Destination Broadway: Michael Maliakel’s journey

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Pretending to be Aladdin

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

“I have never seen such large numbers of audience in a Broadway theater before. It reminds me that I have a responsibility to represent my community, that I don’t have the luxury of being phony or being lazy, ” said Michael Maliakel to News India Times in an exclusive interview.

“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,” he said.

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Maliakel plays the lead role of Aladdin in the Broadway (New York City) musical Aladdin. “I like seeing so many brown faces in the audience. I see aunties coming in saris, and their grandkids dressed as Jasmine and Aladdin,” Maliakel said. “This is a really exciting time. It is long overdue that we are represented as the fully diverse and beautifully rich human experience that we can contribute to the performing arts,” he said.

Maliakel said he feels immense gratitude for the people that have paved the way for him. “I am thankful to the people that 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,” he said. Aladdin has been on Broadway for about six months, and its 200th show is coming up.

Being the first Indian American in a lead role on a Broadway show has been breaking barriers for Maliakel. As an Indian American, Maliakel has also broken the barriers of traditional careers chosen by the young of Indian descent, many-a-times under parental pressure. “I owe my parents for being so open minded, surrounded as they were by their siblings and other Indian parents,” Maliakel said. “They really understood and encouraged us to pursue what it was that made us happy, be the best at it, and work tirelessly to make sure that we set ourselves up for success.”

Michael Maliakel. Photo: provided by Disney

Maliakel and his two brothers, born in Central New Jersey to immigrant parents from Kerala, visited India every year. Their being raised by their grandmother at their Jersey home inculcated Indian traditions and culture in them, he said.

Maliakel said the credit for his talent and education goes to his parents. “My mom really recognized my interest in piano music at the Church Quire, and nurtured that. I owe her so much for scraping together those pennies in the early days to organize my music lessons and all of the sacrifices that she made to make sure that I had every opportunity to further my interest. Without that support, I don’t think I would be where I am today,” Maliakel said.

Choosing a Broadway career was a tough decision, Maliakel said, full of unknown spots and uncertainties. “It is a lot to ask a young kid to figure out his place in the world, to dedicate his life to an art form that wasn’t necessarily designed with him in mind,” he said. “These spaces were not designed for people that look like me, for sure. And so it took some guts to put everything on the line and say, ‘this is what I want to do’. I just followed where the doors opened for me,” he said.

Maliakel said his Broadway debut has been a shy, far-off dream of his. “To imagine myself in this position, was beyond my wildest dream. It was one of the hardest challenges perhaps to also go and do something that nobody had done before,” he said, adding he had some really great mentors. “They encouraged me to follow my dream and to defy the expectations and be the outlier,” he said.  He said he had good friends who nurtured his dream.

Michael said he does not take his Broadway career for granted at all. Being sidelined as a profession in the beginning of the pandemic, Maliakel has understood the fleeting nature of his career. “For me, being on this side of the stage, and doing this 200 times, has been a humbling experience,” he added.

The stories of 1001 Arabian Nights have been around for many centuries, with the character of Aladdin changing over time. He is brought to us, in all his new-found capabilities, by Disney. While Disney has made every girl feel like a princess, it has also made every boy feel like Aladdin, someone a kid can aspire to be, to bring out the best of one’s self, and to achieve the best in the world. “I identify with Aladdin,” Maliakel said. “My brothers and I would spend hours as kids, watching the VHS recordings of the animated films, memorizing all the lines, setting up little pillow forts in our living room, and singing that opening number. It was a foundational part of my childhood,” he said.

Maliakel said his favorite part of the Broadway show is when Aladdin sings a song to his mother who has recently passed away, promising to make something of himself, to bring himself out of this poverty and life of thievery, and make her proud. “I certainly feel that responsibility. I hope that everything I do, makes my parents proud, he said.

Maliakel said,”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,” he said.

Being on Broadway has required a lot of discipline and a lot of hard work and practice. “I don’t think an average person who comes to see our show realizes what a monumental task it is,” Maliakel said. “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,” he said.

Discipline is required to keep a check, as his life outside of the theater and everything that he does during the day influences how easy or bad the show is going to be that night, Maliakel said. “The things I eat, how much I eat, what the weather is like, if I was up too late the night before, all of these things contribute to how the show goes,” he said. He said his 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,” he said.

Michael Maliakel as Aladdin and Michael James Scott as the Genie in ‘Aladdin on Broadway’
Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy © Disney (provided)

Being Aladdin is a glamorous role, but it is also like running a marathon. Doing eight live shows a week requires a tremendous amount of physical and mental concentration and stamina, Maliakel said. “We are athletes, and we treat our bodies in the same way that most of the Olympics players do,” he said, adding, “One has to think about singing and dancing and acting as a physical sport for Broadway.”

“Your body is the instrument. Violinists or trumpeters have the luxury of being able to put their instrument down at the end of the day, put it in its case, let it rest, and then come back to it the next day,” Maliakel said. “My instrument is my whole body. 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,” he said.

Between going to the gym, taking regular voice lessons, getting singing tips from experts, he has to consciously make time for his personal life, Maliakel said. The pandemic forced him to realize that his profession was only a part of who he is, although it was tied up with his sense of well being and self-worth. “For me, it was about really rethinking my personal relationships and my family, and making that a priority,” Maliakel said. “And I am trying to find a way to bring that balance into this work life as well,” he said. He said his ultimate goal is to be a well rounded human being, to be a good husband and a good partner. “It is a constant balancing act to prioritize. Your mental well being is a huge part of it. I have a lovely wife who is very supportive of what I do here,” Maliakel said.

Maliakel said he is going to use this experience of performing on Broadway to step into different areas. “It seems like the industry is starting to shift in its understanding of what stories deserve to be told and who deserves to tell those stories,” he said. Broadway has also begun to adapt some of the Bollywood films, including Monsoon Wedding, and Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge. That, according to Maliakel, is the next level for the Indian American community to be able to tell their own stories.

Maliakel said he has also started dipping his feet into on-screen work. “Television and Film is a big goal of mine,” he said. “I would say yes to any opportunity that feels right that time,” he added.

For now, Maliakel said, he would like to continue to fill roles that were not designed for someone from an ethnic background. “I would like to be able to prove to people and show to audiences that these experiences that I am portraying on stage are shared experiences, that all of us have experienced the desire for a certain object of affection, or a goal to be the villain, or to be the comedic psychic,” he said.

 

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