yes, there are people actually from Orlando; it’s not just [a resort],” joked Scott, who recently hosted the 2020 Virtual International Thespian Festival Opening Ceremony. “Actually, Orlando has an incredible community for the arts.”

And he’s not just talking about Disney World. “Some of my best friends in the business now, we met at the Florida [State] Thespian Festival,” said Scott, whose Troupe 4276 at Dr. Phillips High School ruled the school in his day. “We used to [shout], ‘Four to the two to the seven to the six!,’ and like, Wayne Brady, Joey Fatone, Amanda Seales — all of these amazing performers — they were all [alumni from] my troupe! … Sometimes there’s this sort of stigma about being a theatre nerd. But for us it was like, oh you were it if you were in theatre.”

Michael James Scott as Genie in Aladdin.
Michael James Scott has played Genie in Australia, London, New York, and across the U.S. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Scott trained as an apprentice in the Broadway Theatre Project, a prestigious musical theatre summer program for high school and college students based in Florida and founded in 1991 by Tony Award-winning dancer-choreographer-director Ann Reinking. There, he worked with Broadway masters such as Julie Andrews, Savion Glover, Gregory Hines, Gwen Verdon, and Ben Vereen. Scott would go on to understudy Vereen in the international tour of Fosse during his last year of college at Webster University’s Conservatory of Theatre Arts.

Before his Genie world takeover, Scott performed in eight other Broadway shows, originating both Doctor Gotswana in The Book of Mormon and the Minstrel in Something Rotten! But he recalls his true start “as just a little chubby chocolate kid running around, wanting to sing and dance for everybody, even when there wasn’t singing or dancing called for.”

What was your first break?
Church. My family are not performers at all, so they didn’t really know what to do with me. But I have parents who just say yes: to me and to my dream and to whatever their little boy wanted to do in the arts. … And truly church is where I got my first solo and my first taste of the crowd with the congregation enjoying the song. Once I got applause, it was like, “Oh, it’s on!”

Then, in middle school, [I had] my choir teacher, who I call my angel. I think teachers are angels on this Earth. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for [them], and she was one. She’s no longer with us, so she never got to see me on Broadway, but her name was Miss Belinda Brewer. She saw something in me when I was just a little kid in choir class, and she talked to my parents and was like, “Let me introduce him to these kid show groups.” I am the product of a community caring for their kids, and not just one certain type of kid — all kids.

Do you have favorite high school Thespian memories?
Oh my gosh, so many! It was so inspiring and so supportive on so many levels by so many people. Going to Thespian festivals — first in Florida, then ITF — blew my mind. It was the first time I got to see that it’s possible to have a career in this. It’s possible to dream bigger. And even if you didn’t go into it, I think the idea of this support — of this family — it was so valuable for so many of my friends. It’s that family feeling that struck me and stayed in my heart. And you get to see the talent around you. Truly, I stole some tricks I saw onstage at Thespian festivals that I still use today. Like I literally saw it and went, “Ooh, I want to take that. And I want to take that.” I was a sponge.

I think everyone should take a theatre class, literally everyone in the world, so that they can understand this idea of what family is in theatre. There’s nothing like it.

What was it like working with Broadway stars when you were young?
I was 19 when I did the Broadway Theatre Project. I was working with Ann Reinking and Gregory Hines and Julie Andrews and Gwen Verdon. I look at it now and I would be so, so self-conscious around these people. I, to my neglect and nonchalance, hadn’t really done my research. I was like, “I just wanna do theatre! I just wanna do a thing!” And then I get this message that Gwen Verdon would like to work with me personally. And I’m just like, “OK!”

So, there I am with Gwen Verdon, next to her. She’s sweaty because she’s teaching me Fosse moves full-out. I’m sweaty. She’s dancing circles around me, OK? At her age, like living her life. And there I am, learning “Rich Man’s Frug” [from Sweet Charity] from Gwen Verdon. When I think about that now, I don’t even believe that young boy was in the same room with those legends.

In the Broadway production of Something Rotten, Michael James Scott portrayed the Minstrel.
In the Broadway production of Something Rotten!, Michael James Scott portrayed the Minstrel. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Then, at the end of my senior year at Webster University, I got Fosse, the international tour. I was literally in airports doing papers to finish up school. I didn’t have an agent or anything like that, but I negotiated to be able to go back to walk with my class. And in this haze of craziness, I realized, “I’m going to be standing by for Ben Vereen.” I couldn’t even have a legal drink or rent a car; I was a baby! In my last college show, I played the Leading Player in Pippin — then I got on a plane for Paris to stand by for Ben Vereen.

He became a friend, mentor, teacher; he just wrapped his arms around me and trained me. We were at the Théatre du Châtelet, and my dressing room looked out onto the Seine. To the left I saw Notre Dame, and to the right I saw the Eiffel Tower. Crazy, right? Ben would have me come to the theatre in the middle of the day. We’d work on monologues, songs, talk about life, talk about everything, just the two of us.

But one of my favorite things? So, Ben Vereen’s old school. I mean he’s not calling out of a show. He, however, did call out so I could do the show. My family came to visit. They, of course, are obsessed with Ben Vereen. And while we were there, I got called to his dressing room. He sat me down and said, “I want you to get to do this.” Only stage management knew. Then we made it happen. Ben sat next to my parents, and they watched me do the show. It was a moment I’ll never forget as long as I live.

Why do you think you and the Genie get along so well?
I always say to young artists, “Believe in yourself and in what you have as special because no one else has it because they’re not you.” It’s the craziest thing because [Genie] was not on my radar. It was Tom Schumacher, head of Disney Theatrical [Productions] and Casey Nicholaw — who I’ve done five shows with — the director-producer of Aladdin. They believed in me and wanted me for this role. It was like: “We want Michael James Scott. We want you. We want you to do you.”

Genie, at the center of [the role], is literally heart, life, laughter. Right? And I love all those things! So, I connected with this character at a very vulnerable level. … What really happened is I had to do a lot of work to get back to that little chubby chocolate kid who just wanted to sing and dance, who didn’t have a care in the world. You grow up, and you do all these things ― and there’s self-doubt and there’s rejection. But to be successful as Genie, you need to be your most authentic self. So, it forced me not to apologize for Michael James Scott.

I’ve done a lot of talks during this quarantine time and all this craziness that’s happened, and I always say, “Just start small. Try walking around the block not apologizing for who you are in your head.” Just try starting there, and just keep getting bigger.

Now try going to Target. From the time you leave your house all the way until you return, just in your head not apologizing for who you are. Then you start getting bigger and bigger and thinking about it in your work, in your relationships. This idea of not apologizing for who you are, being unapologetically you. Now is the time to be doing that work. Now is the time to really play with that. Now is the time to give yourself permission for the things you maybe never did pre-pandemic. Now that you’ve been able to sit in your thoughts, breathing through the discomfort of all of this: Who are you? How will you emerge after this? What kind of artist, what kind of person, what kind of friend? Who are you? And I’m trying to take my own advice so when we come out of this, there will be a different me.

Do you think theatre will be different, too?
The world will be different. There’s so much happening — with the racial awakening, all of it. I mean, we were still in the #MeToo movement; there’s so much going on! And it’s forcing us to think about things differently.

But I think the role of theatre is the same. For those of us who are artists, it’s about what can we create during this time, and what we’re choosing to talk about.

I’m hosting this panel on on Tuesdays called “Live at Five,” where I’ve been talking with Black Broadway artists. Because there’s a racial awakening happening within our business as well. So, last week we had a wonderful panel of staples in the Broadway community, these artists who have been in multiple ensembles on Broadway, and they’ve played leads — they are just the go-to; they do everything. And one of them, Tracee Beazer, she said she hopes people have grace for growth. That we need grace for growth.

There’s so much going on politically, socially, personally. Our world has been turned upside down. That idea of grace for people who might not agree with you — that there’s room for grace on both sides — is a beautiful thing to think about.

To the young people today: We’ve got to stay strong. But also, breathe through the discomfort of it all. I think having grace for yourself is key — but having grace for someone else is even more important. For me, as long as we have that, we can get through anything.

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