Thursday February 6, 2020 By: Alexandra Kinias
Shereen Ahmed made history as the first actress/singer of Egyptian and Middle Eastern descent to play the leading role of Eliza Doolittle in the timeless musical, My Fair Lady, on Broadway.
Based on Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, My Fair Lady premiered on Broadway in 1956, starring Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews. Andrews played the role Eliza Doolittle; a Cockney flower girl who asks the phonetics professor Henry Higgins (Rex), to teach her how to speak properly. Higgins makes a bet with his friend that, with his teachings, she can pass for royalty at the upcoming Embassy Ball.
MFL had many revivals over the years, on Broadway, London, Germany, and even in Egypt. It was adapted for Egyptian viewers in 1969 in a comedy musical titled “Sayedaty Al Gameela” (My Fair Lady) starring Fouad Al Mohandes and Shewikar.
After its debut on Broadway with Julie Andrews, many actresses/singers played Eliza’s role, including Christine Andreas, Liz Robertson, Nancy Ringham, Melissa Errico, Martine McCutcheon, Lauren Ambrose and finally, Laura Benanti who Shereen Ahmed acted as her understudy for over a year, before she got the chance to star for the show. In December 2019, after the Broadway show closed, Shereen began a national tour of The Lincoln Center Theatre’s production of My Fair Lady, starring as Eliza Doolittle.
Shereen loved musicals from a young age. My Fair lady was one of her favorite. In a piece for The Ensemblist, she wrote: “In my home, My Fair Lady was the movie-night staple. Every time I popped my VHS into the TV, I felt instantly transported to early 20th century London. The soaring orchestrations of Lerner and Loewe burst through my bedroom and it was transformed into a glorious study. I twirled endlessly to ‘I Could Have Danced All Night,’ my tight curls flying across my face in a frizzy mess.”
Shereen is the elder of three children. Born to Tarek Ahmed, an Egyptian jewelry store owner in Maryland and Sandra, an American English teacher, Shereen showed talent to perform from a young age. “When she was 2 or 3 years old, Tarek would have a lot of friends over, husbands and wives, and play Arabic music,” Shereen mother said in an interview with The Washington Post. “And she [Shereen] would get up on a coffee table top and sing and dance for everyone. That was kind of the beginning, I guess.”
Despite her obvious talent and passion, her parents didn’t sign her up for professional lessons. While in school, she found her way to New York, on her own. She often skipped classes and went to New York, on an early bus to audition or take an acting class and come back home at the end of the day, without telling anyone.
With time, her passion just kept growing. In college, while she studied criminal justice, she started taking voice lessons and dance and acting classes. Shereen has studied human rights at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic, and she holds a Bachelor’s of Science in Sociology and Anthropology with a Concentration in Criminal Justice from Towson University. While in college, she interned in the court system, focusing on mental health issues.
After graduating from college and securing her degree, which she refers to as “a safety blanket, a plan B…,” if she fails as a performer, she headed to New York, looking for a job in show business. In New York, she auditioned for varies jobs, including an audition for a cruise ship. Despite they were looking for a pop/rock singer, she sang Broadway songs, yet landed the job. She signed a two years’ contract to sing Celine Dion, Maria Carey and Tina Turner’s songs on cruise ships. “It [working for the cruise ship] was an amazing experience. It gave me the opportunity to hone in on my craft and learn a lot more music. And I was able to save money for creating my website, getting new headshots, and paying off student loans,” Shereen told Exposure.
After two years working as a lead singer on cruise ships, and with the experiences and lessons she learned, Shereen was ready to audition for Broadway. Within two weeks after the ship docked in New York, she was cast for the role of Eliza Doolittle, in My Fair Lady revival directed by Barlette Sher for Lincoln Center Theater, and was made understudy to Laura Benanti.
Shereen became the first actress of Egyptian and Middle Eastern descent to star in a major Broadway production, breaking the stereotypes for the roles actors of ME descents. She doesn’t take the accomplishment lightly. “I feel a lot of responsibility,” she said in an interview for the Washington Post. “The responsibility of traveling across the nation as a woman of Middle Eastern background. And not [playing] in ‘Aladdin,’ but ‘My Fair Lady’! Whoa! It’s a testament that it doesn’t matter, skin color or race. Whoever has the inspiration should tell the story.”
***If you liked this article, don’t forget to subscribe to our newsletter and receive our articles by email.