Having a healthy obsession with Aladdin isn’t all that abnormal, especially as a member of the Indian American community. As a young boy growing up in central New Jersey, Michael Maliakel was proud to be among the healthily obsessed, thanks in large part to his loving parents. “My family had the [Aladdin] bed sheets, the lunch boxes and pajama sets,” the actor remembers fondly. “There was nothing casual about our household’s obsession with the film. My brothers and I wore out our VHS tape of Aladdin.”
Never would Maliakel or his Aladdin-enabling family dream that one day, Maliakel would go on to become Aladdin. But last year, Maliakel—who made his Broadway debut in the 2017 world premiere musical adaptation of Monsoon Wedding—got the call equivalent to a wish from a genie.
Recalling when learned he landed the title role, Maliakel says “the whole thing was very surreal. A lot of people ask me if this was a dream role for me, starring on Broadway, and for so many years I didn’t allow myself to have that kind of dream because I didn’t want to get myself heartbroken. It’s hard to be that first person to do these things. There were so few people who looked like me succeeding in this business.”
Maliakel and his two brothers grew up not far from The Great White Way in Hamilton, New Jersey, to immigrant parents from Kerala. He caught the performance bug at an early age, initially immersing himself in choral and vocal chamber music before turning to theater in high school. Starring as Hemant in Monsoon Wedding, he says, “let the first under me to pursue this career full-time.”
Here, we talk to Maliakel about what he loves most about the Aladdin role, his favorite Aladdin song to sing, how he gets prepared before every performance and more!
When you decided to be a performer, how did your family and friends react?
When I got the role of Aladdin specifically, I honestly think my family was more excited than me, if that’s even possible. My mom was the one that would drive me to my piano lessons that really scraped the pennies together for my first voice lesson and has been my champion in this field from the get go. I feel that this moment is for her as much as it is for me.
What do you love about your character?
This movie and this source material has been a foundational part of my childhood. When these auditions came to us for the Broadway show, it was like such an exciting moment to be like ‘I feel ready and excited to put my stamp and bring my lived experience and my culture onto that stage.’ Like Aladdin, we Indian Americans all share that sense of needing to prove ourselves; that we are worthy to take up these spaces that we are just as capable as filling these roles, of selling out gigantic theaters, and drawing crowds and telling beautifully rich, deep stories that encompass the whole human experience. In that respect, Aladdin’s story is sort of my story.
What is your favorite Aladdin song and why?
The song “Proud of your Boy” is really special to me because Aladdin’s really just striving to make his mom proud. I certainly feel that responsibility. I hope that everything I do, makes my parents proud. Before I got this role I used to sing “A Whole New World” whenever I did karaoke. And now I’m on a Broadway stage, getting paid to sing “A Whole New World,” I get goosebumps thinking about that.
What is going to surprise people about this show?
So many Indians who come to see our show, are shocked to hear that we actually are singing live on the stage. They are used to hearing or seeing Bollywood actors lip sync to the tracks that are sung.
How do you get hyped up before a show?
I am lucky enough to play the title character every night and he is basically onstage the whole time. There is singing, dancing and fight choreography. It requires a kind of athleticism. My goal as an actor is to be consistent with his performance so that all the audiences get the same top notch caliber theater experience every night. The things I eat, how much I eat, what the weather is like, if I was up too late the night before, all these things contribute to how the show goes. One must think about singing and dancing and acting as a physical sport for Broadway. Your body is the instrument. And so everything I do everything I put into my body influences my performance, and also how easy or hard it is for me to do my job every day.
What advice do you have for young people who are just starting their careers, specifically in relation to musical theater?
Don’t wait for an invitation. Don’t wait to be given permission. I think for so long I wouldn’t allow myself to entertain these big dreams because it seemed like spaces I wasn’t welcome in or designed for people like me. I put off for a long time committing to this art form because I didn’t want to put all my eggs in one basket without any example of what it might look like. – Trust that if you put in the hard work and hone your skillset as dedicated as you possibly can, trust that that there is aa space for you. Your voice deserves to be heard; you deserve to take uptake up these spaces. My hope is that being onstage at the New Amsterdam is that young children will show up and have the fuel to dream big and know that these opportunities are there for them and that they deserve to take up these spaces.”
See Aladdin on Broadway at the legendary New Amsterdam Theatre in New York City. For more information visit aladdinthemusical.com.