Isn’t it rich: Sasson Gabay, star of the 2007 Israeli movie “The Band’s Visit,” had such a heady, surreal experience playing the same role in the Broadway musical last year that he thought without irony, “I’m in a movie.” New York City audiences rose to their feet. Fans waited at the stage door.
“For every actor, even American actors, to be on Broadway is a big thrill,” says Gabay (a.k.a. Gabai), whose film performance as Tewfiq — the ultra-disciplined conductor of an Egyptian band stranded in a small Israeli desert town — was dubbed “magnificently sober” by the New York Times. “You can imagine for me as an actor from Israel — I didn’t dream about it.”
“Nothing is as beautiful,” goes a lyric in David Yazbek’s score for the understated musical that won 10 Tony Awards in 2018, “as something that you don’t expect.” Now the longtime Tel Aviv actor Gabay is taking the unexpected hit on the road, giving audiences a rare chance to see a performer acclaimed for a role on screen taking on the same part in the Broadway adaptation; the show begins at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater on July 9. As a bonus for Gabay, his 21-year-old son, Adam, is making his stage debut in the tour, cast as a lovelorn Israeli kid named Papi.
Tony Shalhoub played Tewfiq when the musical opened and was among the show’s award winners even though he had left the cast months before. Gabay, now 71, stepped into the familiar character last June and stayed until it closed this April. Director David Cromer says Gabay is known among the show’s insiders as “the ur-Tewfiq.”
“We were always referencing him,” Cromer says of the creative team, which included Yazbek and book writer Itamar Moses. “I watched the film over and over. It would become part of the show, this interpretation of what Sasson was doing in the film. He became part of the DNA of it.”
The movie was shot over three weeks in rural Israel, with Gabay sometimes catching a bit of sleep in a car as he was shuttled between filming during the day and performing in a Tel Aviv theater at night. “The townspeople would bring food and sweets,” Gabay says of the movie’s desert location. “We were quite an attraction.”
Tewfiq is the stern leader of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, an oddly formal group in powder-blue uniforms marooned in Bet Hatikvah. Petah Tikvah is where their concert is scheduled — that’s the confusion that sets the sublime human comedy in motion — but the cash-strapped troupe can’t get there. The last bus has pulled out, and the Egyptian and Israeli characters speak Arabic and Hebrew among themselves, but mostly tentative English with each other. As the band’s disciplined, diplomatic leader, Gabay’s quietly concerned performance is key.
When the picture came out, writer-director Eran Kolirin told Indiewire that he cast Gabay for his “aura”: “Like an Egyptian star, even though he is not Egyptian. I thought his allure could add to this role the extra charm of old-style stardom.”
“I said, half joking: ‘Stop looking for an actor. I know this character. I know this man,’ ” Gabay recalls. He was born in Baghdad, and his Jewish family moved to Israel when he was 3; the Arabic-accented English Gabay speaks in the movie is based on the way his father sounded. (Gabay’s four languages are Hebrew, Arabic, English and French.)
The performance is so subtle that Cromer describes it as watching Tewfiq and Dina — the Israeli woman who runs a restaurant and helps the stranded Egyptians find lodging overnight — doing virtually nothing. When the idea came up that it might be right for the stage, “I thought it’s not a very good idea,” Gabay says. “It sounds to me very strange, impossible. The film is so delicate and gentle. How can you transform it into a musical?”
At the same time, the thoughtful calm of the movie makes it rather like a play. Gabay notes how often the camera sits still, especially in a blissful comic scene involving Papi, a bashful girl named Julia and Haled, the ladies’ man of the band. That restraint, and the focus on lost souls connecting during a single slow night, made it possible to translate to the stage.
As for the politics implied by the project, opinion varies. When Ari’el Stachel won his Tony Award last year for playing Haled, he said in his acceptance speech, “I am part of a cast of actors who never believed they would be able to portray their own races, and we are doing that. And not only that, we are getting messages from kids all over the Middle East thanking us and telling us how transformative our representation is for them.”
Kolirin told The Post in 2008 that the show “addresses politicized questions about Israel assimilating to the culture of the East, how those connections are fading in the more modernized Israel.”
On the other hand, Gabay says, “it’s about human beings that overcome the politics. These people in this night pass through a journey in life. They reveal secrets, their hopes and their frustrations in life. It’s about mainly how much we are all alike, all of us. I think this is the attraction of the musical and the film, that everyone can find himself in it.”
But he also says, “For a North American audience that doesn’t know a lot about Israeli culture, Middle Eastern culture, this way of thinking — it will be a revelation and an introduction to something they don’t know.”
Getting a sense of the range of Gabay’s career can be tough for that North American audience, who may have little more to draw on than distant memories of “Rambo III,” wherein he played Mousa. But as taciturn as he is playing Tewfiq, Gabay is garrulous in the recent Israeli series “Shtisel,” a slice of life examining ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem. Cromer describes a decades-old “Peter Pan” he once unearthed online in which Gabay romped through his part as Captain Hook. Adam Gabay tells of catching the acting bug when he was 3 and he co-starred with his father in a Hanukkah sketch at a kindergarten party, as he and his father played two cooks getting the food all wrong.
“He’s an actor,” Cromer says. “He just wants to hang out. He doesn’t lecture us on the film, or the state of Israel. But he’s a very big star, not as much in the States as overseas. You meet people from Europe who see him and go, ‘My God, it’s him.’ ”
For the next year, Gabay will forgo some of that movie star luster to travel America in a show that extends the life of a life-changing part. “You can say for sure it’s changed my career,” he says. “I see it as a kind of small miracle.”
The Band’s Visit. July 9-Aug. 4 at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. $45-$149, subject to change. 202-467-4600 or kennedy-center.org