Sharone Sayegh and Raymond J. Lee are teaming up for their first duo show at Feinstein’s/54 Below. Taking a cue from “Project Runway,” Sharone and Ray are excited to present an evening of Unconventional Materials as they tackle nontraditional casting roles and partner up on a few exciting pop selections.
1. How did y'all come about deciding to perform together?
Sharone: 54 Below asked Ray if he would like to do a show as part of their Summer Duo series, and said he could choose who he wanted to do the show with, and he asked me! I was so honored and excited that Ray asked me. Ever since we met doing Mamma Mia! on Broadway years ago, I've loved singing and collaborating with him. Ray has one of those voices that sounds amazing singing anything, and he truly lights up any room he's in. I'm so grateful to have him as a friend and collaborator.
Ray: Sharone had asked me to do a few benefits in the past and I always had such a great time singing with her. Sharone has such an amazing and versatile voice and I wanted to have an evening where we just got to jam and do our thang. Plus she is such a wonderfully creative person and such an inspiring artist that I knew we would have a blast putting this concert together. Also being both actors from diverse backgrounds, we have this understanding of what we go through every day in this business. Plus the Mamma Mia family is a strong one and we go way back!
2. Why did you name your concert Project Broadway: The Unconventional Materials Challenge?
Ray: Disclaimer...I'm a HUGE Project Runway fan!
Sharone: We knew we wanted to take songs that people knew and do something really different and exciting with them. We also both wanted to sing songs that we both don't normally get the opportunity to as minority actors. And we both love Project Runway and thought about the "unconventional materials challenge" that they do every year where they have the designers make a garment out of unconventional/non-fabric materials like candy wrappers, electrical wire, etc.
Ray: I think Sharone and I get pigeon-holed into certain roles because of the way we look, but I looked at her and she looked at me during our initial brainstorm session and we were like "Wait! You could TOTALLY play that part! That part doesn't have to always be this type." I think she'd make an amazing Julia Gulia in The Wedding Singer or a fantastic Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors. Actually, Seymour is a huge dream role of mine...so anyone reading this PLEASE CAST US!
Sharone: We thought we would apply that concept to how we chose our "materials" and use songs from roles we wouldn't traditionally be cast in, and also alter songs to blend with other songs and create really unique mashups. I'm really excited with what we've come up with, I think people are going to be really surprised and delighted by the mashups we've created along with our amazing music director, Steven Jamail.
3. As actors coming from diverse backgrounds, what have been some of the challenges that have faced you in the business?
Sharone: It wasn’t until I moved to NYC after college to pursue a career in theater that I realized that my ethnicity, the way I looked, the texture of my hair, the shape of my eyes and nose, my name, everything about me and my cultural background would so deeply affect and diminish the opportunities I had as an actor. It seems very obvious now, but when I first moved here I almost didn’t realize how “different” or "ethnic" I was perceived to be until it was continuously pointed out to me as I navigated the world of auditions.
Ray: I'm right there with you. I always knew I was Asian but I really didn't feel "Asian" until I started pursuing theater in college where I was reminded of what I looked like. And it's hard because I gravitate toward the pop/contemporary sound of music, which back in the day was hard to come by when it came to Asian American roles.
Sharone: I started to realize that at almost every audition I had, I was asked to do the scene or sing the song in an accent or in a language other than English. During my first year in NYC, it finally dawned on me that the business as a whole did not view me as American. Even if they couldn’t tell what ethnicity I was, they still viewed me as “other." I was not given the opportunity to simply play a girl from LA, as I knew and felt that I was.
Ray: I have many friends who are ethnically ambiguous and they deal with their own hardships in this business. Do they look enough of one race or enough of another? I look Asian and will always look Asian without a doubt in this industry, so it has also brought its own challenges. But I've also learned to own what I look like and how I sound, and it's helped me create the career I have today.
Sharone: My lightbulb moment was when I went to an audition for the tour of Hairspray in my first year in NYC. There were too many people at the audition and the monitor came in to the holding room and said they would be making a cut - as was normal practice for big calls. The monitor very politely then informed the room that the show was about race relations in the US in the 1960s between Caucasian and African Americans, so if those of us in the waiting room weren’t White or Black, we should probably head home. I wasn’t upset - that made total sense to me - but as I started to gather my things and head out, I thought to myself, “Well, I’m not white and I’m not black, so this isn’t the show for me. I should probably just start auditioning for Middle Eastern musicals…..but wait, are there any?” I went home and started researching to find any Broadway musicals that were set in the Middle East or had any Middle Eastern characters - the only show I could find at the time was Aida, which was no longer playing and had opened on Broadway in March of 2000. It was set in ancient Egypt - and from what I could gather, all of the actors who had played the Egyptian roles in the original cast were Caucasian.
Ray: I also had a Hairspray audition moment too! I had no idea what the show was about when I first moved here and went to a EPA or ECC. I walked into the room and the person behind the table was so confused as to why I had shown up. I just sang my song, left, and moved on to the next audition. It didn't even occur to me why I was getting that look behind the table. I'm also the worst musical theater queen in the world and should have done my research.
Sharone: I then started auditioning for shows and roles about other minorities since that was all I could get seen for. I made it to final callbacks for the original cast of In The Heights on Broadway and was told I didn’t get the part because I wasn’t actually Latina. Again, I understood and agreed with the show's decision, it should be cast authentically with Latinx actors - I just felt so stuck. There were no shows or roles for Middle Eastern actors and no one would consider me for shows that didn’t have anything to do with race, so what was I supposed to do? Simply not be an actor? That wasn’t an option for me.
Ray: When I first started auditioning, I remember going into specific auditions and looking around and realizing I was there to audition for the token minority spot. It was humbling and I knew there would be a day that things would change and I feel that momentum really gathering steam right now in this industry. That is why I am so thankful for pioneers like Sharone who have worked hard on their craft, kept persevering even when things looked bleak, and proved to creative teams all over New York, and the country that WE exist. There are plenty of minority actors who can bring that magic on the stage just like everyone else. They just finally need the opportunities!
4. Sharone, you are currently in THE BAND'S VISIT which won several Tony Awards including Best Musical, and Ray, you just finished SOFT POWER. How have your experiences been with your shows?
Sharone: The Band’s Visit is the first Broadway musical that has given me the opportunity to portray my own ethnicity. It’s my first time speaking Hebrew on a Broadway stage, the first time I don’t feel like I have to work in spite of my ethnicity, or the way I look, or my name. In fact, I feel like all of these things are finally an asset to the show I’m performing in, and the role I am playing. On opening night, I knew it would be incredibly special for my parents to sit in the audience and watch me fulfill my dream of originating a role of Broadway. What overwhelmed me even more that night was thinking about them, as immigrants to this country, making countless sacrifices and spending their lives making sure that my sisters and I had everything we needed in order to succeed in a country and culture very different from the one they had grown up in. And they were watching me succeed by representing them. I was representing our people and our culture for the first time on a Broadway stage. They were seeing themselves for the first time on a Broadway stage. And not only was I representing them and my people, but I was doing so in a show about real people with real stories. Not about stereotypes of Israelis and Arabs. Not about the heavy politics of the region, which is so often the way the Middle East is portrayed in the U.S. I wasn’t playing “Terrorist’s Wife #3,” for a change, I am playing Anna. A real girl, who is on the best date of her life. Who is consumed with thoughts of boys and love and fun. Who has a mother and a father and a cousin that she sets up on a date. Who thinks and feels the same way as any “American” girl her age would. And who simply happens to be Israeli. And for that, I am so grateful to The Band’s Visit, and I am so incredibly proud to be up on that stage every night.
Ray: Soft Power was an incredible experience because it was basically a full Asian American cast, along with two Caucasian members, telling this American story through a Chinese lens. We didn't have to perform the show in any sort of accents, except for American ones, and we got to convey so many poignant messages together as a company. At the end of the show, you see a sea of Asian faces singing our faces off about Democracy and I would always have to hold back tears in my eyes. It meant the world to be able to perform with my fellow Asian American actors, many of whom I've been auditioning with for years but never got the chance to perform side by side with. Also the idea of younger Asian kids sitting in the audience, seeing us on stage, and realizing that there's room for them in this industry filled me up with such hope and strength. David Henry Hwang, Jeanine Tesori, Leigh Silverman, and Sam Pinkleton created something magical with Soft Power and I really hope we get the chance to bring the show to New York.
5. What kind of songs can we expect on Thursday, July 26? How did you come up with your song list?
Sharone: We have a ton of really cool mashups that blend a bunch of different styles of music together including, pop, musical theater, rap, rock, and more. You won't know what hit you! We're also doing a couple duets straight up, but with our own takes on the roles. And finally we'll each be singing a couple solos which are from a really wide variety of musical styles. It's going to be a really exciting and surprising night, I'm very much looking forward to it.
Ray: Expect some SANGING from the two of us and night to remember! We are both so excited!
You can catch Sharone Sayegh and Raymond J. Lee at Feinstein's/54 Below on Thursday, July 26 at 930pm.