Just call her a Disney starlet extraordinaire.
Isabelle McCalla made her Broadway debut as Princess Jasmine in Aladdin and returned to the Great White Way in the Tony-nominated hit musical The Prom.
Now, she takes on another character of Disney lore as Hercules’ Megara at Paper Mill Playhouse.
Based on the 1997 film with songs by Alan Menken and David Zippel, the show sees a refigured book by Robert Horn (Tootsie) and Kwame Kewei-Armah.
As Megara, Hades (Shuler Hensley) sassy, confident sidekick, McCalla demonstrates her comedic chops alongside other Disney vets, including Aladdin’s James Monroe Iglehart .
She spoke with The New York Independent about the road to Hercules, the ways in which The Prom lives on and her dream Disney role.
The New York Independent: What is the biggest challenge in filling the shoes of an iconic Disney character?
Isabelle McCalla: When I played Jasmine I originated the national tour, but Courtney Reed had already been doing the role for four years on Broadway. Susan Egan did Meg’s voice iconically in Hercules. Krysta Rodriguez did a fantastic job when it ran at the Delacorte Theater, and now I am stepping in for this Paper Mill production.
There is a lot of responsibility because nobody has seen this version of Hercules. The most daunting thing is everyone’s expectations of what Meg should be like, what she should look like, and what she should sound like. The truth of the matter is I am not that. I am not the movie Meg, and I am not Krysta; I’m bringing my own dose of femme fatale con artist to her. It’s also a massive privilege to step into her sandals. I feel inspired to step up to the plate.
NYI: How are you putting your own stamp on Meg?
McCalla: My version of Meg has the same tough girl qualities that you know and love from her. She’s still got her wit, she’s very dominant, and she has her snide, fantastic comments which are always withering and fun. I am trying to bring a level of vulnerability that comes out in a moment when she doesn’t want it to-when the veneer cracks a bit. You get to see the heart behind the warrior. I’ve been trying to humanize her and show what happens to a person who lost everything, who chose to live a solitary life, and is hurting deeply because of that.
NYI: She’s one of the most interesting Disney women because she grapples with her conscience and has that snarky, darker side to her. Do you see any elements of yourself in her?
McCalla: I have been known to make a withering comment! I am definitely not afraid of stepping up to men. We’re both very good at reading people. She does it in a way that is more manipulative, but I think we are both very confident, strong women, who gave our hearts to people who didn’t deserve them in the past. The difference between me and Meg is how we go about repairing our hearts and our lives. In Meg’s case, she is working for the Lord of the Dead, and I surround myself with friends. We’re both resilient women who love a good joke.
NYI: What is your favorite aspect of working on a new(ish) musical?
McCalla: It’s a world-premiere of an original musical adaptation of a movie. My favorite part of working on this version is that it is expanded, and things were constantly changing in the rehearsal room. [Co-book writer] Robert Horn is incredibly prolific. The man can churn out fifty new jokes in five minutes.
The greatest part of working on a new process is the trying and failing of it. We try new things until they work. Collaboration and ingenuity is most fun for me because it’s new and fresh. No one knows what’s about to happen, like how we’ll have a battle with the Titans or what the relationships will be like. What’s exciting about a theatrical process like this is that you get to deepen and develop every single element to the story.
NYI: What is your earliest memory of yourself as a performer?
McCalla: When I was really little my dad would sing to me every night before bed, and I would dance to it. I grew up around dance because my parents are professional ballroom dancers. I was always in a studio or a ballroom. I immediately started singing and dancing around the house, and I couldn’t stop. I did a little bit of ballroom with my dad.
The first Broadway show I saw was Cats when I was five years old. Cassandra, the brown cat, came out and sat next to me. I said, “Good kitty,” and I started petting the actress. She nuzzled me, and I was obsessed! I watched the VHS every day for a year, and every day I pretended to be a different cat. I was already training to be a swing!
NYI: What was it about performing in theater that spoke to you and made you want to pursue it as a career?
McCalla: My mom originally put me in ballet class for the discipline of it. She wanted me to be a nuclear physicist (haha, joke’s on her)! In middle school I fell in love with dancing and performing because it was my outlet where I could be myself, and I didn’t have to be the perfect student and the perfect daughter. It was the truest expression of who I was. The stage and the studio is where I felt the most free.
I didn’t understand that at the time. When I was applying to colleges I looked back at journals I had and there was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to perform. I knew I was destined to be on Broadway. There was nothing that could stop me. Acting and theater are the most beautiful examinations of what it means to be human.
NYI: What did you learn from originating The Prom’s incredibly special Alyssa Greene, and how are you utilizing that in Hercules?
McCalla: I learned the power of forgiving yourself. I understood battling perfectionism. It was really scary to be in my first original Broadway cast and step up in front of legends like Beth Leavel, Brooks Ashmanskas, Chris Sieber, Angie Schworer, and Casey Nicholaw. I wanted people to have trust that I could do it. I think I was the only person who was scared that I wouldn’t.
I learned to forgive myself, to have fun in the process, and to not take myself seriously. I learned so much about comedy watching Beth and Brooks (who are comedic geniuses). My next role was comedic and I felt comfortable doing it because of them! So much of it was not overdoing it and stating the truth of the matter. With that I come to Meg a lot more confident and with more grace. Learning to let go is probably the biggest thing I learned from The Prom.
NYI: If you had to choose…What is your favorite Disney film?
McCalla: It has always changed. I watched all of them religiously. I had VHS, and I switched between them. I loved “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin” and “Pocahontas.” I also loved “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” I was a dark kid. As an adult I think it’s “The Emperor’s New Groove.” It is so underrated and one of the funniest movies of all time.
NYI: If you could play any woman in a Disney movie, who would it be?
McCalla: It would be fun to be Belle in “Beauty and the Beast.” When I am older, I would love to be Yzma in the “The Emperor’s New Groove” musical. I think I’m really attracted to villains. They are super delicious to play, and their comedy is always so biting and on-point.
NYI: Where do you imagine Alyssa Greene would be following the events in The Prom?
McCalla: I think she went to Indiana University as a Psych major. She and Emma tried long distance for a while, but then they amicably broke up. Emma went to NYU to study music and songwriting. The distance was too much. Alyssa wanted to stay in the Midwest, and Emma wanted to be in New York. They’re still friendly but they’re living their own lives and hopefully a lot freer. In my mind, Alyssa gets a psychology degree in order to become a therapist to work with LGBTQ youth in need.
NYI: Tell us something that no one else would know about you.
McCalla: This is kind of nerdy and cute, but I high-five myself in the mirror every morning, just to be like, ‘Hey, you got this.’ When you do something that is a normal behavior but in a weird way, it activates your pre-frontal cortex, and you get used to being on your own side. I’m telling myself that whatever happens, I’ve got my own back!
Hercules runs through March 19th. Tickets may be purchased by calling 973.376.4343, at the Paper Mill Playhouse Box Office at 22 Brookside Drive in Millburn, NJ, or online at papermill.org.