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By Lara Brunt
Rashed Al Nuaimi may be a rising star of musical theatre in the US, but he didn’t grow up in Dubai singing Stephen Sondheim show tunes and dreaming of Broadway. Instead, the 27-year-old’s current career trajectory was influenced by Spacetoon theme songs, which he believes had a profound impact on many Arab millennials.
Launched in 2000, the cartoon network featured Arabic theme songs for dubbed foreign cartoons. “There’s this huge nostalgic phase we’re all going through now where we are constantly listening to that music, because for a children’s channel, the music was surprisingly mature. I think it nurtured a musical aspect in all of us,” he reflects.
Currently studying for a master’s in Musical Theatre at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee in Massachusetts, Rashed recently won plaudits for his first professional theatre role. The Boston Globe praised his “transfixing portrayal” of villain Bill Sikes in the New Repertory Theatre’s production of Oliver!, the much-loved musical adaptation Charles Dickens’s classic novel, while Broadway World proclaimed his performance “magnetic and scary”.
He caught the eye of the Boston Theater Critics Association too, earning a nomination for Outstanding Musical Performance by an Actor in the 2020 Elliot Norton Awards. The annual awards ceremony will take place virtually on May 11 due to the COVID-19 crisis, which has brought most cultural activities to a halt.
After two weeks of rehearsals, the cast performed around 30 shows over a two-month run. “It’s pretty exhilarating because of how quick it is. You do that show, you feel it and then you can go onto the next one,” he says. “Boston has a very thriving theatre scene, so shows are a constant part of the rhythm of the city.”
Despite Rashed’s obvious talent, a career in musical theatre was never on the cards. “As a kid, I always used to sing around the house and just had a natural love for music,” he says. “But it’s tricky to balance music in the Middle East as a hobby versus a career. It’s not easy to proclaim it as a career, from social prospects to economic prospects. Our household is relatively musical, but it was always [seen as] a hobby so it just stayed as one.”
With no formal vocal training as a child, Rashed’s first introduction to singing technique was while studying multimedia design at the American University of Sharjah. “The university was offering voice lessons and that was the first step, just taking the class for fun without many expectations. From there, I understood that singing is actually a skill you can acquire and I truly started investing in it and developing it,” he says.
Rashed began posting short clips of him singing Disney tunes and Spacetoon songs on Instagram, before graduating to covers of Western pop songs, often including Arab lyrics, on YouTube. As his audience began to grow, he was invited to sing the UAE national anthem as part of du’s 2016 National Day campaign and gained a reputation as a budding opera singer.
He spent the next couple of years working in the government sector in media, while performing at night and creating music in his spare time. After flirting with the idea of pursing a post-graduate degree in opera, he settled instead on musical theatre, which combines music, acting and dance. “Now having interacted with students who are getting their degrees in opera, I am able to clarify that I was never doing opera – I was attempting to do opera,” he laughs.
Set to graduate later this year, Rashed says the master’s program has been life-changing. “I never thought I would be doing musical theatre, let alone fall in love with it,” he says. “I went into it for the music, but discovered that I have a love for acting. The exposure to all these different mediums has just been very nourishing to my artistic experience.”
Today, the young Emirati counts Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammad Al Maktoum, the Crown Prince of Dubai, among his more than 43,000 followers on Instagram and is working on a new EP. “The support I got from social media is what gave me the push to keep going,” he says. “People outside of the UAE recognise that I have resonance already, so they are willing more to invest in me. So it’s interesting to see how my work in the UAE has led to work in the US, for example.”
In January, Rashed took to the stage of the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut for a public reading of a new musical called Private Gomer. The grand Victorian theatre is widely regarded as “the home of the American Musical”, with a track record of developing hit shows and nurturing new talent.
“Performing in the Goodspeed Opera House was a big moment for me,” he says. “To be honest, I wasn’t aware of the gravity of the venue. Having learned about it, I really was pinching myself to realise how far I had come.”
While Rashed has put further auditions on hold to concentrate on his studies, he is sanguine about the next stage of his career. “I never saw myself actually getting a degree in musical theatre, so I try to have that same attitude to wherever I’m heading. Just as I never knew acting was my big passion, I’m leaving it open to what else I can discover about myself,” he says. So, does Broadway figure in his future? “I’ll never say no to Broadway,” he laughs.
Alongside his own hopes and dreams, Rashed must also weigh the expectations of family and society. “There’s always an opinion given by family members, but it’s reaching a point where you respect each other and you understand other people’s journeys. It’s coming from a place of love as opposed to fear. My family is fully supportive of what I do and encourage my journey with music and the arts,” he says.
Does he think attitudes are changing in the region towards the performing arts? “Yes, one hundred percent,” he says. “I’m very grateful that I received a full scholarship from the UAE government to pursue my degree. That is a big testament to where our country and our leadership is hoping to take the arts. With anything it takes time to reshape some ideas, but definitely there’s a huge attitude shift and the support that comes with it.”
Follow Rashed’s career on Instagram .
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Lara Brunt is an Australian-British journalist. She has previously written for The Telegraph, Lonely Planet and World Traveller.
The views of the authors and writers who contribute to Sekka, and the views of the interviewees who are featured in Sekka, do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Sekka, its parent company, its owners, employees, and affiliates.