PHILADELPHIA — They may be actors, but when it comes to love they’re no pretenders. As Clinton Greenspan and Isabelle McCalla sing “A Whole New World” from the hit Disney stage musical “Aladdin” while dreamily soaring on that magic carpet, they don’t have to fake the sparks that fly between their characters in that pivotal scene. That’s because they happen to be an off-stage couple as well.
While their real-life romance can help strengthen the rapport between their onstage characters, spunky street hustler Aladdin and the feisty Princess Jasmine, McCalla says, “Honestly, I feel like we’re better out of the show than in the show, in terms of how we relate to each other.”
The olive-skinned, auburn-haired actress is perched alongside her beaming beau at a cafe table in the atrium of the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia, where the national tour of “Aladdin” has set up shop at the Academy of Music. The show, based on the story and songs from the mega-hit 1992 animated film, arrives Thursday at the Boston Opera House for a run that goes to Aug. 5.
During a photo shoot in leafy Rittenhouse Square, it’s clear that the two actors, both 25, are smitten with each other, as they discuss the places they’ve explored in Philadelphia together, tease each other about their nerdy obsessions, and joke about the times they’ve been miscast in roles.
“Showmances” between stage performers have something of a negative reputation in the theater world. While many fade away after the realities of an itinerant stage life set in, there are countless examples of performers who’ve turned them into lasting relationships — from Audra McDonald and Will Swenson, who fell for each other doing “110 in the Shade,” to the first couple of the Broadway stage, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, who met on a show in 1917, were married for 55 years, and even have a Broadway theater named after them. In fact, McCalla says, “Our stage manager calls us the Fabulous Lunts,” before adding that sometimes it’s meant as sarcasm. “It’s mainly when we’re being clumsy or silly or stupid.”
Early on, the two decided to let the relationship unfold organically and to make sure it felt right. “Being in this business, if you are intrigued with someone and you really want to grow a possible relationship out of that, I think it’s safe to say you want to take your time,” says Greenspan, a native of Arlington, Texas. “You want to explore every angle and see if this is good for you.”
McCalla and Greenspan first spied each other on an airplane to Chicago, as they were about to begin rehearsals for the tour that would be kicking off there. Though they sat in the same row, a couple of seats apart, they didn’t really talk, but there was a mutual physical attraction.
“He wore a green beanie and glasses, and I thought he was cute, but I was like, ‘Isabelle, stop it!’ I went into the show very determined not to get involved with anybody,” says McCalla, who grew up in Queens and Rockland County, N.Y. “I wanted to make sure I was focused on doing justice to the role and was happy with my performance before anything happened romantically.”
At that point, McCalla was playing Jasmine. But Greenspan, who took over the role of Aladdin in April, was in the ensemble. During preview performances in Chicago, they started bantering and flirting more heavily. They finally went out for a burger together, even though McCalla insists, “I didn’t consider it a date at all.” Greenspan said he was smitten after he saw McCalla chowing down and not caring that juices and toppings were dripping down her arm. “I was like, ‘Oh, wow, this is amazing,’ and you were like, ‘Why, because I’m a woman stuffing my face with this burger?’ ” he recalls with a smile. “We got to know each other a little more and nerded out over plays and her Harry Potter obsession.”
The first gift Greenspan bought her? Not flowers or chocolates but a biography of the playwright Edward Albee. McCalla says he remembered a conversation they had about her dream to one day play Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” “That’s one of my favorite things about him. He’s an incredible observer and he listens more than any man I’ve ever encountered. He’s so generous and has the biggest heart, and not in a way where he’s looking for anything in return. It’s just that he hears something and he’s like, ‘Oh, I want to do that for you.’ He burrows deep,” she says, with a little sigh.
Meanwhile, Greenspan says he fell in love with McCalla’s passion for caring about the world outside of herself. “She’s a very political person, a strong activist and feminist,” he says. “I see her always trying to educate people. She believes in change. It’s inspiring.”
Indeed, McCalla says, “In playing the role, I realized that being a princess is actually what stands in the way of the independence that [Jasmine] wants. That opened up the character for me. The laws that are in place in this kingdom are not to her liking, so she is constantly questioning the men around her. She doesn’t accept the world for what it is. I wanted her strength and tenacity to come through.”
The pressure to conform to society’s rules and people’s expectations is a theme of the show that resonates for both actors. “That’s one of the ways the characters connect,” Greenspan says. “They both feel trapped by other people’s perspectives of them.”
In their downtime, the couple enjoy exploring whatever city they’re performing in. Greenspan reads comic books, draws, and noodles on his bass guitar, while McCalla journals and is a voracious reader (recent favorites include Gloria Steinem’s “My Life on the Road,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Americanah,” and Patti Smith’s “Just Kids.”)
At a used-and-rare bookstore in Cincinnati, Greenspan found a copy of “The Arabian Nights,” the classic collection of Middle Eastern folk tales that includes “Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp.” “I have it in my dressing room right there in front of me when I get ready for the shows,” he says.
A few months into playing Aladdin, Greenspan says he’s finally settling in, though he’s still discovering new aspects to the character.
“He has a spontaneity that helps inspire the rest of the cast to be spontaneous,” McCalla says. “Because we’ve been doing it for so long, it’s very easy to get in a pattern and become stale. The more we can connect and make it fresh, the better it is.”
The peripatetic life of an actor means that long distance is an inevitability for the duo. In the fall, McCalla will depart the show to head to Broadway in “The Prom,” a new musical directed by Casey Nicholaw, who also helms “Aladdin.” But the couple feels prepared for what’s to come.
“In a way, it’s a plus because you know that the other person understands the lifestyle,” McCalla says. “So while it can be very difficult in the future, it helps knowing we understand that we’re doing something we love. It’s important to be able to lean on each other, and we’re very good at supporting and raising each other up.”
Music by Alan Menken. Lyrics by Howard Ashman, Tim Rice, and Chad Beguelin. Book by Chad Beguelin. Directed by Casey Nicholaw. At Boston Opera House, July 5-Aug. 5. Tickets: From $34.50, 866-870-2 717, www.BroadwayInBoston.com
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at email@example.com.