Among its many innovations, the new musical The Band’s Visit, which has arrived at Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre after its acclaimed Off-Broadway run at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater last year, offers you two chances to give a standing ovation: the inevitable one, when the cast comes out for its curtain call; and the truthful one, prompted by sheer musical joy, at the surprise encore that follows said curtain call, in which seven instrumentalists perform a piece of what the script describes as “classical Arab music.” That’s something you don’t hear on Broadway every season, and the gorgeous playing amply justifies the crowd leaping to its feet to cheer at the finish.
But by that point, at the end of its intermissionless ninety minutes, The Band’s Visit has supplied you with so many surprises that when you leave, you may even find the gray, noisy Manhattan outside the theater a little bit magical. A musical about moderately unhappy people who, for the most part, remain moderately unhappy at its ending? A musical with no ultra-regimented showstopper dances, no spangly-feathery costumes, no super-hyped big-finish vocal numbers that end in ear-busting belted top notes? A musical where one of the pivotal events is a clarinetist lulling somebody else’s baby to sleep with the prelude to his unfinished concerto? The Band’s Visit lives happily without all the usual tawdry tricks beloved by standard-issue Broadway musicals. If it celebrates anything, it celebrates the pleasure of knowing that human beings are not standard issue, that the real wonder of our lives is our sense of our difference from one another. Which turns out, by the magic of reality, to be exactly what we have in common.
The Band’s Visit focuses on the awkwardnesses caused by such small differences. Owing to a tiny linguistic disparity between Hebrew and Arabic, an Egyptian police band, traveling to play a concert at the opening of an Arab cultural center in a large Israeli city, gets stranded by mistake in a nothing small town in the desert, with no way out until the next morning. Though this situation is fraught with political tensions, nobody talks politics, and most certainly nobody offers any sentimental generalizations or pie-in-the-sky cure-alls. The one character who displays any xenophobic hostility gets dismissed by the locals as an “asshole.” The evening’s basic attitude toward its potentially explosive political content is an almost cosmic diffidence, summed up in the description of the event with which it opens and closes: “You probably didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t very important.”
And, indeed, nothing that happens in The Band’s Visit is “very important.” It’s just all wonderful — heartwarming, heartbreaking, heart-confusing, and mind-stimulating. A man with a weight on his conscience gets a chance to confess; a lonely woman gets a little consolation; a married couple at odds gets a temporary reconciliation; a pathologically shy boy gets a little encouragement; a career-stalled musician gets a little praise. And we, luckiest of all, get floods of charm, empathy, and human understanding, thanks to Itamar Moses’s script (based on the 2007 Israeli film of the same name), David Yazbek’s songs, and David Cromer’s stunningly discreet, daringly austere production. Those who think the phrase “a Broadway musical” means incessant clamor and running around have already started to complain about Cromer’s Chekhovian pauses, each immaculately apt to the situation, and about the simple, quiet humaneness of the whole thing. No spangles, just people.
Moses’s script sets out, with elegant terseness, the relationships, in a slightly stilted English diction, the meager spoken language the characters share; for privacy before strangers, they lapse into Arabic or Hebrew. (The original film contains so much English dialogue that it was barred from competing for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category.) But words aren’t the only mode of human communication: The emotional desert the script maps out bursts into astonishing bloom through Yazbek’s songs — eccentric, discursive creations, flavored with spirited Middle Eastern rhythms, melodic turns, and instrumental timbres, that surge up out of nowhere and sometimes vanish as unexpectedly as they began.
Full of emotional revelation, the songs are often meditative soliloquies, lifting the characters, as they sing, far above their petty frustrations, investing them with a nearly Shakespearean grandeur. The music transfigures everything; it can turn a seedy juke joint, a roller rink, or a pay phone in the middle of nowhere into a moonstruck scene of love and understanding. American pop music, sometimes slyly riffed on in Yazbek’s tunes, trickles into the characters’ lingua franca: Gershwin’s “Summertime,” “Moon River,” Michael Jackson. (The show’s sweetest running gag involves Chet Baker’s version of Rodgers and Hart’s “My Funny Valentine.”) “Love starts on a downbeat,” one of Yazbek’s lyrics asserts, “love starts when the music starts.” As we watch these lonely, frustrated, discomfited people spill out their longings so melodically, it’s easy to believe.
Gently and subtly, Cromer blends this mix of arid discontents and lush emotional yearnings into a startlingly savory whole, a piece of musical-theater nouvelle cuisine, in which the disparate elements enliven one another’s flavors. The performances embed themselves in one’s memory: Tony Shalhoub as the band’s starchy, hyper-cautious leader; Katrina Lenk as the sad-eyed, disillusioned woman who keeps the local café; Ari’el Stachel as the young trumpeter with a roving eye; Andrew Polk as a chatty Jewish grandpa; Kirsten Sieh as his frazzled daughter; John Cariani as her hapless, jobless husband; Alok Tewari as the career-blocked clarinetist; Etai Benson as the shy kid who, when girls talk to him, only hears the roaring of the sea. Having now seen the show twice (Off-Broadway and on), I already think of these people as neighbors and friends, who have somehow acquired the gift of pouring out their characteristic songs whenever I encounter them. And, having a few hang-ups of my own, I’m already anticipating the awkwardness I will feel when I email the press rep to ask if I can see the show a few more times. That I’m totally in love with everybody involved somehow doesn’t seem like an adequate explanation.