In The Band’s Visit, a group of musicians travels from Egypt to Israel to give a concert, but arrives at the wrong destination. “You probably didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t very important,” reads a projected title at the start of the new musical now at the Ethel Barrymore Theater on Broadway. The self-deprecating disclaimer will fool no one.
Composer lyricist David Yazbek and book-writer Itamar Moses were well aware of that when they lifted the introduction from the lauded 2007 Israeli movie on which their musical is based. “We wanted to use that phrase from the movie because it sets the right tone: This is going to be a story about how the things that are ostensibly unimportant are perhaps hugely important,” says Moses.
The affecting fable about the members of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Band from Egypt who get mistakenly stranded in a small Israeli town in the middle of the Negev desert arrives on Broadway following an acclaimed run Off-Broadway. In the musical, over the course of a single night, the visitors and the locals make unexpected connections that transcend divisive politics or culture; the bond between them is their common humanity. And music.
In its first incarnation at the Atlantic Theater Company last winter, The Band’s Visit was named the best of the year by almost every major news publication and was showered with numerous accolades, including the New York Drama Critics’ Circle award for Best Musical, and the Lucille Lortel, Outer Critics, Drama Desk, and Obie awards. The production, directed by David Cromer, features live musicians on stage, some of whom are also performers in the ensemble cast, led by Katrina Lenk and Tony Shalhoub.
When they were commissioned to adapt The Band’s Visit for the stage, neither Moses nor Yazbek had seen the movie by Eran Kolirin. But the moment they did, they immediately recognized its potential to become a very special musical. “First of all, it is about a band, so there is a concrete reason for music to be live in the show,” says Moses. “But on a deeper level, I felt that it was a story about people trying to communicate and connect with each other across a language barrier. One of the arguments that the story was making was that music was a language that transcends human words and speech. So music as a currency is a really important symbol in the story.”
Yazbek cites a scene from the musical, also in the movie, in which some of the Egyptian band members have dinner with their Israeli hosts. “They are all sitting there at the table, silent and distrustful, and the way they connect, finally, is over a Gershwin song. I’m glad we get to use that event in the show,” he says. “I was also really intrigued by the idea that this movie, where silence was as important as music, could turn into a musical with the same aesthetic. How do you do a musical where everything you hear is music, even if there is no music playing? I knew that we had something special the moment I realized that you can see this entire thing — the dialogue, the silences, the sound of someone walking — as pieces of music.”
“The movie is full of all these unspoken depths,” adds Moses. “I felt that doing it as a musical was a way to get more explicit about what is going on under the surface. You are missing the visual element or the ability to focus the audience’s eyes in the way you can in a movie, but with songs and lyrics — they are a kind of poetry — it felt like we could explore this territory and enhance it.” Yazbek sums it up by saying, “Songs are emotional close-ups.”
Yazbek received Tony nominations for his first three Broadway musicals: The Full Monty, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. The Band’s Visit, his fourth Broadway show, he says is unlike anything he has done before. When writing the score, he listened to a variety of music, samples sent to him by the movie’s director, Kolirin, and various North African and Sufi music. “There are different kinds of music from all over the world, like different types of religion and different types of cuisine, and there is a flavor to each,” he explains. “I have always loved the flavor of Arabic classical music — the microtone, the rhythms and scales. [In this score] there are a few times when we are delivering music that I wrote along the lines of [Egyptian classical composer] Farid, but most of the time it’s almost like you took a couple of jazz players, maybe a Latin percussionist and several world-class Arabic players, and asked them to do a song.”
A New York City native with Lebanese ancestry on his father’s side, Yazbek says he remembers, during a visit to Lebanon as a 7-year-old, listening to the music playing in the taxi on the ride from the airport. “My father didn’t know who was singing but the driver told us it was the great Egyptian singer Oum Kalthoum. I spoke enough French to understand what he was saying — he said that she was a bigger star than Frank Sinatra. While writing the songs for The Band’s Visit, I got very excited about being able to check into all that.” In a key scene in the musical, the police band leader, Tewfiq (Shalhoub), and the local restaurant owner, Dina (Lenk), discover they share a cultural bond as they recall images of the Egyptian star Omar Sharif in the movies and reminisce about being caught in the spell of Kalthoum’s soaring vocals.
When telling a story set in the Middle East there is always the specter of the political tensions in the region. Like the movie, the musical achieves an exquisite balance. “We knew from the absolute get-go that we never wanted to put our finger in any overt way onto the politics. In one way there’s no reason to — it’s already there — and in another way, by not doing it you are doing it more intensely and deeply,” says Yazbek. Adds book-writer Moses, “It was very clear that if you try to shoehorn a political argument into the story, that would shatter what works about the movie. It just needs to live there in the way that it inherently does while telling the story that organically it wants to tell.”
Moses, who understands Hebrew, also had to resolve the linguistic challenges of writing a script where the characters speak in either Arabic or Hebrew, with a smattering of English. “In the movie there are subtitles, but early on, I remember saying that if we need to have supertitles for the whole show, then I would have failed in what I want to do,” he explains. “I wanted people to generally speak in the actual language they will use in that moment. But the audience, either because the characters are speaking English in key moments or from the context of the scene, will understand everything they need to understand. I thought it was a great way to force all the important conversations and the focus to be on the cross-cultural communication.”
Dealing with the language barriers faced by the characters in this manner has an interesting side effect for the audience, notes Yazbek. “The audience can feel, a little bit, that sort of longing to understand another person. Even so, we have given them enough so they can understand, to get them right in the action. Of course, it is very helpful to have actors who are so expressive without using any words,” he adds.
For both collaborators, working on The Band’s Visit is a memorable high point in their careers. “I feel very personally close to this because, this grouping of songs, it’s like you said to me, ‘Write me a book of poems that tell me how you feel about things,’” says Yazbek. For Moses, it’s his first Broadway show. “That’s enormously exciting and gratifying, but on a deeper level, I feel like there’s an important blessing in it because of how this show came together,” he explains. “It began with this movie and my attempt to translate that to a different medium, and then there’s David’s songs, David Cromer’s directorial hand, and then this cast. This show is a great example of something that is greater than the sum of its parts.”
Photo: Atlantic Theater Company Production, photograph by Ahron R. Foster