In national tour of ‘My Fair Lady,’ TU alumna breaks boundaries

By Rebecca Kirkman on January 22, 2020

How passion, talent and determination landed the 26-year-old criminal justice major a Broadway role just two years after graduation

Shereen Ahmed as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady
Shereen Ahmed ’15 as Eliza Doolittle in The Lincoln Center Theater Production of Lerner & Loewe’s My Fair Lady. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Shereen Ahmed ’15 has many passions. As a Towson University student, she explored them all.

A native of Perry Hall, Maryland, Ahmed studied voice performance and then sociology, anthropology and criminal justice while taking classes in ballet and theater. She even studied abroad in Prague.

After graduating with a concentration in criminal justice in winter 2015, Ahmed went on to spend a year and a half performing on a cruise line.

An open casting call in late 2017 landed her a spot in the Broadway ensemble for My Fair Lady at the Lincoln Center Theater. A year into the show’s run, Ahmed stepped up as an understudy for Eliza Doolittle, making her debut in spring 2019.

In December she resumed the role, starring as Eliza Doolittle in the first national tour of The Lincoln Center Theatre’s My Fair Lady, under the direction of Bartlett Sher.

We caught up with Ahmed before one of her last performances at the Kennedy Center.

When did you discover your passion for musical theater?

My passion for musical theater has been there my entire life. It was almost therapeutic, in a sense. There was always a song or a scene or a dance move that I could do that felt like it was incorporating all of the emotions I was feeling in the moment. I realized this could be a career, or this could be a complete failure. To try and make your passion your work is a really tough thing to do. It instilled a lot of fear in me.

[Despite that fear,] I would skip class and go up to New York City early in the morning and audition for things. I was doing that throughout my entire career at TU. And I think that was a little flag of, “Maybe this is what you’re really passionate about, Shereen.” Nothing came of [those auditions,] but I was so determined that I went to these crazy lengths to go up to New York and do what I love.

You enrolled at TU majoring in voice performance but ended up graduating with a bachelor’s in sociology and anthropology. How has that broad liberal arts education impacted you?

The voice program at Towson completely transformed my technique. When I came to Towson, I was self-taught; I had a couple of teachers here and there. I didn’t really have ground to walk on just yet. I studied with [former TU faculty member] Theresa Bickham, and it was transformative. Without those lessons, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I still use those warm-ups before shows. I’m going to go to the theatre and do those warm-ups tonight.

What made you study criminal justice?

I’m fascinated by people and why people resort to crime. I started realizing three years into the program, this is actually really helping my art. I realized this is all such valuable information that I would not have had if I had strictly gone into theater. It was so helpful in script analysis and understanding another person’s choices based on their story. I’m so glad that I have my degree in criminal justice, it’s been really valuable.

But I continued taking classes in the arts. Even as a senior, I was doing Theatre for Social Change, a really cool class about trying to incorporate therapeutic elements into theater. It’s something I’m really passionate about now. I did ballet on the side, too, even though I completely had all of my arts credits. I [kept returning to the Center for the Arts] throughout my entire career at Towson.

You landed a spot in the ‘My Fair Lady’ ensemble from an open casting call. How did that feel?

I came back to New York and I was staying with my friend on her couch, auditioning every day for two weeks. I decided this [casting call was] like an open door, I might as well go and be seen. Then all of a sudden I got a callback. Then I got another callback. It was exciting enough that I was backstage at a Broadway house meeting these incredible producers and directors. I left my last callback thinking, There’s no way I booked that. I thought I completely failed. And that night I got a call from casting and they told me I was going to be part of the Broadway ensemble in My Fair Lady.

I realized that I was feeling inside for all of these years was true. When I got the call, it was like that intuition was right. It was kind of like the universe was aligning for me. It was validating.

What was it like the first time you stepped on stage as Eliza Doolittle?

I was with the show a little over a year when I was able to step up as an understudy. Two months before our close I had my debut. The show had been a big part of my life as a kid, and I was doing it eight times a week for over a year. It was like part of my DNA. It was so thrilling and exciting and exhilarating and terrifying, all in one giant bundle. I was on stage with these amazing actors that I’ve looked up to for so long, and I was able to call my coworkers. It was that moment of, “Oh my god, I’m doing this, and I’m doing it with them.”

You’re starring as Eliza Doolittle for the touring production. What do you bring to the role?

I walked into our first rehearsal assuming we were going to do the same show for the tour, but [Director Bartlett Sher] made it very clear that what I bring to this role is unique, and it will never be the same as those before me. So when we opened at the Kennedy Center in December it felt so true and so real to me that I felt safety in that. Instead of trying to walk into someone else’s shoes, I was walking in the story that I was meant to be telling myself.

As a woman of Egyptian descent, you’re considered the first minority cast in this role in a major American production. What does that mean to you?

It’s a major responsibility. And I don’t take it lightly because I realize how big this opportunity is for people like me. And for the people who come after me. That I am able to carry that torch around the nation, it’s massive. I hope this sheds some light for people who, like me before I had this opportunity, didn’t think it was possible.

It’s not just me—this cast is so diverse, we all come from different backgrounds and experiences. I hope it can create possibility for people and break stereotypes as well. My identity—being Egyptian or Arab or Muslim—that doesn’t inform my character at all. It breaks that stereotype that I can only play Middle Eastern roles.

This interview was modified for clarity and length.