On a recent Monday evening, hundreds of Londoners, including many from the city’s Arab diaspora, lined up outside the famed Palladium Theater, eager to attend the world premiere of Umm Kulthum and the Golden Era: A Musical Tribune, a Western-style musical based on the life and music of the late Egyptian musical legend.
Many in the crowd were probably as curious as I was as to whether any musical adaptation of Umm Kulthum’s life and music could succeed in relaying a smidgen of the late singer’s magnetism and musical appeal. This was a woman, after all, whose concerts on the first Thursday of each month would cause the Arab world’s streets and squares to empty out as people gathered around radios to hear her.
The play’s narrative was gripping, relaying the struggles and obstacles Umm Kulthum overcame to develop her career. Most successfully, the musical humanizes her life story, and it is perhaps this that might help it succeed with non-Arab audiences, should this one-night performance travel to New York or be programmed for a longer run in London.
Written and produced by Mona Khashoggi, a London-based Saudi patron of the arts in the Arab world, the musical attempts to bridge classical Arab music and contemporary storytelling, and aspires to make Umm Kulthum’s music relevant to a younger audience. From personal observations that night, Khashoggi’s musical may succeed in creating a new fan base of many–like myself–who were aware of the history and music of Umm Kulthum but had failed to grasp what made it particularly special. Songs written and sung years before I was born were captivating, their lyrics of loss, love and hope still relevant.
A Rise from Humble Origins
Umm Kulthum, born in 1898 in a small town in the Nile Delta, became a regional phenomenon. Dubbed Egypt’s “fourth pyramid,” she not only played a role in President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s war efforts against Israel in 1967, but also became one of the few individuals who would climb Egypt’s strict social ranks and be considered equal to members of the country’s aristocracy before the military coup of 1952.