A tagline for AIDA reading "Epic love transcends ancient borders" with an image of Heather Headley from the original production inside the capitalised word, "EPIC."

Based on Antonio Ghislanzoni and Giuseppe Verdi’s opera of the same name, Aida premiered on Broadway on 23 March 2000, following developmental runs in Atlanta and Chicago. A children’s storybook adaptation of the opera by Leontyne Price inspired this retelling of the opera, which Disney originally intended to produce as an animated film. The musical features a book by Linda Woolverton, Robert Falls and David Henry Hwang, and a score featuring music by Elton John and lyrics by Tim Rice. The original Broadway production ran for a total of 1 852 performances.

The Story

Love, power, and destiny collide in a timeless tale retold in a contemporary idiom.

In the Egyptian wing of a modern art museum, a man and a woman touring the exhibit catch each other’s eyes. A statue of Amneris, a female Pharaoh, comes to life and transports the audience to ancient Egypt, where Egyptian army captain Radames is returning from an expedition through the land of Nubia, where he has captured the majestic Aida, the daughter of the Nubian king. Radames sends Aida to serve Amneris as a handmaiden. His father, Zoser, has arranged for him to marry her so that he can have greater power in Egypt. As Aida and Radames come to know each other, they fall in love. Aida’s loyalty to her people causes her to question her growing affection for Radames, who feels he is betraying Amneris and his family. Even so, the two succumb to their feelings. When Amneris’s father, the reigning Pharaoh, discovers their forbidden love, he sentences Aida and Radames to death. Unable to pardon them, Amneris convinces her father to let Aida and Radames die together – an act of mercy for two people she has come to love – and the lovers are buried alive beneath the sands of Egypt. Facing death, Radames swears he will search for a hundred lifetimes to find Aida again. Back in the museum, the spirit of Amneris watches the man and woman, the reincarnations of Aida and Radames, find love once more.


Aida is a musical with a strong fan following, but it also attracts a great deal of criticism in regard to both its book and score, despite the latter having won a Tony Award for Elton John and Tim Rice. The criticisms levelled at the book of the show often hold true when watching the show or reading the script. It is, at times, melodramatic in a way that doesn’t serve the show, with dialogue that tends to be trite – observational of the vital thematic ideas in the show, but somewhat lacking depth and complexity in actual dialogue – as the show shifts from one musical number to the next.

Perhaps this is unsurprising given that the bulk of the heavy lifting was done by Linda Woolverton, who had worked on a quintet of Disney films prior to Aida, including Beauty and the Beast, which she adapted for its 1994 stage incarnation. Woolverton’s strength lies in the conceptualisation of a story’s core imagery. She struggles to tailor her writing to style, genre and situation and to flesh out her core images into what Walt Disney would have described, in “Imagineering” terms, as the fourth level of detail, which is completely immersive in a complex and fully realised manner. It is this goal that the show’s Broadway director, Robert Falls, and acclaimed playwright, David Henry Hwang, tried to achieve with their fixes and tweaks as the show developed from its original version into what premiered on Broadway.

The score offers some delights in songs like “Enchantment Passing Through” and “Elaborate Lives.” There is a delicious understanding of camp in “My Strongest Suit,” and even the philosophical, but perhaps overly sentimental pop ballad “Written in the Stars” lands. Rice’s lyrics offer his usual mix of perceptive statements and dubious rhymes, but there is no doubt that John’s music gives Aida its heart and soul.

Looking at the show today, the overall treatment of the narrative might have been better suited to the conventions of rock operas like Jesus Christ Superstar or Evita than a more conventional book musical. Indeed, Aida all but sets itself up as such in its medley of opening numbers, “Every Story is a Love Story,” which segues directly into “Fortune Favours the Brave.” It is a pity that the show does not follow through on this proposal. John’s choice to use such a diverse range of popular music styles alongside an eclectic mix of cultural musical signifiers in the score would also make more sense within the rock opera style. Book musicals in the musical play format tend to guide an audience into a more integrated although still heightened state of believability, while the post-modern approach of rock operas frees up an audience to suspend their disbelief in a different way.

David Fick

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