BWW Interview: Hiba Tawaji Talks NOTRE DAME DE PARIS
On the eve of the return of Notre Dame de Paris to London - this time in its original French - I'm looking back to my time behind the scenes during its last few days in Paris. There I spoke to Hiba Tawaji (Esmeralda), who talked about the more challenging aspects of performing, as well as her passion for championing female emancipation.
Paris is a special place for the show - especially the Palais des Congrès. "This is where everything started for us, and for me in particular," she explains.
"Twenty years ago it was created here, so it has that symbolic aspect, and I just love the stage. I feel like it makes sense because it was created here, so we really feel that it belongs here. There's almost 4,000 seats, but it still has the warmth that you want to feel throughout the show."
More often than not you will see Notre Dame de Paris described as a spectacle rather than simply a show, which brings its own challenges. "I'm constantly trying to mingle between the physical and the vocal effort," says Hiba. "I have to run a lot, dance a lot, move a lot - while maintaining my singing. So it's a challenge, but with the rehearsals and practise you feel that it becomes natural to your role."
However, this isn't the worst thing Hiba has to face. "The big challenge for me is my final scene, when I'm singing standing on a big column. I'm just standing there - not attached, nothing - and it moves, and I have to sing the whole song standing there. I'm afraid of heights! You don't see it, but I'm trembling inside, even after all this time. Every night I'm challenging my fear of heights through this scene."
Tawaji has a well-established singing career outside of her acting, and is a keen advocate of women's rights; she likes to combine the two, which has led to some groundbreaking moments in unexpected parts of the world.
"I sang in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 2017, and I was the first female to ever sing publicly there for a female audience," she says. "For many, it might sound like a small step, but for me there are no small steps: each step is moving forward towards female emancipation."
Over the past ten years, Tawaji has been releasing albums and holding concerts, particularly making a name for herself in her native country of Lebanon, as well as other parts of the Arab world.
"I did three albums in Arabic, and one of the songs has particularly influenced and touched the Saudi Arabian female audiences because it talks about females' rights to choose their own destiny and have choices in their life.
"One year ago, almost, they were given the right to drive - I did a small video for that to congratulate them for this huge change, because they've been patient and they've been very strong as well. They have a lot of rebels, and we need that."
Here, Tawaji feels a link with the show. "Esmeralda is a rebel as well! She has a lot of principles and she fights for them. She wants to be accepted in this society because she comes from somewhere else; she wants to be accepted, to be considered as one of the people. She doesn't want to be excluded, so she's fighting for her choice to be a part of this and to make these two worlds come into one."
She continues: "Esmeralda has a strong character. She's very independent and very rebellious, but at the same time she has the fragility and the vulnerability of a 17-year-old girl. She has the innocence, and she's naïve as well; living on the streets makes you somehow strong, because you've been facing many things, but doesn't completely remove the fragility."
The whole cast is incredibly excited to finally bring the show back to London, as they consider London to be the home of musical theatre. For Hiba, this venue will be the highlight of the tour.
"The fact that we're meeting a new audience will be a really big challenge, but this is the place to be for this type of show. The orchestra is a nice adventure for us, we're thrilled to play there - I've already seen the stage, and it's an amazing place. I can't wait to do it."
Picture credit: Alessandro Dobici