Jelani Alladin nearly quit the stage after his first gig, playing the Cat in the Hat in the New Canaan High School Theatre’s production of “Seussical” in the fall of his sophomore year.
An ABC House of New Canaan student from Brooklyn who had met his elective requirement the prior spring by playing lacrosse—and was, in his own words, “terrible at” it—Alladin already was active in NCHS choir and Madrigals.
Yet the teen found himself unable to gauge whether musical theater was something in which he truly excelled.
“I thought, ‘That was a lot of work’ and ‘I don’t know if I want to do that,’ ” Alladin, a 2010 NCHS graduate who is now 24, recalled on Tuesday evening.
He said as much to his friend Brooke Singman’s mother, Roberta, as the two approached each other in the long hallway behind the NCHS auditorium after “Seussical” had closed. Auditions for the winter show, “Brigadoon,” were about two weeks away, and when Alladin told Roberta Singman that he didn’t want to do it, she told the teenager something that he’s never forgotten: “If you do not audition for this show, you are walking away from your future.”
His casting in the widely anticipated show—in the male lead role, no less—marks a major personal and professional milestone for a young man whose life changed dramatically as an ABC student at New Canaan High School.
Gracious, considerate, magnetic, diligent and, perhaps most of all, true to an undeniable and powerful natural talent, Alladin is said by those who forged lifelong bonds with him here in town to have been destined for musical theater’s biggest stage.
“He was far more mature and had a lot more grit than the other kids his age,” Dee Alexander, drama coordinator at NCHS, said of her prodigy.
“He was very focused, had great concentration skills and great time management. He never procrastinated or left anything to the last minute, so right out of the gate, you know with a kid like that, they’re special because they’re approaching the art form very differently. And he really gave of himself 100 percent: He was in every show, he came in every Saturday to do ‘tech’—sets, props, costumes. He’s really just a wonderful young man and I’m so proud.”
Of Alladin’s casting in “Frozen,” she added: “None of this surprised me when I heard. I thought, ‘Of course, how exciting and how well-deserved.’ As beautiful as he is on the outside, he is even more on the inside.”
He came very close to missing his vocation entirely.
Alladin had been singing all his life in church, mostly in the United Faith Evangelic Ministry on Herzl Street in the Brownsville section of his native Brooklyn.
As an eighth-grader, at the very time he had to apply to get into a specialized high school in the New York City system, his mother went suddenly to the hospital to have her appendix out (she’s fine).
Confronted by an intimidating stack of paperwork, Alladin recalled, “I didn’t know what to do, and I filled it out wrong.”
What that meant was, barring a miracle, he would go to his designated “zone” school, which offered no arts program at all at the time.
Enter “A Better Chance.”
Alladin’s older cousin from Brooklyn had availed herself of the ABC program, attending Northfield Mount Hermon in Massachusetts (and then Dartmouth), and he’d traveled with his family to drop her off at school. It was a seminal moment for the young Alladin.
“I saw the campus and saw the potential of life beyond Brooklyn,” he recalled.
So he applied to ABC, and was called in for an interview—a memorable one for New Canaanite Melinda Fager, then-president of the organization’s board and a member of its recruiting committee.
“I had no idea about his artistic talent but he had such confidence and poise and humility all at the same time, and he just was this bright beam, and we wanted him,” Melinda Fager recalled.
Melinda Fager soon would get to know Alladin even better, as he and her daughter Charlotte made Arthur Sjogren’s Madrigals as freshmen and became close friends.
That year, Melinda Fager recalled, she drove the kids to and from Madrigals—car trips during which Alladin’s genuine interest in music became clear. The teens talked about the music they learned in Sjogren’s program, analyzed it while they were laughing on trips back and forth to NCHS.
“It was just the highlight of my week in driving them,” she recalled.
Meanwhile, Melinda Fager said, she watched as under Alexander’s schooling and mentorship, Alladin developed and showed rare talent.
“I think everybody thought, ‘This guy is really going to go for it’—a lot of kids in high school show talent, but there was something about him where you felt that the drive is genuine. ‘He is going to pursue this.’ ”
He did, under Alexander’s watchful eye.
“She took me under her wing, fostered my talent and made sure I realized what gifts I naturally had,” Alladin recalled. “She selected shows that stretched my talent. I had no clue I had the capability.”
In rehearsing for “Cabaret,” for example, in his junior year at NCHS, Alladin recalled that Alexander told him” “You are the leading man, the lead of the show and we will tap.”
He’d never tap-danced before, but picked it up, performed and felt confident enough at the end of his junior year to pursue a summer program at New York University. (He would go on to earn a bachelor’s degree in acting from NYU in 2014.)
The time that Alexander gave to Alladin is one example of the quality that the actor-singer-dancer said he associates most with New Canaan: generosity.
“I think it’s something I will never take for granted is how generous so many people in that community have been to me specifically,” Alladin told NewCanaanite.com. “In giving me rides home from school and making sure no matter what, I had a place to rest, a place of friendship, of second family. My host family that ABC gives you, I love them so much and I’ll go see them, I come to New Canaan at Christmas or Thanksgiving. The number of families that touched my life from that community is endless.”
For Marianne Grandin, Alladin’s “host mom” for all four years of high school here, the feeling is mutual. The boys in ABC live in the residence on Locust Avenue during the week, and then go to their host families’ homes after school on Friday, staying until Monday morning when they head straight back to school. The students in the program return to their homes for the summer and for most breaks and long weekends, too.
Grandin described ABC as “such a rewarding experience for my family” that continues to reward.
She has three of her own sons—two older than Alladin and one younger—and “they really kind of grew up like siblings.”
“They will get together occasionally, independently, or we will all get together as a family,” Grandin said.
“Jelani has become such a part of the family that my mother-in-law and husband’s sisters—they live locally and we would often celebrate the holidays together, or have barbecues on the patio—they know him and he’s part of the extended family.”
Grandin said people who knew her would marvel that with three boys already, she was signing up to “take one more.”
“And it’s like old cliché: We got much more out of it than we put in,” she said. “One extra person did not seem like a big adjustment. We got to know the other ABC boys through the program. It’s just been great.”
And it also was great to watch Alladin flourish from the moment he found musical theater.
“He just seemed so natural and so comfortable and that he was having so much fun,” recalled Grandin, who attended Alladin’s NCHS shows and since then has traveled to Washington, D.C. and elsewhere to watch him perform in regional and summer theater. “There was not that nervousness of performing that a lot of people experience. From the get-go, he was just having a ball. Of course I am speaking as a proud host mother, but I think people will tell you independently how gifted he is and where he is today is a reflection of that.”
In fact, that’s exactly what they say.
Alladin opened up as a person through his years at NCHS, according to the person he himself called his “best friend,” Charlotte Fager.
“I have just seen him over the last 10 years blossom like nobody else I know,” she said. “He’s always been a beautiful person from the beginning and he’s always been confident. I think that’s been the most important thing, is that he knows he has this ability.”
A reserved person when he entered New Canaan High School, Charlotte Fager recalled that her friend was instantly excited as a member of Madrigals.
“It was like the end of his shyness and the beginning of this brand new person,” she recalled. “I don’t remember it ever being dull, it was Jelani trying everything and excelling with everything. He was an amazing dancer, actor and it wasn’t necessarily that he had the best skills from the beginning—he really was starting from scratch—but he just went all out for everything he did.”
And importantly, though he’s driven and self confident, Alladin “doesn’t take one step without looking around, seeing who is there, thanking everyone around him and praising everyone around him,” Charlotte Fager said.
“He wants to lift everyone else up around him. He has an incredible way—even though he was pretty much the most talented person in our class, he made us all feel good and acting on stage was always so much fun, singing was so much fun, he was always trying to collaborate and get other people to sing.”
That gregariousness extended beyond the NCHS auditorium in New Canaan.
Grandin called Alladin “a kind and grateful and gracious person.”
“Even as a teenager, even at 14 years old, when kids can be a little surly, he is unique in that he is just a joyful person, a grateful person and an uplifting person,” she said. “I have never seen him cross or angry or raise his voice or hopeless. He really is a spiritual person and he trusts that if you work hard, you will succeed and that in this day and age of all the teenagers and 20-somethings I have observed is a really unique gift.”
There’s also “nobody that meets him that doesn’t love him,” she added.
“When he was here a couple of weeks, we were invited to a neighbor’s Halloween party up the road and I thought, ‘Hm, Jelani is here and we shouldn’t leave him,’ then we ring the doorbell and our neighbor’s granddaughter answers and says ‘Hey, Jelani, come on in.’ Everywhere we would go—go to the pizza place in town, Pinocchio’s– and the guy behind counter would say, ‘Jelani, you haven’t been here in a while. How is everything?’ It would leave my jaw dropped. That’s the kind of person he is.”
Soon enough, in a “pre-Broadway engagement” running Aug. 17 to Oct. 1 in Colorado, Alladin will be Kristoff, an iceman living with his reindeer companion, Sven.
The Fagers say they’re already talking about getting front-row center tickets for the New York City show.
Grandin said that on hearing the news about “Frozen”—a movie she’d heard about from various nieces—and that Alladin would play Kristoff, she told her husband Richard, “ ‘We better go see that movie because we have no idea who the characters are.’ ”
Alladin is living back home in Brooklyn now, and said he plans to move elsewhere in the city come fall.
He still marvels at the fact that his career trajectory—high school musicals, musical theater course work in college, summer and regional theater, now Broadway—almost didn’t happen.
“I didn’t know it existed,” Alladin said. “I didn’t know this was a profession, that I could make a career or living doing this. I didn’t know what acting was and I don’t know how I learned to dance—that is still a miracle to me.”