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30 years of ‘Aladdin’: The Yiddish actor behind the opening song, ‘Arabian Nights’

Most people think it’s the genie, played by Robin Williams, that sings it, but it’s actually the late beloved Yiddish actor, Bruce Adler

In 1992, an animated musical about a mischievous yet kind-hearted Arabian street urchin and the genie he befriends hit the screen, quickly becoming the highest-grossing film of the year.

The film, Aladdin, which turned 30 last weekend, is based on a collection of Middle Eastern folk tales called One Thousand and One Nights, often known in English as simply Arabian Nights.

Although it’s no secret that the voice of the genie was played by the late irrepressible comic, Robin Williams, few people know that the person singing the opening number, “Arabian Nights,” was the multi-talented actor of the Yiddish theater, Bruce Adler. Both Williams and Adler, sadly, died relatively young — in their early 60s.

Aladdin isn’t the only Disney film to showcase Adler’s voice. He’s also heard in Beauty and the Beast, and in the 1996 film Aladdin and the King of Thieves.

Adler was one of the few American actors to find success in both the Yiddish and American theater, thanks to his formidable skills as a singer, dancer, actor and comedian, an impressive blend which recalled for many the highly talented showmen of an earlier generation — Hollywood icons like Danny Kaye, Gene Kelly and the African American convert to Judaism who during his lifetime was often billed as “the greatest living entertainer in the world” — Sammy Davis Jr.

At one point in his career, Adler actually shared a dressing room with Davis and was deeply moved by the warm, respectful way the elder celebrity treated him, leading to a lifelong friendship. “Bruce loved Sammy and saw him as a true inspiration,” Adler’s widow, Amy London, told the Forward.

Once, during early rehearsals for the 1985 Yiddish-English musical The Golden Land, musical director Zalmen Mlotek taught Adler a vaudeville-inspired ditty called “Hootsa-tsa.” Bruce liked it. The show’s manager, Moishe Rosenfeld, suggested that the silly lyric could become the basis of a comedy shtick with jokes interspersed between the verses. Adler nodded, went home and transformed it into what would later become his signature act.

When he first performed it for Mlotek and Rosenfeld, the latter was dumbfounded. “It was a song and dance tour de force, peppered with Borsht Belt humor and Fred Astaire-like twirls and struts,” Rosenfeld said. Once Adler brought the act onto the stage, audiences were delighted.

Adler’s many talents also attracted the attention of the makers and shakers on Broadway. In 1991, his role in the Broadway musical revue Those Were The Days garnered him a Tony nomination and a Drama Desk Award. As The New York Times theater reviewer Richard F. Shepard wrote in his piece about the show: “What is there that this anchor man can’t do? He kazotskys, he soft-shoes, he fandangos, or something in reasonable facsimile. He makes the oldest jokes fresh and funny in his nonstop hoofer break-two-three-four vaudeville routine, ‘Hootsatsa.’ He plays the bemused restaurant customer who can’t find anything to eat in a Sholom Aleichem skit. Yiddish, English, whatever, he sets a funny pace. It is impossible to watch him without being seized by his infectious spirit, his complete enjoyment in what he is doing.”

Bruce Adler was born into a show business family in New York City in 1944. His parents, Henrietta Jacobson and Julius Adler, were stars of the old Yiddish Rialto along Second Avenue in the East Village neighborhood of Manhattan. As Adler explained in a 2005 interview, he began his theatrical career at the precocious age of 3. He was sitting in the audience with his nanny, watching his father on stage singing an unexpectedly humorous number about Neila, the final Yom Kippur prayer.

“I had heard that song so often, I began to sing, too,” Adler said. “The audience loved it.” From then on he was part of his parents’ act.

“I was always in them,” Adler said. “At first I would be the young boy in the first act and later the young adult in the second act who marries the shiksa.”

In 1979, Adler made his Broadway debut as the peddler Ali Hakim in the Broadway production of Oklahoma!, and after that he landed roles in other Broadway musicals like Sunday in the Park with George (1984).

In 1992, the same year Aladdin came out, he won two Tony Award nominations for his work in Those Were the Days and Crazy for You (1992) and ended up staying with the latter for its entire four-year run on Broadway. At the same time, he continued playing in Yiddish-themed productions, including The Golden Land, On Second Avenue (1987) and The Rise of David Levinsky (1987) – a play based on a novel by the Forward’s first editor-in-chief, Ab Cahan.

Then in July 2008, at the height of his career, Bruce Adler was struck down by liver cancer at age 63, leaving behind his second wife, Amy, whom he had married in 2003, a toddler son, Jake, and two stepchildren.

Ironically, just weeks earlier, he had had to cancel a commitment to play a role that would have been so perfect for him — as Tevye, in a summer stock production of Fiddler on the Roof.

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