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From Broadway to Cairo: Egypt’s Inclusive Musical Theatre Takes Center Stage

July 21, 2023
Prince of Egypt Performance by Fabrica. Photo Courtesy of: Buthaina Shaalan

It is not uncommon for Egyptian creatives to yearn for an artistic landscape where they can truly excel, only to encounter a lack of support and infrastructure in their country. Struggling with their untapped potential and untamed creativity, artists at times contemplate leaving Egypt to realize their dreams.

“Major cultural institutions and opera houses have serious corruption issues that hinder experienced artists from helping and guiding the younger generation of artists, especially rising singers,” says Hana*, a soprano singer who recently moved to Germany to pursue opera studies. “There are hardly any opportunities for the youth to participate and excel in the field,” she adds.

This problem is particularly relevant for Egypt’s opera scene, which has become heavily commercialized, according to Sarah Edward, a devoted opera connoisseur and amateur pianist, who has immersed herself in Egypt’s art scene for over 15 years.

As Edward highlights, the lack of adequate support and infrastructure for rising talents within the country has led talented Egyptian opera singers, such as Farrah El Dibany, Amira Selim, Ragaa Eldin and Hany El Shafei, to seek opportunities abroad to fulfill their potential.

“The opera scene has shifted from being a platform for genuine opera enthusiasts to a space where other motivations and interests prevail, leading to a negative impact on the overall artistic experience,” Edward explains.

In her view, such an environment is one where new art forms cannot thrive because art is not being created to be enjoyed; it is being treated as a business. And business ventures in new territories and outside the status quo are usually not supported by the established system.

Though this was no different for Fabrica – Egypt’s first musical theater company – they dared to challenge the status quo that left little to no space for their art form.

How Far Back Does Musical Theater Go in Egypt?

Examining the history of Egyptian musical theater, it is evident that the art form is not new to the country. In fact, it has early roots in the work of Sayyed Darwish, the composer of the Egyptian national anthem and the pioneer of the musical theater scene in Egypt – a genre often referred to as operettas. Together with Naguib El-Rihani, Darwish created seven operettas, incorporating references to social issues and political allusions into the pieces.

Following the era of Darwish and El-Rihani, musical theater experienced a decline until the 1960s when Salah Jahine and Sayyed Mekkawy revived the art form with a highly popular production featuring puppets called El Leila el Kebira, vividly portraying the Mouled or the Egyptian Carnival.

Since then, there have been some attempts to revive musical theater in Egypt, with Yehia El Fakharany’s Yama fi al-Jirab ya Hawi reviving the heritage of Egyptian poet Bayram al-Tunisi, as well as Sherihan’s Coco Chanel, and Aladdin by Tara Emad and Ahmed Ezz.

“There is a lot of movement in the musical theater scene nowadays,” says Edward, pointing out that the development is “very healthy for the art scene.”

What Fabrica Does Differently

Something Rotten Performance by Fabrica: Photo Courtesy of Buthaina Shaalan

Founded in 2013 by Dr. Nevine Allouba, leading soprano in the Cairo Opera House Company and Professor of Music at the Cairo Conservatory, Fabrica boldly embraces its role as pioneers of musical theater in Egypt, fueled by a mission to introduce this art form in all its diverse and internationally acclaimed glory.

What sets Fabrica apart from past iterations of musical theater in Egypt is their approach, which prioritizes professional music skills in their conceptualization and execution of musical theater productions.

“The music guides the story and everything else. The story serves to enhance the music’s impact and vibrancy, not the other way around,” says Farida Islam, co-director of Fabrica’s latest production ‘Musicals?!’, explaining the distinction from the traditional approach of masraheyat she’reya (poetic theater), examples of which include Yama fi al-Jirab ya Hawi, where dramatic aspects take precedence over singing.

Elaborating on the same point, Edward explains that musical theater centers around the performers’ musical abilities, while in masraheyat she’reya, poetic language takes precedence over musicality, with the focus lying on the spoken word and the emotions conveyed through the dialogues and acting.

Poetic theater has historically relied on celebrated actors and actresses and their delivery of powerful dramatic performances. Meanwhile, the musical theater branch struggled from a lack of extensive professional and systematic training in singing skills.

Recognizing this gap, Fabrica, as Egypt’s pioneering musical theater company, stepped up to address the demand for comprehensive and specialized vocal training.

“Our vision extends beyond the stage, we want to ignite a cultural movement that celebrates musical theater as an all-encompassing platform that embraces and welcomes all art forms into its fold,” explains Islam.

“People see musical theater as one among many artforms, but we see it as an umbrella for all platforms,” Farida adds.

Inclusivity of Musical Theater

La La Land Performance by Fabrica. Photo Courtesy of Buthaina Shaalan

The Egyptian mainstream art scene is constantly criticized by rising artists, like Hana*, for its lack of inclusivity. Musical theater, on the other hand, stands out as a remarkably open and welcoming platform. Islam highlights that as a new art form, musical theater offers abundant opportunities for passionate individuals to dive in and make their mark.

“Dr. Nevine, who always supports the new generation, entrusted us with directing the show despite our limited directing experience,” reveals Islam, “[this decision] exemplifies Fabrica’s commitment to introducing a new art form, even if it entails taking risks and venturing into uncharted territories.”

“Musical theater is never a one-man show,” explains Islam. At its core, musical theater serves as an artistic powerhouse, uniting various art forms and talents. It thrives on collaboration, with singers, dancers, actors, instrumentalists, scriptwriters, composers, lyricists, directors, set designers, and lighting engineers all coming together to bring the creative vision to life.

“It cannot be tailored to favor any individual over others, leaving no space for nepotism and plenty of room for everyone to contribute,” says Islam. “Even the diverse genres from rock to classical give the art form an inherent inclusivity; any form of music or art can flourish within the medium of musical theater.”

Edward perceives musical theater as a more inclusive environment for individuals seeking to enter the performing arts scene and advance their careers compared to the opera scene.

Operating with independent organizers rather than institutions that monopolize the industry, musical theaters are driven by a strong desire to attract audiences through truly creative performances. This independent structure leaves no room for the corruption or nepotism that hamper creativity in more traditional institutions.

Moreover, musical theater’s flexibility allows performances to be produced on various stages, freeing it from the constraints of a specific opera house or acoustic system.

Arabizing Broadway

In an interview, Youssef Basir, co-director of “Musicals?!”, explains that Fabrica has a deliberate strategy to arabize worldwide musicals, rendering them more relevant and relatable to the Egyptian audience.

An exceptional illustration of their efforts is their Arabic adaptation of Les Misérables, which garnered prominence and was featured in snippets on Bassem Youssef’s satirical comedy show ‘Al Bernameg’ in 2013. Far from a mere translation, this production weaved in historical references, offering a glimpse into Egypt’s socio-political turmoil at the time.

Aiming to make musical theater accessible to Egyptian audiences of all regions and backgrounds is a goal that lies at the heart of Allouba’s mission. She has always sought ways to introduce opera and musicals to wider audiences. Presenting these works in Egyptian Arabic, she believes, can pave the way for a far-reaching artistic impact.

With groundbreaking commitment to artistic growth, Fabrica continues to enrich the Egyptian art scene, not only by opening doors for rising artists who previously faced challenges finding backing and support for their creative journey, but also by bridging the gap between the worldwide Broadway scene and the richness of the Arabic language and music.

*Name anonymized for privacy reasons

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