Fast-forward a few years to 2017, when she was an understudy in the Broadway musical Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. When she finally stepped into the lead role, the pressure to be good was enormous—it was the first time in more than 10 years that a South Asian woman had a lead role on Broadway.
“Personally, I didn’t have anyone to look to when I was growing up,” she says. There weren’t brown girls getting kissed in the rain on movie sets or singing in big dresses on Broadway stages. The closest thing for a ’90s kid was Aladdin’s Princess Jasmine, a cartoon, an improbably proportioned fictional character.
“To have someone who was strong, could sing, was beautiful, desirable, and brave, wanted to question authority and potentially rule a kingdom…I wanted to be her,” Narayan says. She grew up belting “A Whole New World” in the family room, and even grew her hair out to match the character. “She was the only thing that I had to relate to,” says Narayan. “So she meant a lot to me.”
When the pandemic closed down Broadway, Narayan was performing in Wicked on Broadway. It was full-circle for the onetime Dorothy portrayer—she was playing Nessarose, the future Wicked Witch of the East. When the theater turned dark, Narayan returned her sparkly slippers. Months later, she got a call from her agent. Suddenly she was auditioning for her dream role over Zoom. Think you’ve had a rough virtual meeting? You’ve never had to pretend to be riding on a magic carpet while in gallery mode.
But she got the part. She’ll be climbing very, very, carefully aboard a carpet that will whisk her high into the air, where she’ll sing an iconic song, for a rapt audience. She imagines her body and her voice floating in that big, empty space, the “gasps and tears and cheers” of the audience.
Whenever she plays a big role, Narayan says, she hears from people in the South Asian community. But she also hears from people of all different minorities. “They see someone like me being the lead in the show, portraying a character who is strong and desirable and the center of the story,” she says. “I think they all feel seen and that they’re represented onstage.”
Soon she’ll be sharing her gifts with audiences who haven’t seen a live performance in years. There will be laughter, fist pumps, rapturous applause.
Shoba Narayan will be there. And she’ll be good.
Jenny Singer is a staff writer for Glamour. You can follow her on Twitter.