Actors of Indian descent lead Broadway’s “Aladdin”
Actors of Indian descent this month led the Broadway company of the musical Aladdin out of the pandemic.
Among them Shoba Narayan and Michael Maliakel, who as kids growing up in different states, shared a love of one favourite film — Aladdin —they saw people who looked like them. The two played Princess Jasmine and the hero from the title, respectively in the animated movie.
“Growing up, there was such little South Asian and Middle Eastern representation in the American media, and Princess Jasmine was really all I had. She was a huge role model to me as someone who was intelligent and strong and independent and beautifully curious, and that’s who I wanted to be,” Narayan, who grew up in Pennsylvania, told the VOA.
The pair arrived at Aladdin in very different ways. Maliakel is making his Broadway debut, but Narayan is a musical theater veteran, having made her Broadway debut in Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 and touring with Hamilton as Eliza Hamilton.
She was in Wicked as Nessarose when the pandemic shut down Broadway in March 2020. Her agent called in April with the prospect of auditioning for Jasmine. She sang “A Whole New World” over Zoom on gallery mode, pretending to be on a magic carpet. “It was a very unique experience,” she says, laughing.
Disney producers flew her to New York to meet face-to-face and go through the material again. Narayan was asked to read with different Aladdin potential actors. She got the gig: “I went from a wicked witch to a Disney princess. Can’t complain.”
Maliakel, a native of New Jersey, came from the world of opera, a baritone who studied at Johns Hopkins University and the 2014 winner at the National Musical Theatre Competition. He trained his voice to be flexible, waiting for the right window to open.
“I didn’t really see a lot of people doing what I wanted to do in the world,” he says. “There just wasn’t a whole lot of representation. So it’s really hard to imagine yourself in those scenarios when you have no one to look up to as a role model or an example of how it could be done.”
He played Porter and understudied Raoul in a national tour of The Phantom of the Opera, which ended its run in Toronto just before the pandemic hit.
“I always dreamed that Broadway might happen someday,” he says, laughing. “I’m just kind of dipping my toes into the waters in one of the biggest male roles in the business right now, and it’s kind of surreal.”