“I am not a prize to be won!”
As a child, Isabelle McCalla would run around her home reciting Princess Jasmine’s iconic line after each viewing of Disney’s “Aladdin,” enamored with the story and enchanted by its leading lady. Now, she stars in her first major role as Jasmine in the national tour for the Broadway musical “Aladdin,” which opened at the SHN Orpheum Theatre on Nov. 1.
McCalla shared in a phone interview with The Daily Californian that although she long aspired to be the animated Jasmine, even owning a stuffed version of Jasmine’s tiger Rajah, she acknowledged that the musical made important updates to the character. She cites the fact that Jasmine and Aladdin are older in the musical than in the 1992 film and that Jasmine’s personality is allocated more spunk and irreverence, which keeps the on-stage Jasmine from coming across as two-dimensional.
“It was really important for me to make Jasmine as real and truthful as possible and not make her a caricature. There needs to be a distinction between the animated film and the stage version,” McCalla said.
Having just performed at a children’s hospital in Seattle before the interview, McCalla recounted her many experiences with young girls who look up to her as Princess Jasmine. After shows, girls dressed in Jasmine costumes would wait for her stage-door exit to meet “the real thing.” Her favorite interactions, she shared, would be with the girls who would approach her to affirm that women should be able to run kingdoms, just like Jasmine. Part of Jasmine’s importance as a character is that she is a role model for women everywhere, McCalla claimed.
“Jasmine is one of the only Disney princesses that doesn’t necessarily want to be a princess. She would rather go out and learn more about the world, or fall in love with whoever she wants to fall in love with,” she explained. “She keeps constantly challenging the monarchy, and I think that’s wonderful.”
In conjunction with her own childhood devotion to “Aladdin,” McCalla was also drawn to the musical by the creative forces behind it. She cited an admiration of Alan Menken, famed for the compositions of “The Little Mermaid” (1989) and “Little Shop of Horrors” (1982), who composed the scores for “Aladdin” (both the film and the new songs added to the musical). She also claimed to be a fan of “Aladdin” director Casey Nicholaw, who also directed “The Book of Mormon,” “Something Rotten” and “The Drowsy Chaperone.” McCalla first became familiar with the new music Menken wrote for the musical when she performed Jasmine’s “These Palace Walls” in college; from this, she fell in love with the song’s tone and message.
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Though McCalla said she identifies as more of a “street rat” than princess in real life, she shared that Jasmine’s wedding dress truly makes her feel like royalty. Weighing more than 12 pounds because of its ornate beading, the outfit is but one in the show’s overwhelming count of more than 300 costumes. In the musical number “Prince Ali” alone, more than 100 costume changes occur in less than one minute.
“I honestly didn’t expect it to be as magical to me as it was,” she said.
The Disney magic extends far beyond costuming. “We really are flying,” McCalla said of the infamous carpet ride during “A Whole New World,” which is given a new exuberance and grandeur in the musical.
McCalla also explained what she feels with each carpet ride — “It hits in that moment that this is what I get to do for a living.”
Though McCalla described the nervous giddiness she felt her first carpet ride, she shared that the experience of singing one of her favorite songs on the flying carpet with Adam Jacobs, who originated the role of Aladdin on Broadway before joining the touring company, was “a dream come true.”
McCalla lauded the musical’s emphasis on travel as a form of education, as epitomized by the lyrics of “A Whole New World.” Yet she claimed that this was but one of many important morals in “Aladdin.”
“Don’t be complacent with the laws in the land. Keep questioning. Keep pushing the buttons,” she said. “I guess it’s all about forward motion. It’s all about growth and learning and curiosity and nurturing that.”
McCalla stated that these messages are applicable to all who may come to see “Aladdin.” And while audiences may go to the musical for the classic tale or Disney magic, she said that audiences may also be surprised by how funny the show is, even more so than the animated film.
“We have audiences who are just cackling the entire time, they just can’t get enough of it,” she said.
Ultimately, McCalla focused upon the musical’s heart-filled core, identifying a key theme in the familiar adage of not judging a book by its cover. Each of the main characters, she argued, overcomes the limits and expectations confining their respective lives — providing a strong message for audience members to internalize.
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“I would like people to walk away with a sense of possibility and knowing that you shouldn’t be defined by your circumstances, and you shouldn’t judge other people by their circumstances. I think that’s displayed by Aladdin, the Genie and Jasmine themselves,” McCalla said. “Leave with a sense of possibility that you can change your life.”
Aladdin runs through Jan. 7, 2018, at the SHN Orpheum Theater.