“Welcome to Nowhere” say the words painted on the wall backstage at Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre. The line is lifted from the script of the show in residence there, “The Band’s Visit.” And it could not be more misleading. NEW YORK —
For the musical’s dreamers-in-chief — composer David Yazbek, book writer Itamar Moses, director David Cromer and producer Orin Wolf — have most certainly, in concert with the cast and design team, made their project a “somewhere.” On Tuesday, the production was nominated for 11 Tony Awards, including one for best musical, and many devotees of artful musical theater are hoping it has the inside track to follow recent works such as “Fun Home,” “Hamilton” and “Dear Evan Hansen” to the podium for the most coveted honors at the June 10 ceremony.
But even before the trophies are allocated, “The Band’s Visit” has to be regarded as a singular season sensation, and not only because its haunting and plaintive melodies and resonantly affecting plot betoken a work of unusual integrity and sensitivity. The importance of “The Band’s Visit” also has to do with the inordinate challenge it faces in a marketplace ever more focused on brand-name shows with roots in other media — as demonstrated by the fact that its competitors for best musical, Disney’s “Frozen,” Tina Fey’s “Mean Girls” and Nickelodeon’s “SpongeBob SquarePants,” all arrived on Broadway with fan bases of their own.
“The Band’s Visit” had no such well-traveled wagon to which it could hitch itself. Based on a small-budget 2007 Israeli movie by director Eran Kolirin that grossed about $3 million in this country in the late 2000s, the musical tiptoed onto the stage of off-Broadway’s Atlantic Theater Company in late 2016. Then, after stellar reviews, it moved uptown to the Barrymore in October, the response to which from many potential ticket-buyers was still, “The Band’s What?”
“When people hear ‘Frozen’ or ‘Mean Girls’ or any of the other shows, they’re going to know exactly what it’s about,” says Wolf, a Silver Spring-based producer who persuaded Kolirin to go along with his plan for transforming the movie into a stage property, and recruited Moses, and then Yazbek, to turn it into a musical. “Not only are they brands, but they know the plot,” he added, referring to the other musicals and their patrons.
“Some people leave our show having loved it, and they still can’t really explain what it’s about, other than like in 12 sentences: ‘Oh it’s about this band that gets lost and they’re in Israel and . . . it’s a very hard elevator pitch.” The show seems to be holding its own at the box office: After seven months on Broadway, it’s filling more than 90 percent of its seats and grossing just south of $1 million a week.
In fact, “The Band’s Visit” tells a remarkably simple story: An all-male band of Arab musicians, led by Tony-nominated Tony Shalhoub’s Tewfiq, is supposed to perform in the Israeli city of Petah Tikvah. Instead, a distracted member of the orchestra (played by Ari’el Stachel, another nominee) buys bus tickets to the stultifyingly lifeless desert backwater of Bet Hatikvah. The Israelis of the dusty town are not so much surprised to see Egyptian visitors as they are to see any visitors. And although Dina, the blasé cafe owner played by superb (and, yes, Tony-nominated) Katrina Lenk, assures us that nothing of interest takes place over the next 24 hours in Bet Hatikvah — remember, this is “Welcome to Nowhere” land — an audience learns better.
What’s beautiful about “The Band’s Visit” is its humane and humorous acceptance of the benefits of coincidence: the idea that people who have no real business becoming acquainted in short order help each other face their lives in new and affirmational ways. The unlikeliness of these worlds colliding is manifested most alluringly in the attraction between Dina and Tewfiq, each wounded and emotionally isolated and out of practice in reaching out to someone else.
The context being Jews and Arabs, about whom the headlines remind us daily of their mutual antipathy, the musical is wading into highly charged terrain. An American audience is not conditioned for the tenor of narrative that is spun here, about confrontation in a part of the world that we believe can only head in one anguished direction. How, theatergoers might ask, can such gentle and moving discoveries as “The Band’s Visit” chronicles be memorialized by a Broadway songwriter and playwright?
“People aren’t used to seeing this tone,” explained Etai Benson, a young American actor who spent part of his childhood in Israel and who plays hapless Papi, an Israeli schooled by a visiting Arab trumpet player in the art of wooing. “A lot of people come in saying, ‘Huh, what is this? And by the end I was crying and I don’t know why.’ It’s an hour and a half of ephemeral moments of kindness and generosity. Just like in life, the emotion sneaks up on them.”
Wolf and his creative team are still learning how much they should incorporate the background politics of the show — it’s set in the early 1990s, when tensions between Israel and Egypt were in abeyance — into their efforts to promote the musical. Because at the heart of the show is a nuanced sense of optimism that doesn’t reflect the Middle East as it exists now. Earlier this year, I traveled to Israel and spoke to a group of Israeli acting students in Jaffa, in an event organized by the U.S. Embassy. For the occasion, I brought along a video montage from “The Band’s Visit,” and I talked about the underlying sense of hope communicated by the show.
The students at the Nissan Nativ acting studio, some of them veterans of service in the Israeli Defense Forces, weren’t buying my upbeat American take. Many had seen the movie, well known in Israel, and to which the musical is faithful. But my endorsement of the show’s conciliatory aspects was dismissed as wishful thinking. What I described as a realistic depiction of strangers groping for what united them, they thought of as fantasy.
I wanted to know how the students’ apparent cynicism — the musical has yet to run in Israel — sat with the musical’s actors and creative team. Because they were portraying ordinary people from the two stressed cultures, I was curious about whether they thought of the events of “The Band’s Visit” as portraying anything close to what is currently possible.
“Hope doesn’t have to be huge,” Lenk said in an interview backstage at the Barrymore. “It can be small, subtle — about things being a little bit better.” But Stachel, an American actor of Yemeni Jewish descent who plays the rakish Egyptian trumpet player, Haled, had some family members from Israel come to “The Band’s Visit” who didn’t see it as resembling their own reality.
“It’s fiction to them,” Stachel said during a phone interview. Americans, he said, have the luxury of distance: “There’s something about being an outsider that allows us to see the commonality that those who are living the experience cannot.”
Yazbek took the position that, although the music he’s composed and the characters Moses depicted are inextricably linked to a specific time and place, the location does not have to be taken literally. “It could be any two groups,” he said of the show. “It’s not political. It’s not really just about Israelis and Arabs. It’s about any two peoples. It’s about tribalism.”
To that point, Etai Benson said: “People expect because there are Arabs and Israelis that there is going to be this intense conflict between them. It turns out the real conflict lies within each of those groups — and it takes someone from the other side to come mend the problem, and help them heal.”
Beside Lenk in her dressing room sat George Abud, a Lebanese American actor who plays the Egyptian violinist, Camal, in the musical. “It’s worthy to be told,” he said of the musical. “It’s important because of the horrors going on today.” Both he and Lenk were part of a group of artists from the show who went to Israel last summer. It was there, for him, that fact and fiction did come together. In the small Negev Desert town they visited — one of the residents calls it “the end of the world” — Abud played violin with the kids in the local student orchestra. The children were so excited to be performing with him, he said, that it was clear all that mattered was the art.
As in the musical itself, he said, the goal of the trip was to “distill the politics out of it. The center of it all, is people.”
The Band’s Visit, music and lyrics by David Yazbek, book by Itamar Moses. Directed by David Cromer. $59 to $299. At Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St., New York. Visit telecharge.com or call 212-239-6200.