Diversity in film is important, but in animation, it carries an even heavier, different message. Since animation is mainly geared towards children, it is even more important to have characters of different races, ethnicities and religions to inspire kids all around the world.
As kids growing up in different regions of the United States, Shoba Narayan and Michael Maliakel shared a love of one favorite film: Aladdin. Both are of Indian descent, and in the animated movie, they saw people who looked like them.
That shared love has gone full-circle this month as Narayan and Maliakel lead the Broadway company of the musical Aladdin out of the pandemic, playing Princess Jasmine and the hero from the title, respectively.
“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,” says Narayan, who grew up in Pennsylvania.
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.”
Broadway’s Aladdin is a musical adaptation of the 1992 movie starring Robin Williams. The musical’s story by Chad Beguelin hews close to the film: A street urchin finds a genie in a lamp and hopes to woo a princess while staying true to his values and away from palace intrigue.
Key Alan Menken songs from the film – including “Friend Like Me,” “Prince Ali” and “A Whole New World” – are used. The lyricists are the late Howard Ashman, Tim Rice and Beguelin.
The show – and its two new leads – had a few performances to celebrate Broadway’s return from the pandemic this fall before it was forced to close for several days when breakthrough COVID-19 cases were detected. The actors say the safety of the cast, crew and audience are paramount and closing was the smart move.
“This is how we keep theater going in the pandemic,” Maliakel says. “The other option is to just not do it at all. And that’s not an option. A week’s worth of lost performances, when we look back on things in a year or so, I think will just be a little blip on the radar.”
They both look back with heart-thumping appreciation at the early performances when they welcomed back theater-starved audiences, who gave the company 3-minute standing ovations just for singing “A Whole New World.”
“It is every brown girl’s dream to be singing that song on an actual flying carpet,” says Narayan. “And the fact that I got to do it on Broadway in the full costume with the lights and the 32-piece orchestra beneath me – oh, my gosh, I really had to hold it together. It was emotional overload for me.”
Maliakel recalls that he and his brothers wore out their VHS cassette version of Aladdin. He remembers having lunchboxes, pajamas and bed sheets with the film’s theme. Aladdin was “every little brown kid’s prince.” Now he is that prince.
“Now, finally, to get to get paid to do it on the world’s largest stage – it’s not lost on me how crazy that is,” he says. “The responsibility of my position right now feels really great. This moment sort of feels bigger than me in some ways, and I don’t take that lightly. I think it’s a really exciting time.”
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