Shoba Narayan Stars as Jasmine in Broadway Hit ‘Aladdin’

NEW YORK: Shoba Narayan first faced the limits of being a South Asian woman in musical theater when she was only 13.

Her school had decided to stage a production of The Wizard of Oz, and Narayan told her friends she wanted to try out for the role of Dorothy. It wouldn’t happen, her classmates responded, because “Dorothy isn’t brown.”

“I realized during that experience how much representation mattered at that time and I realized how much my ethnicity played a role in my participation in theater,” Narayan said.

The experience was a “turning point,” said Narayan, and put her down a path of fighting for lead roles in musicals and making history along the way. Last year, she was cast as the first South Asian actress in Broadway history to play Princess Jasmine in Aladdin.

After graduating from the Boston Conservatory at Berklee in 2012, Narayan moved to New York where she performed in theater productions and on television.

Her Broadway career began when she was cast as Natasha in Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, and she made history in that show in 2017 as the first South Asian woman in a lead role on Broadway since Bombay Dreams in 2004.

Narayan then starred as Eliza Hamilton in Hamilton and was Nessarose in Wicked before taking the role of Princess Jasmine in September 2021. She stars alongside Michael Maliakel, who is making history of his own as the show’s first South Asian Aladdin.

Since being cast as Princess Jasmine, Narayan has committed to bringing her culture and perspective as a South Asian woman to the role.

The two actresses who were cast in the role prior to Narayan, Courtney Reed and Arielle Jacobs, are both of partial Asian descent. But Narayan has brought certain changes to the show that reflect her South Asian background.

“I spoke to Disney about some lines that could be shifted to be made a little bit more sensitive to the audience that may come in. They’re small shifts, but I think it will make broader audiences feel welcomed,” she said.

For example, Aladdin is set in a kingdom named Agrabah. In the show, it was often pronounced with an “a” sound like “apple,” rather than an “ah” sound like “olive.” Agrabah, of course, is a fictional city. But the cities and places in the Middle East and South Asia that inspired the name have a certain pronunciation, Narayan said — and she wanted that reflected in the show.

Narayan said she also tweaked some of the choreography that was inspired by Bollywood dance to make it more specific.

“Things like that, I wanted to make sure while I’m in the show, how can I help audiences who may be from our background feel a little bit more like they’re being represented properly,” Narayan said.

COVID-19 has hit theater and Broadway performances hard. Several shows have been on and off for more than a year. And recently, at the start of the omicron variant, Aladdin and other shows like Hamilton and Hadestown canceled all performances until after Christmas

But despite the difficulties, there have still been moments of joy and celebration.

One that was particularly notable for Narayan was Aladdin celebrating Diwali last November. In a pre-show address to the audience, Narayan talked about the significance of the festival of lights around the world. After the show, she and Maliakel took questions from the audience about Diwali.

“As someone who grew up as a minority in this very specific culture and then wanted to be a part of this very specific community, to kind of bring the two parts of myself together was a very emotional thing for me to do,” she said. — NPR