The Band’s Visit has all the makings of a Broadway hit. Having twice broken all-time box-office records at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, it is also widely considered a major contender for this year’s Tony Awards. The show’s success is remarkable because it spins an intimate and deliberately understated tale about a group of musicians from Egypt who get stranded by mistake in a small Israeli town in the middle of nowhere. The townsfolk open up their homes to the visitors, the members of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Band; the band players interact with their hosts in unexpected ways and leave town the following morning. The Israelis and Egyptians in the story can communicate with each other only in faltering English, but they affectingly discover their common humanity through the music they share.
You might think it’s like Come From Away, but given The Band’s Visit’s focus on a small Jewish community contending with a neighboring culture, a comparison with Fiddler on the Roof seems inevitable. Four actors from the show’s ensemble cast gave us their perspectives, explaining how the new musical, created by composer/lyricist David Yazbek and book writer Itamar Moses, actually forges its own path, changing expectations set by the golden era classic to become, to quote a song in the show, “something different.”
Fiddler introduces the residents of Anatevka, a Jewish shtetl in 1905 Russia; in the opening number, they sing about “Tradition” and the ties that bind their small community together. Prior to the arrival of the strangers in The Band’s Visit, which is set in 1996 Israel, the bored inhabitants of the insignificant desert town of Bet Hatikva sing about “Waiting” — for something to happen. In the musical theater classic from 1964, history crashes violently into Anatevka as czarist pogroms rip it apart and spur mass migration out of the village. In The Band’s Visit, you don’t hear any reference to the wars and tensions of the Middle East, or to the territorial disputes that surround everyone in the region.
Adam Kantor was performing in the fifth Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof when The Band’s Visit debuted Off-Broadway in 2016. He says that Fiddler speaks very directly to him. “I come from a line of Eastern European Jews who emigrated in the late 1800s and early 1900s, so the story of Fiddler is very much the story of my ancestors,” he says. In Fiddler, he played the tailor Motel, who courts one of the milkman Tevye’s daughters and gets drawn into the family’s struggle with the religion, customs, and traditions of the village. In The Band’s Visit, he plays a character simply known as Telephone Guy. Glued to the town’s single public phone booth, he mostly stands still and silent, waiting for a call from his girlfriend; eventually he delivers the poignant eleven o’clock number “Answer Me.” “I love how this guy is sort of the beating heart, or a flower, under the cement of Bet Hatikva, and then he gets to blossom,” says the actor. “This is what every character in this show — and really everyone on this planet — is experiencing: a fundamental need to feel a connection.”
Because The Band’s Visit draws from the Sephardic Jewish culture of the Mediterranean, Middle East, and North Africa as opposed to the Ashkenazic traditions represented in Fiddler, Israeli American actor Etai Benson says he can relate very closely to the material of the new musical. “I grew up more connected to the Middle East than to the Eastern European Jewish tradition,” Benson explains. “For me, the fact that not only Israeli but Middle Eastern people are portrayed in such a human light, not focusing on the differences but on what makes them the same and universally human, is what I love about this show.” He plays the character Papi in The Band’s Visit, a shy waiter who gets a lesson in how to date women from the visiting Egyptian trumpet player in the band.
Sharone Sayegh, whose family is Israeli-Iraqi, plays the character Anna, whose scenes mostly take place at the local roller rink. She says she feels especially proud to be in a show that represents the Sephardic Jews of Israel. “They so often get forgotten,” she says. “As an actor I can never get an audition for Fiddler because people don’t think I look Jewish!” she adds, laughing. She means, of course, that she doesn’t look Ashkenazi Jewish. “What is cool about this show is how it opens people’s eyes to the fact that so many Israelis are of Arab culture,” she continues. “My grandparents’ first language is Arabic — they watch Arabic movies and listen to Arabic music. I grew up with my dad playing the oud, which is a Middle Eastern lute/guitar kind of instrument. He was so excited to hear that an oud was going to be played on the Broadway stage.”
Without a doubt, it is Yazbek’s score — which not only features ballads you’d expect in a Broadway musical, but also offers a fusion of classical Arabic music, Middle Eastern sounds, and jazz inflections — that gives The Band’s Visit its special quality.
This musical also has a fiddler — but not a metaphorical one who sits precariously on rooftops. George Abud plays Camal, the visiting Egyptian band member who plays classical Arab music on the violin. In the scenes in which he is not performing as a character, he says the music he plays represents what’s going on in the minds of the Egyptian characters in the show. An actor/musician of Lebanese parentage who proudly identifies as Arab, Abud says that it is very special for him that the story of The Band’s Visit is “filled with so many things close to the Arab world — their people and their music — with the characters portrayed as just regular people.” He adds that composer Yazbek (whose father also is Lebanese) has given the musicians on stage a wonderful opportunity by opening up some instrumental sections for improvisation. “I think this is the most colorful and most extravagant part of the show, which is full of stillness and small minutiae. The audience is able to receive this giant burst of energy and love from us through our instruments — the expression of ourselves.”
In a musical in which Arabic is spoken mostly without translation, Abud delights in the chance the audience gets to appreciate the inherent musicality of the language. He himself has two scenes that are performed entirely in Arabic, where he makes phone calls to the Egyptian consulate to try to extricate the band from the mess that landed them in the wrong town. “The only way the audience can deduce what I’m saying, if they are unfamiliar with language, is from my acting. It’s a daunting responsibility and also something very lovely to be able to show the music of the language.”
In retrospect, it is not hard to see how Fiddler, with its themes of family, tradition, and community, has spoken to audiences worldwide over the past half century. And the producers initially thought the show might be “too Jewish” to succeed on Broadway! But then, within a few years, the extent of the musical’s universal appeal was fully appreciated. The producer of the first Japanese-language production of Fiddler on the Roof reportedly expressed surprise that the show could actually be understood in America; he felt it was so Japanese!
Even though The Band’s Visit has been playing on Broadway for just five months, the cast members we spoke to report that this low-key story about people briefly getting to know each other and then moving on seems to strike a chord with their audiences. “We are so used to stories about extraordinary people and extraordinary places. I think sometimes seeing a very small story that takes place in a tiny community can speak to us in a deeper way,” notes Benson. Along with his fellow actors, he has numerous anecdotes to relate from interactions at the stage door with audience members. “Just the other night, I was signing autographs and there was this young man who told me he was from Jerusalem,” he continues. “He was with another guy who said he was from Syria. The two of them had met at the show, sitting next to each other in tears over the play. That was so moving to me. Our show is about these elements of art and love, what unites us and what binds us. Barriers like politics and borders are manmade, and to see a work of art like our show uniting people and letting them find common ground, that’s what our show is about.”
Only connect: That’s how Kantor views what he considers the particularly timely message of the show. “I think it speaks to the human connection on a fundamental level, and in such a poetic and seemingly simple manner. And in today’s times, when we are living in a country and a world where there seems to be so much tension between people, to have two groups just come together and connect gives us a lot of hope.”
Pictured above: (l-r) Rachel Prather, Etai Benson, Ari’el Stachel. Photo by Matthew Murphy.