Interview: Aladdin on Broadway's Courtney Reed on Launching a Business While Playing a Real Life Disney Princess
The effervescent and multi-talented Courtney Reed has achieved a goal that most young children have only dreamed of. She grew up to be a real live Disney princess. Since originating the role of Jasmine in Disney's Aladdin on Broadway, she has gone on to inspire countless people, young and old, to continue to dream big. In the meantime, she's also produced a solo show at the famed NYC cabaret 54 Below, appeared on TV, and launched Gagged Chokers, a handmade choker company, with her best friends.
Now, after almost four years of playing the iconic role, she is taking her last bow in Aladdin on Broadway, after which she will spend a month reprising the role of Jasmine with the national tour cast of Aladdin, alongside her "OG Street Rat," Adam Jacobs. Before she takes her final bow as Jasmine on Broadway tomorrow and in LA in February, we're taking a look back at the conversation we had with her a few months ago about her career, starting with her early dedication to the arts, her stint as an understudy on Broadway in Mamma Mia and In the Heights, her journey to Aladdin, and the development and success of Gagged Chokers.
How did you get your start in the arts?
I started because my sister was taking dance class, so then I started taking dance class. And then I got into musical theater because she joined the local children's theater, so then I followed sort of in her footsteps and that's how I got involved there. But then I ended up really wanting to pursue it and my sister didn't, so I then went into performing arts high school and then went to a theater conservatory in Chicago. And once I graduated I booked a couple shows in the city back to back and then I auditioned for Mamma Mia, which ended up being my Broadway debut in Chicago. And then I moved to New York. So that's kind of how I got my start. Really just through my sister I guess.
It sounds like you've really just been doing it seriously your whole life. Were you thinking at age 12, 13, 14 that this is a career, I'm going to be a professional actress and no one can stop me?
It was so funny because my parents were always like, "You know, you really knew what you wanted to do," whereas my siblings kind of didn't know what they wanted to do. They knew they didn't want to be actors or anything, but it was funny how [my parents] were like, "You just really knew what you wanted to do even though it seemed like a job that wasn't going to be as reliable." But I kind of just always thought, I don't really have any other skill sets so I guess this is it (laughs). This is it for me. If I don't make it, I don't know.
Broadway or bust (laughs).
I know. I always thought you know, it's gonna work out. It's gonna work out. I don't know, I just never thought about it. It's so weird. Now, later on in my life, I'm kind of like, "Is it going to work out? Like what am I doing?" I don't know. But, when I was younger, I just knew. It was like, yeah, it's going to be fine.
Did you ever have moments where you thought “I don't actually know if this is going to work out"?
Not so much, because I guess I didn't have much time to really freak out about it. I mean, I think waiting for Aladdin to come to Broadway and you know, being involved for so long and being attached to it since 2010 . . . [I knew] it was going to be a game changer for me as far as reaching the goal that I really wanted to get to and feeling like this was my dream. I think that was probably the worst as far as struggling through not knowing whether it was going to come to Broadway, were they gonna keep me, were they going to maybe do it regionally instead or take it on a non-equity tour. We didn't know what they were going to do with it, so I think that was the most stressful.
But other than that I had been working pretty consistently and I tend to stay with shows for a really long time, or at least my career is I stay with shows for awhile, and I was lucky enough to be with shows that lasted for a long time. But now I'm older, I'm kind of like "Woah." You know, I'm starting to think about it a little bit more.
What was it like making your Broadway debut [as an understudy in Mamma Mia] and then what was it like being an understudy in both Mamma Mia and In the Heights?
It’s almost like when you start a brand new relationship and everything is sunshine and butterflies and lollipops, you know what I mean? That's kind of what it was like making my Broadway debut. Nothing could get me down. I was just so happy about life and just so excited and just on a high basically.
But I learned a lot when I made my debut, because you don't make your debut with everyone else. When you're a replacement you're joining a show. It's crazy how you get in and it's brand new for you and it's so routine to everyone and you're freaking out and some people have been doing it for years, five years already and some people have been doing it for seven months. You learn so much, you grow up really quickly.
But understudying was always really stressful. I didn't really enjoy it as much as some people do. But I loved it in In the Heights because, once I really went on for an extended period of time, then it became so easy to go on. And I loved it so much because I got to play basically all of the three girls. It's kind of a dream being in In the Heights. You just can't decide--do I like Nina or Vanessa or do I want to play Carla? And so you're like, "Oh God, I get to play them all." That probably was the best part about understudying, is that I got to play them all and I got to you know, do Vanessa for a couple months when Corbin Bleu was in the company and I got to be in a lot of the phases of the show, which was really cool. And then close it with Lin [Manuel Miranda]. It was just an unbelievable experience.
And then you went out to do Aladdin, and you said you've been with the show for seven years?
Yeah, that is crazy.
How did it even get started? Did you just go for auditions? Did you get a call?
My agents called and said, "They're doing this reading of Aladdin." They auditioned five girls or something like that. So few girls. And this was Tara Rubin's office and Tara Rubin had cast me in Mamma Mia and so they kind of knew me, and I had done other readings and stuff with them.
And so, they called me in and I auditioned for [Jasmine], and I got it. And what happens with Disney readings is they usually pull people from the Disney family. That's how they pulled Adam Jacobs [who originated the role of Aladdin]. He was doing The Lion King tour at the time. They pulled him from the tour, they had him do the reading.
So they did the reading and it was a week long and it was just kind of like, "Yeah, we're just gonna license it, the full production, so we're going to get some actors that could possibly play it together." And then after that, the reading did so well that they fast-tracked it to a regional theater to do a pilot production of it, and then I re-auditioned when Casey Nicholaw signed on [as director and choreographer]. That was in 2011, and so when I re-auditioned and I got [the part], I was even more thrilled because I was like, “It’s not a fluke.”
And then I didn't have to re-audition at all for the Broadway company. I just had to basically wait. Wait and wait and wait for two years. The only show I did between doing Aladdin and Aladdin again in Toronto was Once On This Island, directed by Tommy Kail, the director of In The Heights and Hamilton. And of course Adam Jacobs played Daniel, I played Andrea. It was so funny. I got to do that show and then I did a bunch of TV gigs. That was sort of the year and a half of TV gigs.
And then, yeah, it’s been Aladdin since. It's weird because people think, "Oh my gosh, you've been doing it for so long," and in my mind, it seems like so long, but at the same time, it doesn't seem like that long at all. Time flies, it's insane.
So what's it been like (a) seeing a show that you literally started with from the beginning come to life and (b) also playing a Disney princess?
It's pretty surreal. I mean, my investment in the show is so deep. You get so attached to it in so many ways, too. Even when you feel like, "Oh no, this is not how it used to be." When we first started, for instance, we used to get standing ovations during “A Friend Like Me” in the the middle of the show. So I've become one of the old school people with the new kids [in the cast] being like, "You know, back in the day when we first opened . . .” (laughs)
But to think that I've invested so much time and my heart is still so in it. I think just knowing that when the time is up and I'm ready to move onto the next chapter, it will be so sad because so much of my life and my heart and soul has been in this show. It's been so beautiful to watch it grow and to be able to say that I was there from the beginning. And [there are] all of the companies that are now around the world. It's so special. It's a once in a lifetime experience [and] I feel so fortunate that I get to still continue to go on that journey. It's just so cool. It's so cool.
Why have you decided to stay [with Aladdin], if it was a decision, and is there any point you can see in the foreseeable future where you say it's time to go or move onto the next thing?
You know, what's interesting is that it's so unprecedented that an original company would stay intact for so long. So we had basically almost the entire original company as far as principles go stay for three years straight. Which is unbelievable. Nobody does that. And I think it's a testament to (a) Disney and how well you're treated and (b), what a fun group it is, how fun it is to work on a Disney show. How fun it is to work on Aladdin in general and how much fun we’ve had together, how much we enjoy each other.
So really, it's funny to think with the entire principle company we lose two people but they happen to be our two leading players [Adam Jacobs, and James Monroe Iglehart, who originated the role of Genie]. And, to lose Adam, for me, was probably the biggest blow. Not to say that losing James was so easy. Because [James] was basically like a big company leader, and his off-stage presence was unbelievable. [But] I didn't share very many scenes with him. So my onstage stuff doesn't change that much. But my whole show is so different now that Adam's gone. And Adam didn't actually really leave because he's doing the national tour. So it's really one person that left the actual show.
So it just goes to show how people just absolutely love being there. For me, it's like the best shot I've ever had at this point in my life. What I get from the show is stability. It [also] gives me freedom to not be killing myself every day, like if I were playing Elphaba [from the musical Wicked]. It gives me the ability, now that I'm comfortable with it, to be able to work on other things that I'm passionate about, like Gagged [Chokers]. I also have freedom if I book a TV show. I booked a couple of shows and I've also been able to do several readings throughout the show, which is awesome. So I get kind of the best of all worlds. It's a tough position to leave. It's all about timing I guess.
So how has Jasmine changed for you with each new Aladdin?
[Acting opposite] a new Aladdin is totally different, because a lot of it has to do with reacting to what they do and the type of Aladdins they are. Every Aladdin that I've ever played opposite [of], whether it's an understudy or Adam or Telly [Leung], they're all so different, and so you kind of have to morph with how they are.
But I think the essence of her has always stayed the same, and I think that I bring a little bit of me to her. At the end of the day, I don't feel so crazy different from her than I do from me in my every day life, you know. So the integrity of her always stays the same. I think you just listen a little bit more, and you react a little bit differently to how they interpret the role, for sure.
So the next question starts off with a congratulations on your 54 Below solo show!
Oh my God, thank you. Thank you. That was a big moment for me. I can't believe I did that. It's one of those things where you're like, I don't think I'll ever do this and have any desire to do this. I like playing roles. But it was one of those things where you're like, it's a right of passage. You have to do it. You just have to do it. I can't even believe I did it, still.
What pushed you to suddenly decide to do a solo show, and what was it like putting that together while also doing your full time job at Aladdin?
It was cool. My agents have been dying for me to do it for a long time. They were like, "You need to do a 54 Below show. You just should really do it." And I was like, uh, I don't know. So I'd been doing all these princess parties [Editor's note: Princess Parties are princess themed performances at 54 Below, a famous cabaret in New York City] and Ben Rauhala was [music directing] all of them. And he kind of approached me at one of the princess parties and was like, "When are you going to do your solo show? Let's do it. I'll help you." And I was like, "Eh, okay, I don't know." So then he messaged me and said, "Look, I have a set list. I looked at all of the things that you've sung on YouTube, I have a set list for you, it's not going to be as hard as you think." And so I was like, "You know what, I should do this. I should do this." And I talked to my agents, they were fully on board, they booked me a slot [and] negotiated some stuff.
And so the next several months, I would just get together with Ben Rauhala and he would ask me questions and we started linking everything together and it was just kind of me talking about my life up until this point. And it was really, really special. All of the people that are in your life that really mean something to you end up being there, and so it was kind of like, "Ah man, this is such an epic moment.” My friends were like, "I think the next time that you'll have all of these people in one room will probably be your wedding." And I'm like, "You're absolutely right."
So let's talk about Gagged. But first, how would you define collaboration?
Oh my god, this is so funny. I was just playing Trivial Pursuit yesterday, with my boyfriend and a couple that had us over for tacos. And we played boys against girls and I was thinking like, "I am terrible at Trivial Pursuit, but okay, uh, I'll help you out girl." But one of the questions was [about] a movie that Mel Gibson did and then the tagline was like, "The gang's all here." And it was in 1980 something. So [my partner] was like, "Lethal Weapon. It's gotta be Lethal Weapon." And I was like, "I guess so, but," and [the boys] were like, "I know, but, which Lethal Weapon?" There's so many. And in my mind it was like, "four." It's gotta be Lethal Weapon 4 because the tagline is, "Gang's all here." And then it ended up being right. But [my partner] was the one that knew it was Lethal Weapon, I was the one that was like, "It's gotta be four." So that's collaboration. That's two people coming together and being able to use each other in their best forms. It's complimenting each other in a way, because not everyone is going to be perfect at everything.
That's collaboration (laughs). Definitely one of the best answers we've heard. So I read that chokers came back in style and you had thrown all of yours out and so you just decided to make them by hand. How do you look at your wardrobe and say, "I'm just going to make my own jewelry and call it a day." How does that even cross your mind?
Well I've always been super resourceful. My mom is Vietnamese, born and raised in Thailand. My dad is just caucasian but frugal as hell. And we just end up doing what [we] need to fix the problem ourselves or make it ourselves or put something together. I'm not very book smart necessarily. Like [with] Trivial Pursuit, I'm not going to know the history of this thing or I'm not going to know the artist who came up with whatever. I'm not going to know any of that. But I can solve a problem visually. And so I [thought] "Well, I'll just make my own," because I've always loved knitting and crocheting and scrapbooking and I've done all of that and I used to make jewelry as a hobby and so I thought chokers can't be that hard to make.
I wasn't willing to spend 25-30 bucks on something that looked like it was a dollar. It's a totally different story with handmade. I know that sometimes some of our customers [say] "Why are they so expensive?" And we're like, "You guys, they're full on handmade and we don't buy our supplies on wholesale." We just buy supplies where you would at any shop like a regular customer, and so the prices are jacked up really high when you want to buy your own trim [Editor's note: trim is a type of fabric]. But yeah, that's how it kind of came about.
So you were wearing them around a lot and you started getting compliments and LJ [Wright] and Teale [Dvornik] and everyone said that you should turn it into a business. At what point did you start taking them seriously?
It was a combination of my followers asking me repeatedly "When are you going to sell these, can we buy them, where are you going to sell these?" And the girls saying, "Just do it. Just do it. Just do it. Why not? I'll help you right now, we'll help you, we'll help you. Just do it." And so, I thought, "You know, what's the worst that can happen?" And we just started selling them through Instagram. We'd post them on Instagram and then people would look at the image and say, "Yeah, I want that." And then we thought "I guess they can pay through PayPal or something? I don't know." You know, we didn't know. But it was really a beautiful collaboration and the girls, they used the Kylie Cosmetic model, which is when you release on a certain date, and a lot of times they sell out and sometimes the color never comes back. Like the Kylie lip kits, which were all the rage. And most of her people just know about them because she posts on her social media. So that's kind of all we do. Everything is social media based. We shout out announcements on Twitter and sometimes send emails to our customers, but other than that it's our die-hard folks that really keep up with our Instagram and our Twitter, which is unbelievable that social media can do something like that. No paid advertisements, nothing. It's the best.
So what's it been like working with friends, good friends, in a business context? Has that changed your relationships at all, has it caused any kind of conflict or has it just been, you know, beneficial in more ways that you can count? How would you you describe it?
Well it's interesting because the involvement has always been from the beginning whatever you can do at the time. The way that I kind of described it was we're in a reading phase. As in it hasn't come to Broadway yet, you know what I'm saying? So we eventually got to a place where [we realized] this is bigger than we thought it was ever going to be. But the thing is, I'm not touching any of the profits that we've made. We're using that money to put towards the next collection and buy trim and upgrade our postcards. Everyone gets compensated. And it was never super official from the beginning, like, okay, this is your position, this is your position, you're going to be getting paid this much and this much. It's a passion project and it always has been and it still continues to be a passion project. I think that keeps the pressure off as far as people getting in the way of each other or feeling like you're stepping on each other's toes. So I think it's been a beautiful collaboration between all of us.
And you end up finding that everyone has strengths and weaknesses and we try to pull from everyone's strengths. Abby [DePhillips] is so great, she has so many ideas and she always helps with the names and she's really good at scheduling models. And Teale has always been really good at finding photographers and when we're on set saying, "Okay, now try this out." And LJ's always really good at wording for social media. And all the girls make the chokers as well. So it's kind of like we're all splitting up what we can do. But it's been really fun.
It sounds really fun. It sounds like you're just hanging out with your best friends all the time and you happen to make money.
I know. It's so fun (laughs).
So what difference do you see between your life as an entrepreneur and your life as an artist?
It's pretty freeing actually because you can come up with [your own] ideas. I would compare it to say opening night of Aladdin. There's so much pressure that goes around opening nights and how things are getting reviewed and a lot of it is out of your hands. Somebody might dog on you for the way you portrayed something, but really, you were directed that way. Or, you know, the way that the costume looks. And you're like, "I have nothing to do with that." But you're blamed as an actor. And I think with Gagged, it's kind of awesome because I can come up with something, I can look at a choker that I'm thinking like, "Oh my god, I'm going to love this." Like out of the Broadway Boyfriend's Collection, our favorite one was the Sincerely Me Choker with the thick denim. But it didn't sell as well as some of the other ones did. We all thought our least favorite was the Aladdin one, and that was the one that sold first. It was just so funny to think that our opinions of what we think is going to happen end up never happening. But yet I'm not getting penalized for that necessarily. Nobody is going to be writing a review about how ugly the Sincerely Me choker is. It just maybe might not sell as quickly as the other ones. But that's fine. That's cool with me, you know? And so the pressure is so off in that way. I think it's really beautiful because I get to have this creative outlet where I don't actually have to feel bad ever.
So, if you had any choice in the world, living or dead, who would you love to collaborate with?
I think I would choose somebody like Kate Hudson. Because, she has a company and I feel like I would learn a lot from her. She's a really fun, fun-loving kind of goofy person. Her personality seems like she's kind of warm and inviting, but at the same time, she's a business woman. She also started acting when she was really little. And I kind of love her relationship with her mom. I think that it would be really fun, it would just be fun and I would want to learn from her and her Fabletic collection and line and how she came up with that and kind of pick her brain. I feel like I could learn so much from her. But yet have fun hanging around her. I feel like Beyoncé would be another person who I could learn so much from. But I feel like I would be so nervous around her, that I would not enjoy it. I would be like, "I'm around Beyoncé." Whereas I feel like Kate Hudson is somebody who's a little bit more approachable. With Kate Hudson I feel like I could be her best friend. Every other person I think I would be on edge the whole time.
Lastly, what's one piece of practical advice you'd give somebody interested in starting in the entertainment business and what's one piece of inspirational advice?
The practical advice would be to get an agent and know what your type is. I think that some people struggle so much with their type. Where they really want to be an ingenue. And you're like, it's okay, you're not an ingenue. If you're more of a character actress, be more of the best friend. If you're more of whatever, then totally market yourself that way. Like I'm never going to be the Laura Osnes ingenue type, and that's okay. Because that's not what I am. You have to first accept that, and then start moving on and trying to think, "Okay, how do I market myself then?"
As far as getting an agent, get it as fast as you possibly can, because they're going to open up all these doors if you want to be in TV, if you want to be in film, if you want to do readings, if you want to get out there more. You have so many more opportunities, you won't waste any time.
How would you advise going about getting an agent? Because I think a lot of people can hear that and even think that, but have absolutely no idea how to even go about doing that.
It depends on what city you're in. I think if you're in New York and LA, you need a recommendation. So you would need somebody to recommend you to their agency, which is so much harder. Or you do a show in the city and then find a friend to recommend you to come see you in a show. Or you can old school submit, which is what I did in Chicago. And I got a bunch of agents from submitting a headshot and resume. I even got a very small agency when I was in Mamma Mia. I had a postcard and took a picture of me pointing to the marquee, because it was like, okay, that's a selling point that I'm in a Broadway show. Maybe somebody will want to represent me. Something like that. So you have to really just get yourself out there.
Then also just be nice, because your career a lot of times ends up being a lot about connections. And, you can't get past a certain line if you're just mean and hard to work with and people don't like you and you have a terrible reputation.
And this is the inspirational one: just be yourself. Which seems so simple. But it's so difficult because people are always asking you who do you admire, who do you look up to, who are your inspirations? And, I think people try and emulate those people. Which I think is amazing because you can get little bits of inspiration from other artists. But at the same time, at the end of the day, they're going to cast you based on you. And I think a lot of times you look at a break down and it says all these things that aren't you at all. And you're thinking, "Well they're never going to cast me, okay, I have to be more like this."
But at the end of the day you have to be you, with a touch of whatever this character that you think is, and your interpretation. They're going to end up casting you as you anyway. The right role is going to come around, even if it's years, or you didn't age into the roles that you're right for yet, or something like that. But your time will come. I think that for most people, they just have to keep that in mind.
You're phenomenal and this was amazing. It's such a pleasure talking to you. I kind of want to just hang out with you.
Right? Am I pulling a Kate Hudson right now (laughs)?
Yes, 100% (laughs).
Stay tuned for more interviews with the Gagged Girl Gang over the month of January! And follow Courtney's journey (@rhodesreed) as she closes this chapter with Aladdin and moves on to even bigger and brighter things! We wish her all the best and can't wait to see what she'll do next!
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.