Interview: Senzel Ahmady of DISNEY'S ALADDIN

Performing as Jasmine at Ottawa's National Arts Centre from March 21st to 26th as part of Broadway Across Canada's 2022-2023 Season

In advance of Broadway Across Canada's presentation of Disney's Aladdin in Ottawa next week, I had a quick chat with Senzel Ahmady, who will be performing the role of Jasmine. Jasmine is the sheltered, but headstrong princess of Agrabah, who refuses to abide by the traditional, but archaic, rules laid down by her father, the Sultan. She wishes to spend her life with a partner she loves, rather than being told she must marry a prince. When Disney's animated film was released in 1992, Jasmine became the first racially diverse Disney princess. The popularity of her character paved the way for future diverse Disney princesses and heroines that better reflect the society we live in, and allowed Disney to continue to develop its female protagonists as those who take charge of their own destinies, rather than as damsels in distress in need of rescuing. Princess Jasmine is a dream role for Ahmady and I was curious to get her take on the musical.

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Senzel Ahmady

Congratulations on your first national tour; how does it feel to be out on the road?

It definitely feels a little bit scary! I feel like the tour is everything I've ever wanted but, at the same time, even though I love doing the show, the constant travelling, where we usually do one-weekers (we travel on Mondays and open on Tuesdays) ... it can be gruelling from time to time, but I'm lucky that I get along with the cast so well. I feel like they are the glue that keeps everything together.

How long have you been on the road?

We opened in October, so we are hitting the six-month mark now. The tour is probably going to go on for the next two years, but my contract is a year long, so I'm about halfway through my contract, for now at least.

Do you have any plans after that?

I'm not entirely sure, honestly. I left school halfway through; I was supposed to be in my junior year right now at NYU, so I have been thinking about what to do about school. I feel like everything is open-ended right now, so we'll see in the coming months.

What were you studying at NYU?

I was studying musical theatre and vocal performance, so pretty much this (laughs)!

Can you explain some of the differences that people, who grew up with Disney's animated film, can expect when they come to see the musical?

There definitely are a lot of changes. If you come to our show with the mindset that it is going to be exactly like the animated feature, you will find out quickly that it is very different. But what it is also cool is that a lot of the new songs and characters that you see in our musical are things that the creators wanted to include in the original movie, but they either cut out because of timing issues or because they felt they didn't fit with the movie at the time. So, I like to think that our Aladdin is the version they originally wanted to present to audiences. For example, we don't have Abu, who was Aladdin's best friend in the animated movie. However, Aladdin gets a set of three best friends instead, who are just as wonderful, and they fill Abu's void. I like our show because they added things that I think fit well and there is something for everybody; it's not just a family show. It's for all ages.

What are the biggest challenges that you face in your role as Jasmine? For one thing, I'm guessing that you aren't afraid of heights (laughs)!

No, thank God (laughs)! It was scary the first few times we did it! But I feel like, when it's dark and the lights are off, it's actually less scary because you can't see how high off the ground you are!

I feel like the challenge that I have is that I'm still learning the ropes, since it's my first professional show. Being able to work with people who have lots of experience in the industry has been really helpful, but sometimes I do feel a little challenged being one of younger ones who doesn't necessarily know how everything works yet. I am lucky to be surrounded by people who are there for me when I feel like I need it.

How does it feel to be a real-life Disney Princess?

(Laughs) It's so fun! Jasmine was my dream princess growing up and when they made it into a musical, I said this is my chance to actually be Jasmine in real life! I was that little girl who stood in my Princess Jasmine costume and told my parents, "I want to be Princess Jasmine when I grow up!" And now I'm like, hey, I actually did it!

You certainly did; Princess Jasmine will be on your resume forever now.

Exactly: "Professional Disney Princess" on my resume (laughs)!

I was told that, growing up, you loved the movie and were thrilled to see a princess that "looked like you".

Oh my gosh, yes, for sure!

As a person of mixed-race myself, I completely understand that feeling! Of course, there is still a long way to go, but - in your opinion - do you think it is becoming easier for diverse actors, and particularly racially diverse women, to get leading roles on Broadway?

You know, I want to say... yes. I feel like people are starting take new turns casting-wise, which I definitely appreciate. I do think that opportunities are opening up but I also think it depends what musicals are happening on Broadway because, as talented as you may be, there just may not be a spot open for you. But I do think we are starting to get more recognized, and it is nice to know that there are shows like Aladdin that are starting to cast people that better represent the world that the show is set in. It is exciting to see more roles starting to open up for diverse people. For example, our cast is almost a fully POC cast, which is so exciting because I don't think that has happened before with Aladdin. So, yes, I do want to say that I think doors are opening up more and diverse people are being more recognized.

That is so nice to see. Even with shows like Company, where they flipped the gender of the starring role and, even though it wasn't a POC in the leading role, it was nice to see that they weren't afraid of flipping a traditionally male role. Or when we see a family on stage now, they don't all have to be the same colour since that isn't representative of families anymore.

That's right - exactly!

Is there anything else about the musical or your own personal journey that you would like to share?

Since we were talking about diversity in the industry, I think it's fun for me personally because I get to portray both paths of my culture. My dad is from Afghanistan, so I get to represent his middle eastern roots, but my mom is actually from the Philippines. Lea Salonga was the original singing voice of Jasmine in the animated feature and I admire her so much. It is so much fun to find a role that combines both of my cultures in one.

That is amazing; that you so much for sharing that. I can't wait to see you in the show next week!

Review: JAGGED LITTLE PILL At Ottawa's National Arts CentreClick here to purchase tickets to discover a whole new world with Senzel Ahmady as Jasmine in Disney's Aladdin, performing at the National Arts Centre's Southam Hall from March 21st through March 26th.

Click here to see the upcoming shows remaining in Broadway Across Canada's 2022-2023 season.

* Note that this interview had been edited for length and conciseness.


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