Disney seeking diversity on Broadway recruits Indian talent

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Michael Maliakel as Aladdin in ‘Aladdin on Broadway’. PHOTO Credit: Matthew Murphy © Disney (provided)

When New York’s Theater District on Broadway reopened in September of 2021 after the lock down during the pandemic, Disney’s musical ‘Aladdin’ brought a new feature to it, Indian American actors.

Having Michael Maliakel play Aladdin and Shoba Narayan play Jasmine, was a revolutionary turn. Aladdin’ had been playing for close to 7 years before that. But since 2021, it has been playing with Indian American singing actors in the lead. When Narayan lenft, Sonya Balsara replaced her as Jasmine. That is a groundbreaking occurrence. That is also an achievement for Indian American music professionals.

Completing its 9-year run on Broadway, ‘Aladdin’  opened at the New Amsterdam Theater on March 20, 2014. The diversity trend is even more striking considering that in these 9 years, there have been more than 3,100 performances viewed by more than 4 million people, making ‘Aladdin’ one of the Top 20 longest Broadway runs.

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The infusion of Indian talent on just this one Disney production will have a global exposure. ‘Aladdin’ will also travel abroad to Tokyo, Madrid, and Mexico City, and the U.K. More than 16 million people in different parts of the world have already seen the musical in their countries. ‘Aladdin’ will also tour other cities in the U.S.

This shift in cast selection signals a breakthrough for Indian American aspiring talents. As Michael Maliakel had said in an earlier interview with News India Times, people at this production “Were open minded enough to think why shouldn’t an Indian American kid lead a Broadway show, be the romantic lead, be the object of desire, in this storyline.”

‘Aladdin’ lead actors have also carried a huge responsibility of representing a whole community and culture, and setting an example for those to come. In the same earlier interview, Maliakel had said, “I have to be the best, because if I am not, it reflects poorly on the rest of my community. It is not right to the other people that are in school now, are growing up, and hope to do what I do now.”

That the lead actors of ‘Aladdin’ are exceptional singers and performers, singing live every night for the whole duration of the show, is a known fact. This stage production of ‘Aladdin’ includes the five popular songs from Disney’s animated film ‘Aladdin’ which was released in 1992. The film has won the Oscar for Best Original Score and also the Academy Award for Best Original Song for  ‘A Whole New World.’

Children of all ages and cultures seem to enjoy Disney’s modernized fairytales. It seems, in their own ways, Disney has kept pace with the changing times and made girls and young women more real, asking questions, undertaking adventures, doing what they want, making independent decisions about their lives, and not submitting to any old-fashioned expectations of them, just as Jasmine does in ‘Aladdin’.

The old tale of Aladdin from the One Thousand and One Arabian Nights stories was an intimidating story of a villainous uncle who buries Aladdin alive in a cave. Disney’s Aladdin is a young man who is enterprising, friendly, creative, and adventurous. Add to it a little bit of fantasy which always helps imagination. Enter a little magic in the form of a genie and a flying carpet.

Young audiences are drawn in right from the first scene, and are totally involved in the adventures of Aladdin and Jasmine. The animated film might have seemed far removed from real life, but the Broadway show has brought Aladdin and Jasmine up close and personal as real persons. Things happen to them live in front of the audiences, as they sing live through the length of the show. Audiences have not required any forced suspension of disbelief. The lead actors of ‘Aladdin’ have spoken about this.

Michael Maliakel (Aladdin) and Shoba Narayan (Jasmine)_photo by Matthew Murphy, (c) Disney

The magic comes more close to heart of the young Indian American audiences with both Aladdin and Jasmine looking like them, making the  Broadway show extremely successful among young Indian Americans and their parents. Its cast has evoked pride in their Indian origin and  brought a hope and conviction that some day they can grow up and get a chance to be part of art and culture, of the mainstream entertainment industry.

More importantly, the Broadway show ‘Aladdin’ has exposed children to different cultures of the world, and enlarged their world, creating a deeper understanding of people in other parts of the world.

‘Aladdin’ has taken the fancy of most of the audiences by its remarkable special effects on stage, especially the flying carpet. Aladdin and Jasmine have flown over 100 miles on that magic carpet singing ‘A Whole New World’, according to Disney. The Genie has set off more than 115,000 pyrotechnics in the song ‘Friend Like Me’. And, according to Disney, more than 200,000 costume changes were made in fractions of seconds for the Act Two opener ‘Prince Ali’.

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