Youmna Bou Hadir made a name for herself playing the role of Mama Morton in the Arabic adaptation of the musical Chicago, performed for the first time in May 2023. Her deep voice perfectly matches her nuanced personality.
The first time she took to the Casino du Liban stage in May, a deep dark silence prevailed. Youmna Bou Hadir impressed and seduced the audience. She was an instant hit. She animated the stage with her presence and tone, which became less hidden with each performance.
Who is this young woman who carved a place for herself in the musical, Chicago bel Arabeh?
L’Orient-Le Jour met with Bou Hadir at a cafe to find out.
As it turns out, Bou Hadir has a “heart that has been on Broadway” since she was a little girl., It was a dream she believed in despite her family’s many concerns.
“To save us from disappointment, most parents confine their children to a comfort zone and advise them to dream small and not spread their wings,” Bou Hadir said. “At home, it was my elder brother who had talent and a vibrant, assertive voice.” As a young child, she was fascinated by her brother's talents. Meanwhile, she had an inner knowledge that she would one day perform on the big stages.
“In Lebanon, the art education system is limited,” she said. It was in Hong Kong, where the family moved in 2007, that Bou Hadir had her first stage audition and was noticed.
Every day after school in Hong Kong, Bou Hadir took singing, music theory and drama lessons, learned to write songs and explored the potential of her voice.
When Bou Hadir was just 11 years old, her father passed away. Her mother became the sole provider for the four young children. She recalls that her mother was ready to move mountains to ensure their education. However, she could not afford to pay for extra-curricular activities.
Thankfully, Bou Hadid managed to have Leila Dabaghi, a classical voice teacher who believed in her, train her for free. Every day after her English literature classes at the Lebanese American University, she would take the bus to see her.
Today, Bou Hadir runs writing workshops and has published two short stories and a collection of poems. She has worked in marketing and journalism and said she is open to “any opportunity that allows me to learn.”
Gravitating toward fields that engage her passion and creativity, she enjoys writing songs, TV series and stories. She also performs jazz, blues and gospel music.
“It’s not always about performance. I prefer an emotional exchange with the audience,” she told L’Orient-Le Jour.
An overwhelming experience
She described her participation in Chicago bel Arabeh as “the greatest experience and decisive turning point in my artistic career.”
Bou Hadir previously knew Chicago choreographer Roy El-Khoury and had worked as a freelance copywriter in producer Nayla El-Khoury’s communications and digital marketing agency.
Years later, Nayla contacted her and offered her the role of Mama Morton in the musical she was planning to produce. Youmna burst into tears and accepted the offer without even discussing the administrative details. “The opening night of the show was one of the happiest days of my life,” she recalled.
Bou Hadir talked about the stage fright she still feels. “A small scene, a café or an opera, everything moves me.” She recalled the panic she felt during the first reading of the script, being intimidated by “such talented artists.”
Luckily, everything clicked between the co-stars at that first meeting. “They are wonderful, positive people who gave me a lot of encouragement,” she said. One of them was Cynthya Karam, "a great actress” who used to tell me every night: “You’re as big as the universe. Don’t be afraid to open up and make the stage your own.”
On May 5 at 9pm, when the curtain went up in the Salle des Ambassadeurs at Casino du Liban, Youmna Bou Hadir gave life to the character of Mama Morton, adapted as Mama Dunia for the Arabic version of the musical.
Her warm, deep voice, with a timber to match her alto tessitura, enchanted the audience.. “Mama Morton is a strong, feminine, sensual and intelligent woman. She takes advantage of the girls in prison, but at the same time she loves and protects them. I took on the character of the villain because it’s a true, complex and profound role, just the way I like it,” Bou Hadir said.
Bou Hadir knows that she has to work hard to “keep on convincing,” which is what she did during the reprise of her Moma Morton at Beiteddine at the beginning of August, headlining the Beiteddine Festival run of Chicago bel Arabeh with Cynthya Karam, Mirva Kadi, Roy el-Khoury, Fouad Yammine and Matteo el-Khodr.
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Joelle El Khoury.