Interview: Shoba Narayan on Her Historic Ascent to Aladdin on Broadway
Narayan is the first South Asian actor to play Princess Jasmine on Broadway.
When theaters shut down in March 2020, Shoba Narayan was over at the Gershwin Theatre donning the slippers of Nessarose in Wicked. Fast-forward 18 months and now Narayan is at the New Amsterdam, flying the magic carpet in Aladdin as Princess Jasmine. Jasmine is an iconic role, one that Narayan always longed to play. On Broadway, she's making a little bit of history in the process, becoming the production's very first South Asian leading lady. Here, she tells us about this dream come true, and how it will enable her to inspire other young women with similar backgrounds, who can now see a person who looks like them on the Great White Way.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Was Jasmine a dream role for you?
Absolutely. Oh, my gosh. I dreamt of being Princess Jasmine. I grew my hair out as a young girl to be like her. I dressed up like her multiple times for Halloween. My mom has stitched me costumes. I was belting "A Whole New World" in my house at a very young age. So yes, of course, it is a dream come true. I never could have anticipated this happening, especially coming out of the pandemic. I'm super pleasantly surprised and thrilled to be coming back from the pandemic to a show like Aladdin, that gives you all the nostalgia and the beautiful Disney orchestrations. It sends goosebumps up my arm. And to be singing "A Whole New World" and seeing this below you — seeing the shooting star — and hearing the live orchestra, it's so stunning.
You were in Wicked as theaters shut down, and now you're in Aladdin. What is it like to go from one mega-musical to another?
[laughs] That's my life. Wicked is one show that definitely has a way about it, and the other shows I've done have been more from the ground up. Like Great Comet, I was there at the beginning. And my company of Hamilton, we all rehearsed together and launched that tour. For Aladdin, technically I'm a replacement, but because of the shutdown and the fact that we had to remount the show, I got the entire rehearsal process to bond with the cast and work with the creative team. Our show looks so clean and the relationships have more specificity, so that rehearsal time was really great. In addition to that, we've made some changes to the book to make sure that what we're doing in the show is politically correct.
Tell me about that.
Just fixing some stuff in the script and production that, in 2021, we should be a little bit more cognizant of. As an actor, it's tricky to have these conversations, especially when you're in the minority, and I'm a minority among minorities, so if something feels off to me, I really have to explain it well to those who might not understand it or might have overlooked it for so long. It was just a series of conversations about "could that line be adjusted?" or how things can be pronounced in a way that's more authentic to where these places are.
It's a unique position that I'm in now, because up until this point, they never had a South Asian person leading the cast. I feel I have a responsibility while I'm in the building. I went through all the right channels and the people who are running the show care deeply about making things right. It was very interesting to be part of that. I grew up singing Alan Menken songs. He shaped my childhood. The fact that I'm coming in at this time. And having these kinds of conversations with icons has been a really amazing experience.
Knowing that you're the first South Asian actor to play Jasmine on Broadway, and knowing that there are going to be women like yourself seeing that, what does it mean to you?
It means everything. A huge motivator for wanting to pursue this path was to hopefully be the person that I didn't have growing up for the next generation. Not seeing anyone that looks like me was one of the hardest things growing up because, like…Can I do this? Are people going to see me? It took a lot of pounding the pavement and rejection and getting back up and trying again, but I'm finally here and I'm super thrilled.
So to be that face and to show them what's possible…I truly believe that you can't be what you can't see. By seeing someone succeed on the world's biggest stage, in a principal role, and seeing yourself as that person, it opens the possibilities. It lets your mind go there to believe that you can, one day, be doing the same thing. I had a girl come to the stage door yesterday with tears in her eyes and she was just like, "I've never seen anyone that looks like you starring in a Broadway show. I'm in musical-theater school and I was terrified, but now my whole mindset has shifted." And I told her it could be her one day. To be able to say that to someone and have them know that it's actually a possibility means everything.