You’d be forgiven for thinking that show business is in Sean Ghazi’s blood. One of the brightest stars in Malaysia’s performing arts industry, Sean has dazzled audiences with his singing voice and his acting chops for over four decades.
But, as is often the case, achieving one’s dreams only looks easy. In truth, Sean has worked incredibly hard to get to where he is today, and has suffered his share of disappointments and heartbreak along the way.
“Being in this business is hard,” he says frankly after dancing the morning away in choreography rehearsals for La Cage Aux Folles. “You get so used to rejection – it becomes like your friend, or your middle name. And you can get really down on yourself.”
One of the biggest disappointments of his career took place at the very first Fame Awards in Singapore. In 1995, he competed as a singer and a host, impressed the panel of judges, and won the top prize.
“I had moved my life back from Germany to Southeast Asia for this opportunity,” he remembers, with a trace of sadness in his voice. “I thought that the Fame Awards would help me get more exposure in the region – that I could get more theatre work and make a name here for myself.”
It didn’t work out, to say the least. “They had no plan for me, and they weren’t interested in developing anything new with me,” reveals Sean.
Instead, he was given a litany of excuses: he was a Malaysian, he didn’t have a degree, he hadn’t served National Service.
“It was traumatising – I really should have had therapy about it!” he says, with a wry laugh.
Painful though the experience was, Sean has come to realise that it’s just as much a part of his career as his biggest successes – which include sharing the screen with Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat in Anna and the King and performing at the Hollywood Bowl with pop orchestra Pink Martini.
“You start to see your whole career as a jigsaw puzzle,” he explains. “No piece is insignificant. The highs, the lows – the days that you cannot afford to eat are balanced by the days you get a standing ovation in London.”
Chasing the Dream
There’s no doubt that Sean knows a great deal about “the peaks and valleys” that make up a career. He’s learnt and honed his craft as a performer on stages all over the world, working his way up from swing to understudy to lead actor.
“It was such a great training ground,” he recalls of his time as a swing in the West End production of Miss Saigon.
“I had to create my own ‘show bible’ to track the movements of every single actor I covered. By the end of my two-year stint, I was covering 23 roles and I was the dance captain! I even stepped into a girl’s role once, in full wig, tights and heels!”
Sean has also had to pull off a last-minute ‘RENT Rescue’. While covering the lead role of Angel in Berlin, Germany, he received a call from a producer in New York. Due to a bout of flu hitting the London company of RENT, they were out of actors who could play the role of Angel.
“They asked me if I knew the role of Angel in English – and I didn’t!” he confesses. “But we were always taught in our training to just say yes. Even if you don’t know, you go with the flow.”
Within a day, he had packed his costumes and taken two flights to get to London. He had to learn the role in English overnight.
“I knew all the big songs, but I had to have all the other dialogue and lyrics written on my props,” he laughs. “When it came to Angel’s solo, Today 4 U, everyone backstage came to the wings. The ushers were sitting on the steps. And I thought – I have no choice but to nail this!”
He did, winning rapturous applause from everyone in the theatre.
But, proving that there really is no business like show business, Sean barely had time to reflect on his performance before the rug was pulled out from under him again.
“As soon as I did the first night, which was pretty triumphant, all the sick people in the cast got better!” he laughs. “So, instead of performing for the whole week, they sub-contracted me for five shows and cut my pay!”
The American Dream
In 2009, Sean made one of the most momentous decisions of his life. He left Malaysia to chase the American Dream. That meant “going right back to Ground Zero” – uprooting his entire life and relocating to a country where no one knew who he was.
“A lot of us talk about going to Hollywood, but none of us ever do it,” he points out. “I decided that I needed an adventure. And you never know if you don’t try!”
And so, at the age of 40, Sean began pounding the pavements in Los Angeles, going for audition after audition. To put food on the table, he got a job as a waiter in a seedy diner.
“It was very humbling,” he says of that time. “I learnt that I’m quite resilient – if you plonk me anywhere on the globe tomorrow, I can survive.”
He compares his audition experiences to the clinical process depicted in hit film La La Land. “It’s a pure crap shoot whether you’re the one who gets noticed out of a bunch of actors who look just like you!”
Another sobering aspect of his time in America? Sean was confronted time and again with people who had no idea what to do with him.
“They were telling me I wasn’t Asian!” He shakes his head in disbelief. “To them, ‘Asian’ is Chinese, Japanese, Korean – that’s when I began to realise that I was fighting a losing battle.”
Ultimately, Sean found solace in making music. He began touring the States with Pink Martini – a connection he made after recording Ku Impikan Bintang, a cover of the group’s hit single, Let’s Never Stop Falling In Love.
Making Dreams Come True
Six years after moving to LA, Sean decided to return home to KL. Moving back has given him more control of his career again – something he clearly relishes.
“Over the years, I’ve learned that I need to do my own thing – to put my own ladder against my own wall,” he observes. “It’s harder but, at the end of the day, it’s also more fulfilling, because you dictate what you do, how you’re seen and how you’re heard.”
To that end, he’s happily curating an eclectic programme as the artistic director of Bobo, a piano lounge in KL. He’s hoping to use the venue to stage ‘micro-musicals’ in future: evenings dedicated to just singing through the scores of beloved musicals like Les Miserables.
He is also looking forward to making his return to the Singapore stage after twenty years away.
In W!LD RICE’s brand-new production of La Cage Aux Folles, Sean will play George, a family man who’s caught between his flamboyant partner (Ivan Heng) and son (Aaron Khaled) when the latter brings a girl home.
“La Cage holds a mirror up to the world we live in,” he notes. “George’s family may be unconventional, but it’s still a family. People live and love this way. In this day and age, it’s more important than ever to be reminded that we need to look beyond stereotypes and labels.”