In An Unexpected Development, Disney Princesses Have Been Leading A Diversity Charge On Stage

(Ashley Blanchet played the titular role in ‘Cinderella’ at Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey in 2019. Photo by Jerry Dalia.)

Though Disney princesses are often viewed as outsiders in their own narratives, there has traditionally been a limited scope of what they physically look like—namely white, hyper-feminine, thin, and able-bodied. Non-white Disney princesses were sprinkled into the animated film mix during the 1990s, but it was Disney’s 1997 live-action TV movie adaptation of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella starring Brandy and Whitney Houston that became a beacon of representation, as audiences saw a Black woman play the company’s hallmark princess. 

Since then, Disney has keyed into the expanding conversations of diverse and inclusive casting, constructing new interpretations of Disney princesses across mediums, with actress Keke Palmer portraying Cinderella on Broadway in 2014; Grammy Award winners Toni Braxton and H.E.R. starring as Belle in Beauty and the Beast on Broadway and in the 30th anniversary television special, respectively; and Grammy winner Halle Bailey playing Ariel in the 2023 live film adaptation of The Little Mermaid.

Diverse casting of Disney princesses brings fresh, nuanced layers to familiar stories and expands the idea of who can embody a princess. I chatted with four actors who did just this when they played Disney princesses in regional theatre productions. We discussed how their experience playing a princess impacted them and what it felt like to break barriers.

Jade Jones as Belle and Evan Ruggiero as the Beast in the Olney Theatre Center production, directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge. (Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography)

Jade Jones didn’t watch the animated film a lot growing up, but was cast as a spoon in their high school production of Beauty and the Beast. “I remember being so upset,” they recalled. “I was like, ‘I am so talented, why am I playing a spoon?’”

In 2021 and 2022, Jones landed the lead role, playing Belle in Olney Theatre Center’s production in Maryland. The story of the production traveled far and wide, with fans from across the globe sending in messages and audience members driving from Florida and Texas. Jones, identifying as a queer, plus-size, Black, non-binary person, collaborated with director Marcia Milgrom Dodge to infuse their performance with their individuality.

“I didn’t want to be the stereotypical Disney princess, but I found myself dipping into that,” said Jones. “My director took me aside and said, ‘Jade, bring you. Don’t feel like you have to do somebody else’s rendition. We picked you because of you.’ I was really encouraged to do my own interpretation and really brought a lot of myself to the character. And I got to have a say in my costumes—like, I wasn’t in a blue dress, I was in a blue jumpsuit, and wore red Doc Martens boots.”

Ashley Blanchet has plenty of experience playing Disney royalty; she played Belle in the Muny’s 2023 production of Beauty and the Beast in St. Louis, portrayed Cinderella in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse in 2019, and was the Elsa standby for the 2018 Broadway production of Frozen. Her identity as a Black bisexual woman informs her performances, whether it’s singing Elsa’s “Let It Go” as a “coming out analogy” or understanding Belle’s feeling as an outsider. Establishing these connections, though, was a bit unexpected for Blanchet.

“I was a tomboy growing up, so I never saw myself as a princess,” says Blanchet. “Walking into the ball scene [in Cinderella] and everyone looking at me was like a meta experience, because I had a lot of imposter syndrome going on. It was me telling myself a story about what was acceptable for me and what I thought I deserved. When Black women or Black little girls tell me, ‘You’ve made an impact,’ or, ‘You’ve made me look at my life more positively,’ it’s the best I could ever hope for. I really appreciate being able to push that narrative forward and say, ‘We can be the princess as well.’”

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Jenna Bainbridge played Belle in “Beauty and the Beast” at PHAMAly Theater in 2010.

Jenna Bainbridge, an ambulatory wheelchair user, is currently performing in Suffs on Broadway, making her the first wheelchair user to originate a role in a Broadway musical. In 2010, she starred as Belle in PHAMALy Theater Company’s Beauty in the Beast in Denver. During that run, director Michael J. Duran saw Bainbridge’s performance and asked her to play the title role of Boulder Dinner Theater’s production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella. Growing up as a passionate Disney princess fan, Bainbridge loves “finding nuggets of disability that you don’t expect” in her characters. 

“One of my favorites is Cinderella’s ‘In My Own Little Corner’ lyrics: ‘In my own little corner, in my own little chair, I can be whatever I want to be.’ My wheelchair represents freedom and the ability to move through the world so much easier, and that song exemplifies that.”

Bainbridge is heartened by the young disabled audience members she meets who feel more welcomed and inspired to pursue their dreams because of her. She has also found her own healing in these performances.

“Playing a Disney princess lets you repair some things from your childhood,” she said. “It opens up your perspective on what’s possible and what you can achieve. It’s so powerful and impactful. I want to be a Disney princess until the day I die.”

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Teah M. Renzi, Wesley Byers, and Eric Shawn in “The Little Mermaid at Lexington Theater Company. (Photo by Steve Shaffer)

Teah Renzi’s love for The Little Mermaid runs deep. Her third grade nickname was Ariel because she constantly hummed “Part of Your World,” it was the first Broadway show she saw, and she “freaked out” when the 2016 national tour announced Diana Huey, an Asian American actor, as Ariel. Renzi’s own Disney princess dream came true when she played Ariel in the Lexington Theater Company’s 2022 production of The Little Mermaid.

“Portraying the role of Ariel gave me the confidence and courage I needed in order to continue in this career,” said Renzi. “When I auditioned, I was so incredibly nervous. I thought that they were going to cast an actress who was light/fair-skinned and blue-eyed, like the original animated movie. I didn’t think that a dark-skinned, brown-eyed Asian like myself would ever be chosen. I was so worried about how people would react when the curtain came up and they saw a brown Ariel.” Later, she said, her director told her that “as soon as I opened my mouth to sing ‘Part of Your World,’ she knew that I was their Ariel.” 

Two months after the run, Renzi sang alongside Huey for the one-night-only concert The Little Mersisters at 54 Below in New York City. The pair bonded over their under-the-sea experiences and still stay in touch up on the shore above.

By embracing their authentic identities, these actors expanded the idea of who can be a Disney princess and elevated these tales that are as old as time. It is the spirit and spunk that radiates from these actors that makes them true royalty.  

Felicia Fitzpatrick (she/her) is an entertainment writer, content creator, interviewer/moderator, and on-air Broadway contributor for NBC News Now.

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