Theater

The “Universal Things” That Bind Us

How an Israeli film sang to The Band's Visit creators David Yazbek and Itamar Moses

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Composer David Yazbek welcomed the chance to embrace ambiguity in a musical.
Composer David Yazbek welcomed the chance to embrace ambiguity in a musical.

Musical-theater cognoscenti tend to quibble about the earliest “integrated musical” — the one that first demonstrated that song-and-dance spectacles could be more than a bunch of ditties strung together in a hackneyed book. Some say it was Show Boat’s elegant braiding of race melodrama, spectacle, and Tin Pan Alley; others argue the moment came fifteen years later, when Oklahoma! balanced romantic scenes of frontier life with Rodgers & Hammerstein’s prairie anthems. Whatever the breakthrough, The Band’s Visit, which opened at the Atlantic Theater Company last December, proved that the form is not done evolving. In this wry, understated treasure, with a dryly observant book by Itamar Moses and a voluptuous, wistful score by David Yazbek, scenes eased almost imperceptibly into songs, and a stretch of underscoring could be as meaningful as a pause in conversation. The Band’s Visit was the unshowiest of shows, a low-key comedy of manners that blossomed into tune as naturally as a breeze or a lover’s sigh.

The Band’s Visit is based on Eran Kolirin’s 2007 film of the same name, which tells the story of an Egyptian police band that ends up on the wrong bus while traveling in Israel. Heading for an Arab cultural center in the city of Petah Tikvah, they instead disembark in the barren and dusty kibbutz of Bet Hatikva. Stranded for a night, they navigate cultural differences with nonplussed locals. In the musical adaptation, as in the movie, one of the main storylines follows a dour martinet of a conductor (Tony Shalhoub) fascinated by Dina (Katrina Lenk), a lovelorn ex-dancer who runs the local café. Other musicians bunk up with a financially stressed couple; cocky trumpeter Haled (Ari’el Stachel) plays matchmaker for teens at a roller rink. Director David Cromer and an expert ensemble achieved a nuanced, lived-in naturalism on a revolving set that was both firmly theatrical and fluidly cinematic.

There’s never a shortage of musicals adapted from movies — at least seven played on Broadway last season, not including such open-ended hits as Waitress and School of Rock. But The Band’s Visit, a project initiated by producer Orin Wolf, was a risky venture. Name recognition was quite low; the film’s domestic gross barely broke $3 million. Shalhoub was a draw, but not a huge one. The onus was on Yazbek, Moses, and Cromer to take a quirky foreign film, set in a pointedly unglamorous place, and make an American musical audience care. They succeeded by honoring the local flavors of the material — with a score that drew heavily on distinctive Middle Eastern sounds and a script peppered with Hebrew and Arabic — but also by finding humor and heartache in the fish-out-of-water genre. Anyone who grew up bored and restless in a small town could identify with “Welcome to Nowhere,” the deadpan number in which the listless inhabitants of Bet Hatikva explain to the stony-faced Egyptians that they’re in the wrong place.

For those wary of movie-based musicals, The Band’s Visit never felt like a traditional tuner. Instead, it resembled an intimate, quite naturalistic play that happened to contain songs and incidental music. Yazbek ruefully recalls frustration over what he felt were empty pauses in rehearsal, only later realizing that the negative space of the show was just as galvanizing as the songs and lines. “A character is pouring hot water into instant coffee,” he explains, “and somehow that is a musical phrase.”

Neither Yazbek nor Moses knew of Kolirin’s movie before producer Wolf approached them — it had a U.S. release limited to just seven screens — but both felt an immediate sense of protectiveness about the filmmaker’s gentle, humanistic vision. Moses took an if-it’s-not-broke attitude toward the original screenplay and preserved as much of the action and dialogue as he could, eventually penning a terse but complete draft of a book under thirty pages. At the same time, Yazbek thought the low-key intensity of the film could translate into a work of subtle stagecraft. “I started realizing that there was something that could be different from anything I had done or seen as a musical-theater piece,” he says. Ambiguity and ambivalence are perhaps the hardest things to convey in a musical, especially between characters facing a language barrier. “I’ve seen quiet beauty and power in plays, but not musicals,” he continues. “Musicals want to push buttons all the time.”

Yazbek may have also embraced the challenge because he’s pushed buttons on Broadway since 2001’s The Full Monty. Each of his Broadway outings has its own style, but Yazbek never shrinks from comic vulgarity (the gimme-gimme number “Great Big Stuff” from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) or heart-on-sleeve longing (the aging diva ballad “Invisible” from Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown). The Band’s Visit allowed him to dial back the usual Broadway hard sell and enter a more mystical, meditative mood. When I suggest that by eschewing schmaltz and blurring the line between dialogue and song, he and Moses created an über-integrated musical, Yazbek demurs from such Broadway-historian lingo, saying, “it’s antique-sounding if you talk about that stuff, and I don’t.” He prefers to think in terms of value and exchange: “What’s the currency of the show? At the risk of sounding like an asshole, I think it has something to do with spirituality, with music as a very deep metaphor for love — which is the same thing as spiritual unity.”

“The show is on one level how we see the other and how we ‘otherize’ each other,” Moses agrees. “And the universal things that make that othering melt away.” Haled demonstrates the theme beautifully when he encourages the young Israeli, Papi, to approach the girl at that roller rink. He breaks into “Haled’s Song About Love,” a jazzy swing number that makes perfect sense coming from the Chet Baker–loving trumpet player. Crooning like a young Frank Sinatra, Haled urges the boy to lose himself in love: “No edge, no edge/No walls, no border/Two streams of water/That become the sea.”

The setting allowed Yazbek, son of a Lebanese-American immigrant, to marinate in the Middle Eastern music he’d loved for years. His sensuous score blends classical Arabic and pop influences with lyrics that ache for a world beyond borders. As Dina sings of the movies that enchanted her in her youth: “Oum Kalthoum and Omar Sharif/Came floating on a jasmine wind/From the west, from the south/Honey in my ears/Spice in my mouth.”

“As a kid, I spent some time in summer in Lebanon, and visited Egypt,” Yazbek says. “The same way I remember the first time I ate Indian food when I was seven, I remember hearing this music on the radio of a taxi in Lebanon.”

For Moses, the territory was both foreign and familiar. Raised in the Bay Area by Israeli parents, he’s spent time in Israel and felt he could write about the region with confidence. “I already have a lot of Israeli voices in my head,” he says. “but the rules of the show are very tricky.” Israeli characters speak to one another in Hebrew, and the band members talk in Arabic. By serendipity, the characters’ common language is English. “I wanted to write a show in which people speak the way they would at any given moment, but because the shared language is English, that gives us a cheat,” Moses says. “Then there’s a separate rule, where all the lyrics are in English; that’s a convention everyone accepts.”

The translation — from Israeli cult favorite indie film to Obie winner — clearly transcended borders. Reviewers were impressed by the originality and emotional directness of the piece, the production was extended, and for a brief time it was Off-Broadway’s toughest ticket. Now everyone’s simply waiting for the inevitable announcement of a Band’s Visit Broadway transfer. “The way it came together was completely unexpected for me,” Yazbek reflects. “I knew that some people would dig it. But I didn’t realize that it would be as universal as it’s been. It’s like: Holy shit. We made art, and we did it the right way. And people got it.”