An interview with broadway-bound producer Hisham Abdel Khalek
Hisham Abdel Khalek, the Egyptian-born producer of Akhenaten, will also be in attendance, and he spoke with us about his interesting career and the challenges of bringing this unconventional new play to the Broadway stage.
You’ve worked as a director, writer, producer, and distributor in the venues of film, television, and opera around the globe. Your repertoire includes 20 operas ranging from Aida and Carmen to Turandot and La Boheme. Tell us a little about your career and the past successes that have prepared you to take on Broadway.
I’ve always wanted to be in showbiz, since I was a kid. I started my career very early, at the age of 18, and I wanted to try everything and work in different entertainment fields…but I always had a special passion for theater, musicals, and opera. For me, it’s not just about a job or paying the bills, but more of a passion and long-lasting love story!
One of my greatest successes was serving as the artistic director of a production of Verdi’s Aida under the Pyramids of Giza in 2002. On opening night, some of the singers asked me why no one had thought about performing the story of Akhenaten as a musical instead of an opera. It is a rich story and subject, and I told them that I would do it someday. Time passed, and the Arab Spring happened in Egypt and the Middle East, and the idea came back to life. I brought the project to New York with my co-producer Olivier Delesse in November 2013 and here we are, developing it for Broadway with the best team of creative and acting talents, and hopefully we will be ready by 2016!
Why produce a Broadway musical about an ancient Egyptian pharaoh?
During the Arab Spring, especially in Egypt, I saw what happened to Akhenaten repeating itself again and again. This great pharaoh was the first ruler to call for monotheism in human history, but the people around him tried to destroy his dream for their own political agenda, using the name of their gods to not lose power and money. This happens not only in Egypt, but all over the word.
And, of course, ancient Egypt is one of the best-selling subjects for movies, documentaries, and plays. People adore this era in human history. Even after 7000 years, we still know little about this great civilization, but it still impresses people all over the globe. Plus there is a wonderful love story between Akhenaten and Nefertiti, which makes for great drama!
Mohamed Metwally is the co-writer of Akhenaten and Hesham Nazih is your music composer. Can you tell us a little about them?
I’ve known Mohamed since 2011; I’ve always enjoyed his writing and he’s a big fan of the Pharaonic era. He was the first person on my list, since I knew that he would write wonderful lyrics. He’s more familiar with plays than musical theater, but he impressed me every time he finished a song.
Hesham is one of the best composers for cinema and TV in Egypt and the Middle East. I’ve known his work for a very long time, and we met in person in 2012 when I asked him to develop music for a project of mine. During that meeting, the subject of musicals came up, and I was surprised that he dreamed of composing one, but never knew how. I asked him to work on Akhenaten, but he didn’t believe me at first, and then he thought that I would replace him at a moment’s notice! But from the first song he wrote, he showed me a very modern, epic, cinematic style that suits the story very much. He still didn’t believe, until we were in New York for the first time presenting the show, that we would reach this point — now he is joining us for the demo recording and stage readings, and he will hear his music come to life in-person at the Central Library!
My goal as creator and producer of Akhenaten was a project for Egyptian writers and composers, so that we could present to the word for the first time the real history of Egypt, created by Egyptians, with the cooperation of all the Broadway talents working with us. I wanted to keep that authenticity in the story and music, as well as the costumes and sets, along with the magic touch of Broadway.
Your artistic projects keep you moving between the Middle East, Europe and now New York City. How do you navigate so many different languages and cultures?
Something I learned early in my career, when I was the artistic director of the Alexandria Mediterranean Film Festival in Egypt at the age of 19: art has no language, art speaks to the soul. You can watch Phantom of the Opera in Chinese and still be inspired by the music, acting, and everything else happening onstage. Opera is the same — you can enjoy the acting and the passion in an Italian or German opera even if you can’t follow every word. And we live now in one world, where you get to know people from different places through social media. What matters is that, at the end of the day, you are presenting your art to another human being. Since I started my career, I never saw my beloved Egypt as a limit for my dreams or my art. And here I am in New York, the center of the world, developing my musical, and one of the things that has helped me communicate easily is speaking not only Arabic (my native tongue) but English and French.
I am always trying to find the best talent to join the cast of Akhenaten, and I was told a long time ago that Broadway actors can do almost anything, and that’s one of the reasons I am here. Second, the actor has to represent the character, well before imagining him in costume. I’m trying to cast actors that look like the real characters as much as possible, then makeup and wigs play their part — and this is part of the authenticity I spoke about. All the actors you mentioned stood out in their roles. And one of the major goals for me as a director is having chemistry with all my actors and my creative team, since we are going to spend a long time together until the show goes to Broadway.
For the budding thespians, directors, and producers in the Queens Library community: what advice would you give them for starting a career in musical theater, television, or film?
Just believe in yourself and your dreams and ideas. Any dream can come to life if you believe in it.