“I’m feeling really good,” says Shoba Narayan on the morning of March 7, hours before she will step into the role of Natasha in Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 on Broadway for the first time. “I’m sure my nerves are going to kick in later today—that I’ll feel that paralyzing fear when I make my first entrance. But right now, I’m feeling good.”
Narayan, who has been the understudy for Natasha since November 2016, is making her Broadway Principal debut while Denée Benton is on vacation, and will play the role through March 8. Taken from a 70-page slice of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Dave Malloy’s musical tells the story of Natasha, a naive ingénue visiting Moscow while she waits for her fiancé to return from the war. Lauren Zakrin is also the understudy for Natasha.
Tonight isn’t just a personal milestone for the actor, it’s also a significant moment for Broadway—Narayan is the first South Asian female in a principal role since Bombay Dreams over ten years ago, and she is currently the only South Asian female in a Broadway musical.
“What’s happening is really special,” says Narayan. “Someone like me, of my ethnic background, playing a leading lady on Broadway, is something I’ve personally never seen and is really meaningful.
“Growing up, I didn’t see a lot of me represented in the mainstream arts and media besides the animated characters Princess Jasmine from Aladdin and Apu from The Simpsons growing up. Today, TV and film has made moves towards South Asian representation but Broadway has been a little bit behind,” she continues.
Narayan says that the theatrical roles available to South Asian actors are still few and far between. “To be given a leading lady role with so much depth and meat to it, is something I never imagined,” she explains.
Narayan is not only grateful to the Great Comet creative team for allowing her to live out her dream, but also in showing the world that a South Asian woman can be a leading lady. “Representation like that sends out such a strong message,” she says. “It would have meant so much to me [as a young girl] to see someone like me onstage. I’m overcome with happiness that a younger generation will have that opportunity.”
“It makes me really excited that a South Asian girl can come to our show and see herself through me,” she continues. “I think that’s the wonderful thing about the casting for this show. We’ve taken the boundaries down.” Though The Great Comet takes place in Russia at the turn of the 19th century, the cast of the show has been diverse since it premiered Off-Broadway in 2012; Duncan Stewart and Benton Whitley are the casting directors.
“It’s all about inner vibe. It’s entirely based on the essence of the human,” says director Rachel Chavkin. “Natasha has some very specific demands—some of which are technical, the actor has to be able to sing... but more important is her essence. Natasha has a grace that is mixed with innocence, sensuality, and fearlessness—she is a daredevil.”
The director says Narayan was a natural choice for the leading role. “She is enormously graceful and has this sense of withholding, so she feels like an aristocrat,” explains Chavkin. “She also has this philosophical nature of Natasha’s... [and they're both] risk takers.”
Narayan says that as soon as she read the script for The Great Comet, she felt an immediate connection to the character and fell in love with her spirit and how she expresses herself. In the lead up to making her first entrance as the leading lady, the actor plans to treat the day just as any other—with a warm up, a read of War and Peace, and to allow Natasha “to gradually soak in.” While her debut may mark an important milestone for South Asian actors on Broadway, tonight, her attention will be focused on her performance.
“I long for the day where it’s not a rare thing to have a South Asian female star in a Broadway show,” she says. “I’m so looking forward to that.”
Narayan’s stage credits include the Off-Broadway productions of Bunty Berman Presents, Gary Goldfarb: Master Escapist, and Tink, as well as the national tour of Miss Saigon. She has played supporting roles in the films Growing Up Smith, Coin Heist, Price For Freedom, and Mistress America.
You can follow her on Twitter @shoba_narayan.
Tickets for The Great Comet are on sale via Telecharge.com or by visiting the Imperial Theater box office at 249 West 45th Street), Manhattan.