Umm Kulthum passed away 45 years ago. She never performed in London, however she did want to. This is just one reason Saudi producer Mona Khashoggi has gone to so much effort to bring Egypt's defining female voice to the stage in the UK.
“In her last interview, after performing in Paris and before passing away, Umm Kulthum said she had an invitation to come and sing in London and that she was looking forward to it,” Khashoggi tells us. “This is my gift for her. I’m bringing her legacy to the city she wanted to perform in,” she says of her one-night-only musical, which will be performed on the West End.
The London Palladium theatre often hosts theatrical shows that pay homage to great western singers such as Frank Sinatra and Madonna, but it will be taken over by the sounds of a shining age of Arabic music, only for tonight. Umm Kulthum & The Golden Era will be the first English musical in the West End about an Arabic music legend, and is a passion project for Khashoggi, who is driven by a propulsion to promote Middle Eastern creativity.
"Why not bring the woman who is perceived as the ecstasy of the Arab world here?" the Saudi producer tells us when we ask why she worked so hard to bring the work to London.
'I chose Umm Kulthum because I’m obsessed with her'
For the past 20 years, Khashoggi has curated exhibitions showcasing traditional Saudi Arabian fashion and costumes. These have shown in the US and the UK, including at the Museum of London, and she says that while she never planned to produce or write a musical, this project "just happened" because she "felt this story needed to be told".
She first had the idea for the musical three years ago: she was at a social event with art collectors, musicians and theatre types in London, and recalls saying to them that it was "a pity" no one had ever done a musical in English about an "Arab icon".
"Why we don't have something like Mamma Mia! about our culture?" she said, adding that there are "so many great stories to tell". She contacted producers and directors to pitch a musical about the golden era of Arabic music, but no one seemed interested, and so a year later, she decided to just do it herself. "I chose Umm Kulthum because I'm obsessed with her. I once played her music in a room full of Westerners and everyone was enchanted," adding that she thinks Umm Kulthum has something that "appeals to western ears". "Maybe it is the long musical introductions, maybe it's the full orchestra, or the full range of emotions you feel in her voice."
Last April, after finishing the storyboard, but before even writing the script, Khashoggi booked the venue. "I visited many theatres here, but wanted to book something of legacy, something that suits Umm Kulthum's prestige." The producer reveals people told her she was crazy to book a theatre without having a full team or a script, but she says everything just came together, and only in the last 6 months.
Telling Umm Kulthum's story
The two-hour-long show is made up of two acts, and while the main focus is the Egyptian songstress, it will give the greater context too. "It is a tribute to the golden era, the poets and the composers, shedding light on different singers. It is also an educational journey into the history of music."
The first act will tell the story of a young Umm Kulthum, born Fatima Ebrahim Al Sayyid Al Biltaji, the daughter of an imam. She was raised in a small village and discovered her craft while overhearing her father singing religious songs.
“Everyone knows the older Umm Kulthum, while her story truly began with her father dressing young Fatima as a boy to perform Islamic anashids [a cappella hymns],” Khashoggi explains, adding that she travelled around villages in Egypt for sometimes 40 days at a time to perform with her father.
That childhood perfected Umm Kulthum's classical Arabic knowledge, which enabled her to later write poetry to perfection. While researching the play, Khashoggi travelled to Egypt three times to gather as much on the ground detail as possible. "I did a lot of research, but I wanted to talk to people who knew her." She spoke to her relatives, to professors who teach her music at university, and to the next generation of performers she worked with, including the daughter of Egyptian singer Mohamed Abdel Wahab.
The second act of the musical will focus more on Umm Kulthum's road to fame and how she aimed for perfection in every song, while working with young composers and writers, such as Morsi Jamil Aizi, who released the hit Alf Leila wa Leila with her.
Khashoggi emphasises that the musical is not strictly a biography, nor a documentary about her life and that era. She had to speculate in its creation, thinking about "what could have happened behind closed doors, about the private Umm Kulthum who sat with Mohamed El Qasabgi, Mohamed Abdel Wahab and Ahmed Rami."
She explains that she also made sure to include a solo featuring a qanun, oud and ney, as the show is "also about promoting classical Arabic music and instruments."
The musical will feature works that span from the 1920s to the 1970s, culminating in Kulthum's famous performance at Paris L'Olympia. The 12-piece orchestra resembles that of Umm Kulthum's, with all elements of an eastern takht. It will be conducted by musical director Louai Alhenawi.
He said he's updated some of the compositions for the show. "The latest recordings we have of her are in (from?) the 1970s, and the technology differs so much from now ... so we were careful to choose the music and to play it to the audience in a way that will match their expectation. We changed the arrangement of the music a little bit and updated the orchestra to suit both the western and Arab audiences.
"It was hard to find people who can sing in Arabic, but act in English, so we ended up having a mix. A few will only sing, some will just act, others will do both," Khashoggi explains.
Sana'a Nabil, Umm Kulthum's great niece will appear as a guest performer to sing; while the famous singer will be played by three actors, each representing different stages of her life – as a child, teen and then adult.
The adult part is the lead role, and will be played by Syrian soprano Lubana Al Quntar. She is well-known for her range – from opera to classical maqamat.
In a serendipitous turn, she is an expert on Umm Kulthum's voice, Al Quntar tells us. "I used to tech at Damascus's conservatory, and my curriculum for students was on how Umm Kulthum used to sing, her techniques, her voice, and so I have the experience and lots of information on her life as a singer."
She says she feels humbled and honoured to play this role because she believes it's important to revive Umm Kulthum's story. "It's important to look back at the most significant stages of Umm Kulthum's life. As these are what made her who she is and her music what it was."
Umm Kulthum & The Golden Era will be at the London Palladium on Monday, March 2. This event is sold out