Conversations with four musical theatre artists from Armenia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Syria.
Growing up, Aladdin was my favorite Disney movie, because it reminded me of my home. Yes, perhaps sand dunes, camels, and genies were not quite Turkish, but it was close enough that I felt satisfied. When you’re so underrepresented in the media, you’ll grasp at straws to feel included, and you’ll settle for anything that makes you feel even a little bit seen. Aladdin, despite its inaccuracies and stereotypes, was (and still is) one of the few works of musical theatre in which I saw West Asia represented at all.
“West Asia” or “Western Asia”, as the name suggests, is a geographical term that refers to the region that is the westernmost part of Asia, outlined by the Mediterranean and Arabian Seas.
Although the debate over the definition of this region and the countries it encompasses is ongoing, the United Nations listed 20 countries often included in West Asia as follows (in alphabetical order):
It is not only the demarcation of West Asia that has yet to reach an agreed-upon conclusion – many topics regarding our history, culture, and identity are continually up for debate, such as where West Asians fall in the US census and whether we are Asian-American, Middle Eastern, or White. This overlap and uncertainty can create confusion for many West Asians living in the US, and at times it can be hard to know who we are and where we belong.
I believe this is the case when it comes to musical theatre as well.
Even my beloved movie Aladdin was set in a fictional land that was loosely inspired by various cultures without being grounded in a real place. Hence when Disney made a live-action version of the animated movie in 2019, heavy discourse over whether Aladdin and Jasmine were Arab or Indian followed. Arguments could be made for both: the opening song is called “Arabian Nights”, yet the architecture of Agrabah (specifically the Sultan’s palace) seems to be inspired by the Taj Mahal. Add onto this argument that Aladdin is of Chinese heritage in the source material “1001 Nights”, and you really have an identity crisis on your hands.
Perhaps this lack of specificity in storytelling, casting, and direction is what causes many to falsely believe that East, West, and Southeast Asian identities are interchangeable. I would argue that this phenomenon in Aladdin is not a one-time occurrence that perpetuates this false belief, but one of many examples of a persisting trend in musical theatre today.
To explore this issue even further, I interviewed four musical theatre artists from different countries in West Asia: Esin Aydingoz from Turkey, Nano Raïes from Syria, Raneem Almohandes from Saudi Arabia, and Stephanie Mangioglu, who is Armenian-American. Our discussions centered on their views of West Asian representation in musical theatre, their own countries’ musical theatre scenes, and their personal experiences in the industry as West Asian artists. All responses are condensed for clarity.
1.) How did you first discover musical theatre and what made you want to pursue it?
ESIN: I went to two schools at once as a kid: a normal elementary school and a part-time state conservatory program. When teachers at my elementary school noticed that I could play piano, I became their ultimate backup plan to entertain the parents whenever costume changes or set changes were delayed in our shows. I truly enjoyed being backstage and experiencing that adrenaline rush at a young age, but I wanted to share it with the other kids, so I eventually joined the choir and the musical theatre clubs.
What made me want to pursue musical theatre is how much it moved me both as an audience member and a performer. I’ve always had a deep love for Disney animations, which to me have some of the most beautiful and inspiring pieces of music ever composed. Then, when I took a trip to NYC, I saw In the Heights, Phantom of the Opera, Mary Poppins, Motown, and Wicked – and as you can imagine, “I have been changed for good.”
NANO: I first discovered musical theatre in Lebanon. Lebanon has such a rich musical theatre culture because of the Rahbani brothers. Assi and Mansour Rahbani wrote several shows and musical plays, and they mostly worked together with the famous Lebanese singer Fairuz (or Fairouz), who was married to Assi.
My family (and when I say my family, I mean all of my family, including uncles, aunts, cousins – all of us!) and I would often take a bus from Syria to Lebanon to watch a musical. During one of those trips, I remember seeing [award-winning Lebanese performer] Carole Samaha sing on stage. I was in awe. She was a goddess singing on that stage. At the time I didn’t know that I could sing, but I secretly wished I could be in her place then.
RANEEM: I grew up watching Disney musical animated movies and loving them. At one point, I felt like Arab and Saudi communities weren’t represented in these movies, so I wanted to tell our stories and embrace my culture using the musical theatre art form.
STEPH: I discovered musical theatre at a young age. My school at the time was doing a production of The Sound of Music. I performed in every spring musical at my school from elementary all the way through high school. During my freshman year of college, I co-music directed a production of Next to Normal through one of the school’s student-run organizations. That experience started me on the professional path that would lead me to where I am today.
2.) Do you think your country or culture is represented well (or represented at all) in musical theatre? If so, what do you think are good examples?
ESIN: Sadly, no. Now that I’m thinking, Aladdin has some traditional elements from the Middle East. But I have always perceived it as a fairytale, so it’s hard for me to see it as a full representation. However, I loved finding bits and pieces of my culture in musicals that focus on different ethnicities. I’ve always thought that my culture was similar to Latin American culture in some respects, especially in how we both cherish family so much, how we perceive our friends and neighbors as a true extension of our family and look out for each other. In the Heights really spoke to me in that regard. I really enjoy getting to experience different worlds through musical theatre, and I can’t wait to show mine one day.
NANO: I never saw Syria represented in any musical up until very recently when I got to watch The Visitor with music by Tom Kitt, lyrics by Brian Yorkey, and book by Kwame Kwei-Armah and Brian Yorkey. There is a Syrian character, Tarek, and the show tells a beautiful and impactful story about immigration.
RANEEM: Saudi Arabia is not represented in any musical. I’ll show my country to the world through the musicals I write.
STEPH: I can’t think of an example of musical theatre that represents Armenian culture. There have been maybe two or three plays. Growing up, I never saw aspects of my culture represented in the mainstream. There weren’t any culturally-specific stories that I could identify with as an Armenian-American. Until now, I have understood that to mean that I had to set a distinction between my cultural diasporan identity and my professional career. I realize now that I can create the space that I longed to see as a kid. I am currently writing a musical that will represent Armenian culture in a way that has never been done before.
3.) Are there any changes you wish to see in the musical theatre industry?
ESIN: I’m super inspired by The Unofficial Bridgerton Musical and how incredibly transparent Emily Bear & Abigail Barlow’s creative process was. I would love to see more of such collaborations happening and take part in it.
NANO: I wish to see more authenticity. I thought about this after I watched The Visitor. I believe the show could’ve been even more impactful had the music for Tarek’s character been more authentic to Syria and included musical elements such as sound design and instrumentation that reflected the music of the region more accurately.
Another topic regarding authenticity is casting. If you have a character from a certain country, I think it’s better to cast an actor from that country. If the band in The Band’s Visit is supposed to be from Egypt and speak Arabic, cast Egyptian actors who speak Arabic. Casting an actor from a similar race or ethnicity because they’re “close enough” isn’t enough. We can tell from the accent and the language that it isn’t authentic. Not everyone can tell, but those who are of that culture will be able to tell. And those who are not, they don’t know any better, so they will take what you present them at face value.
Creative teams have a big responsibility for the choices they make when they introduce a culture that has not been represented in the past. When they make the right choices, it truly elevates the work.
RANEEM: I’d love to see Saudis and Arabs represented accurately in the industry. I’d love to see my culture, my identity, music, and colors reflected in theatre and on the big screen.
STEPH: I want to see an industry that is free from the status quo, where artistic boundaries can be pushed without judgment, and where true authenticity is celebrated.
4.) What does musical theatre in your country look like?
ESIN: I don’t think musical theatre is very popular in Turkey. We do have some touring musicals stopping by in Istanbul, but I so wish it was more accessible to everyone! We really need to step up our game. As a country we are not even used to seeing our own stories told as musicals, so I think that needs to happen first in order to introduce people to the idea of actors breaking out into songs! I have seen some adaptations of foreign musicals and some original work, but in my experience, musicals are mostly perceived as an activity for children or for the elite in Turkey.
NANO: For all that I know, a musical theatre industry doesn’t really exist in Syria. I wish it did.
RANEEM: We don’t have a musical theatre industry in Saudi Arabia at the moment. However, the Ministry Of Culture (MOC) in Saudi Arabia just established a Theater & Performing Arts Commission one year ago, and they’re encouraging the theatre industry to grow. In fact, I’m the first Saudi to study the field of musical theatre writing sponsored by the MOC. So we’ll hopefully have an accessible musical theatre in the near future.
STEPH: Musical theatre in Armenia doesn’t exist as an art form. Western classical music and/or traditional Armenian music is more common among the populous. Opera is particularly popular. Anoush, an opera by Armen Tigranian, is an opera that we hold dear to our culture.
5.) Are there any musicals from your country that you hold close to your heart and wish more people knew about?
ESIN: There is a brilliant composer from Turkey who really inspires me. Her name is Serpil Gunseli. She is not only the first woman to have composed musicals and operettas in Turkey, but she also music directs and performs in her [own] musicals. Her projects have been staged in England, Sweden, Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Australia, and France. I’ll have to go with one of her musicals: Kantocu, where she wrote the music, Zeynep Talu wrote the lyrics, and Haldun Dormen wrote the book. The musical is set during the Turkish War of Independence, and it tells the story of how with Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founding the Republic of Turkey, Muslim women were finally allowed to perform on stage.
NANO: Not from my country, but as I mentioned, I really love the works of the Rahbani Brothers.
RANEEM: The musicals that I will write!
STEPH: I wish there was more musical theatre that I could share! As mentioned previously, Anoush by Armen Tigranian and Arshak II by Tigran Chukhadjian are both popular works of opera in the Armenian music canon.
Although there is still much to be done, these four brilliant women are paving the way for the change we wish to see – growing the West Asian musical theatre scene and overall representation in international work. To continue supporting these artists and growing their platforms, follow them on social media, listen to their music, and connect with Maestras around the world using our Maestra directory. You can learn more about Esin, Nano, Raneem, and Steph below!
Esin Aydingoz (she/her)
YouTube: Esin Aydingoz
Facebook: Esin Aydingoz
Esin Aydingoz is a composer from Istanbul, Turkey. She is the assistant music director for Disney’s a cappella sensation “DCappella” and has music directed for various theatres, festivals, and organizations such as Hollywood Fringe Festival, Hollywood Turkish Film Festival, Istanbul Music Festival, Morgan-Wixson Theatre, Boston Children’s Theatre and CSH Kids Theatre. As a pianist, she has performed with pit orchestras for In the Heights, City of Angels and Godspell, and recorded on the High School Musical: The Musical: The Series Season 1 soundtrack.
Her original musical theatre work was performed at New Musicals Inc. in LA and Berklee College of Music and Emerson College in Boston. Her favorite MD credits are Little Shop of Horrors and Legally Blonde! As a film composer, Esin has also scored a lot of award-winning independent films and has written additional music for Apple TV’s SEE and Hallmark’s One Summer. Esin is a board member for The Alliance for Women Film Composers and she can’t wait to get more involved with Maestra.
Nano Raïes (she/her)
Spotify: Nano Raies
Nano Raies is a singer, songwriter, actress, writer, and activist. She has collaborated with human rights organizations like the United Nations—UNICEF and World Bank, and currently works with the William Esper Studio in New York City. She left her home in Syria during the Syrian war and became the first Syrian woman to graduate from the Berklee College of Music.
Raneem Almohandes (she/her)
Raneem Almohandes wrote and directed a musical series in collaboration with the Ministry Of Culture in Saudi Arabia. The musical feature film she wrote got shortlisted at the Sundance Screenwriters Lab 2020. Raneem is currently a Graduate Musical Theatre Writing student at NYU.
Steph Mangioglu (she/her)
Stephanie Mangioglu is an Armenian-American music director, conductor, educator, and as of recently, composer. Believing in the unifying and healing power of music, she aims to cultivate a genuine love and understanding for the music on any project from a theoretical, practical, and artistic perspective. Stephanie offers private lessons in piano, sight reading/sight singing, score reading, music theory, music literacy, and musicianship.