How does a small indie film from 2007 evolve into an award-winning Broadway musical hit a decade later? Itamar Moses, who wrote the book for The Band’s Visit, tells CityBeat how this musical came to be. The musical’s tour will be performed at the Aronoff Center for the Arts for a one-week engagement beginning July 19.
Moses says he received an email from a set of producers in 2014 asking him to consider adapting the film’s screenplay about an Egyptian band getting stranded in a remote town in Israel. He had worked on a few musicals and knew that collaborating with a team of creators could be challenging. But legendary director and producer Hal Prince was part of the project, giving Moses some incentive.
“With Hal involved, I decided to go to the meeting,” Moses says.
Moses’s parents were from Israel, where the film was a big hit, and he had visited the region many times.
“I immediately saw why they thought it [a musical adaptation] would work,” he recalls. “It had a small group of characters, mostly having conversations in rooms. It’s about a band, so there’s a very organic reason to have music. And it’s about trying to communicate across cultures with different languages. Music can be a metaphor for reaching across barriers. I felt like I was the person to do it.”
Moses’s interest gathered momentum when award-winning composer David Yazbek was being considered. Eventually, Yazbek signed on to officially become the musical’s composer. His string of credible hits — The Full Monty (2000); Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (2005), and Tootsie (2019) — elevated the likelihood of success. Moses says that in a phone conversation with Yazbek, he made it clear that he didn’t want to turn the show into an extravagant production.
“I wanted to keep it small and quiet, very spare,” Moses says. “David said all the same things I was thinking: Keep it small, strange, elegiac, poignant. We really connected over why we thought this could work.”
Eran Kolirin’s 2007 film version of The Band’s Visit was inspired by a story about the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, comprised of Egyptian musicians who take the wrong bus and arrive at Bet Hatikva, a backwater Israeli settlement, rather than Petah Tikva, where they had been engaged to play at the opening of an Arab cultural center. Another bus will not come for 24 hours, so the musicians must spend the night. Under the spell of the desert sky with beautiful music perfuming the air, the band brings the town to life in unexpected and tantalizing ways.
Yazbek developed a seductive score for a show that offers profound insights as the musicians and the townspeople intersect – especially Tewfiq, the band’s starchy, stand-offish director, and Dina, the town’s de facto social director. They seem to be on a track toward would-be lovers, but they relate awkwardly. A common connection finally occurs while sitting in a café talking about music by Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum and movie star Omar Sharif, whom both Dina and Tewfiq admire. Dina sings a magical song, “Omar Sharif,” about her memories of these Arab entertainers on the radio and television as she grew up in Israel.
Moses says translating a movie into a stage musical can be a challenge.
“We don’t have the power of the camera to convey emotion with close-ups and slow pans across a bleak desert landscape to direct viewers’ attention to a small object on a table,” he explains. “That’s where music and songs come in. A song is like an emotional close-up. People reveal themselves and their feelings when they sing.”
For the musical version of The Band’s Visit, Moses brought together two moments from the film when never-married Dina and lonely Tewfiq share their memories of Kulthum and Sharif. Moments of connection between Arab musicians and Israeli townspeople underscore common human desires of life, love and loss.
The unassuming show began at the 200-seat off-Broadway Atlantic Theater in late 2016. Following enthusiastic reviews, it moved to Broadway’s 1,000-seat Barrymore Theatre a year later. There, the show – which the New York Times called an “honest-to-God musical for grownups” – sparked more positive commentary and had 589 performances through April 2019.
The Band’s Visit is one of just four musicals in Broadway history to win the unofficial “big six” Tony Awards —Best Musical, Best Book, Best Score, Best Actor in a Musical, Best Actress in a Musical, and Best Direction of a Musical. Its cast recording won a 2019 Grammy, and a tour began in 2019. Following a COVID-19 interruption, it’s on the move again, including this engagement in Cincinnati.
Interestingly, Tewfiq, played on Broadway by familiar TV actor Tony Shalhoub (who won a Tony for his performance), is now portrayed by Sason Gabay, who originated the role in the 2007 movie. Moses points out that there is a kind of “meta-layer” to Gabay’s performance.
“Tewfiq’s story is that of someone who thought his last chance at love was past, and now he’s getting a second chance. That’s similar to what’s happened with Gabay returning to the role years later,” Moses says.
Why did this unusual, small-scale show do so well? Moses suggests that initially it was because it opened on Broadway immediately after the tumultuous 2016 presidential election.
“With all the rhetoric around immigration and border-crossing, a lot of people were craving a story about outsiders being welcomed,” Moses says. “Strangers can enrich everybody’s life!”
That enthusiasm continued even after the tour’s COVID hiatus, Moses says.
“People are still responding intensely. Now it’s more about feeling isolated, all the things we felt during the pandemic,” Moses says. “The ice begins to melt when you get to connect with people after the trauma we went through. That message was inherent in the movie, and we were able to adapt it in a way that speaks to the pain or the trauma of almost any moment.”
“The antidote is always human connection, taking care of each other, opening the heart,” he continues. “Our show conveys that in a way that doesn’t feel preachy or sentimental. That’s why people respond to it.”
The Band’s Visit, presented by Broadway in Cincinnati, runs July 19-24 at Aronoff Center for the Arts, 650 Walnut St., Downtown. Info: cincinnatiarts.org.
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