‘The Band’s Visit’: The Little Israeli Story That Conquered Broadway

Seven things you need to know about the musical that just won 10 Tony Awards – from its roots as an award-winning Israeli film to allowing actors to play Middle Eastern characters true to their roots

Katrina Lenk as Dina and Tony Shalhoub as Tawfeq, performing a song from "The Band's Visit" during the Tony Awards, June 10, 2018.
Michael Zorn/AP

“The Band’s Visit” is the surprise Broadway smash of the year, claiming 10 prizes at this year’s Tony Awards on Sunday – including best musical, best book, best direction and three acting awards (including for lead actors Tony Shalhoub and Katrina Lenk).

This small-scale musical with a big heart has been charming audiences ever since it debuted on Off Broadway in December 2016 and then moved to the Ethel Barrymore Theater on Broadway last November.

Adapted from a 2007 Israeli film of the same name, the musical charts the adventures – if that’s not too strong a word for such a gentle, understated story – of an Egyptian police band that is booked to open an Arab cultural center in Petah Tikva, central Israel, in the mid-1990s. However, after a mix-up at the Egypt-Israel border, the band ends up in Bet Hatikva, a one-horse town in the middle of the desert – a place where what passes for life centers around the café owned by Dina (Katrina Lenk).

Here’s what you need to know about the hit musical...

 The cast and producers of "The Band's Visit" accepting the award for Best Musical at the Tonys, June 10, 2018.
LUCAS JACKSON/ REUTERS

1 Contrary to some reports, the original movie – which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007 – is not based on a true story.

The film’s writer-director, Eran Kolirin, told Indiewire in 2008 that he was reading a travel book in which the author related how he came to Israel by car for the first time and, becoming stressed and disoriented, ended up in the small city of Netanya instead of Tel Aviv. “Because of this mistake, he describes the conversation he has with a girl at the information desk at the hotel. That’s what inspired the movie,” Kolirin explained.

Kolirin also told the Washington Post that the story developed out of a vision he had of a man in a police uniform who sings.

Although the film won a top award at Cannes and eight Israeli Oscars (including best film and best music, for Habib Shadah’s lovely score), it was denied the chance to compete at the 2008 Academy Awards in the best foreign language film category – it was deemed to have too much dialogue in English.

The original comedy-drama (known as “Bikur Hatizmoret” in Hebrew) starred Ronit Elkabetz as Dina and Sasson Gabai as Egyptian band leader Lt. Col. Tawfiq Zacharya. Tragically, Elkabetz died from cancer at age 51 in April 2016. But in a lovely touch that brings things full circle, Gabai is to reprise his film role on Broadway later this month. The 70-year-old, Iraq-born actor will replace Tony Shalhoub, starting June 26.

2 When producer Orin Wolf saw Kolirin’s movie at the Other Israel Film Festival in New York in 2007, he turned to his wife when the end credits rolled and said “This has gotta be staged,” according to Broadway News.

The first public reading of “The Band’s Visit” took place in Hartford, Connecticut, in 2010 – though this was basically just a read through of the film’s screenplay. It would be five years before book writer Itamar Moses and composer David Yazbek came on board. (Theater legend Hal Prince was originally set to direct the show, but had to drop out due to a scheduling conflict.)

3 Yazbek, 57, grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side with a Maronite Arab father from Lebanon and a half-Jewish, half-Italian mother. Able to play several Arab instruments – including the darbuka (a goblet-shaped drum) and the pear-shaped oud – he told the New York Times last November he was also perfectly qualified to translate “the sound of Israeli sarcasm.”

Yazbek’s previous Broadway hits include the musical adaptations of several other films, including “The Full Monty” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” (another adaptation, “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” was less successful).

Berkeley-born Moses, 41 this year, is a Jewish-American playwright whose parents moved to California from Israel. He is best-known for the 2011 play “Completeness” and an alleged literary feud with novelist Jonathan Safran Foer that was said to be the source of Moses’ 2007 play “The Four of Us.”

Moses may be as apt a name as possible for a story about people coming from Egypt and getting stranded in the Israeli desert, but the writer was initially reluctant to work on "Visit," as it would be his third musical in a row. The reason he offered to Theater Mania for his reluctance can now been be seen in an ironic light. "Musicals are so hard and the ecosystem is such that you end up feeling that if it didn't move to Broadway and win everything, you failed," he said.

Yazbek and Moses have both been at pains to explain that their show, like the film, is not about the tensions between Israel and its Arab neighbors. “This could be about any two groups, even Democrats and Republicans,” Yazbek told NPR last year.

4 With its Middle Eastern-inspired sounds, the musical is unusual by Broadway standards – especially as it lacks the big showstopper tunes commonly associated with the Great White Way.

Yazbek has explained that he used Arabic instruments from the very beginning. “If you’re writing for an oud, then there are certain things that are gonna happen — it’s a fretless instrument, so those chord progressions might be something you’d hear a contemporary Israeli or Arabic songwriter using,” he has said.

It is not only the music that’s drawn from the region. Sound designer Kai Harada (also a Tony Award winner Sunday night) told Backstage he did a “fair amount of research” to ensure that the background noises were also right for the Israeli desert – which meant studying the sound of the wind and the chirping of crickets.

5 No matter how charming the storyline, all musicals live or die on the strength of their music – and “The Band’s Visit” has wowed critics with songs that successfully balance heartfelt emotion and sharp humor.

The score includes “Welcome to Nowhere” (“Stick a pin in a map of the desert. / Build a road to the middle of the desert. / Pour concrete on the spot in the desert. / That’s Bet Hatikva”), “Haled’s Song About Love,” “Answer Me” and the closest thing the musical has to an actual “showstopper,” “Omar Sharif.”

Yet that song – in which café owner Dina (played by Katrina Lenk) sings of an Israeli childhood spent watching Egyptian movies on a Friday evening, falling under the spell of the actor Omar Sharif and legendary Egyptian singer-actor Umm Kulthum – was actually dropped from the musical for a spell during the development stage.

Yazbek told New York magazine the song was cut for at least six months as they were working on the musical, much to his discomfort (“I was thinking this might be one of the best songs I’ve ever written”). Luckily for him and audiences, when David Cromer came onboard as director, he wanted to hear all of the songs that had been cut – giving the composer a chance to argue for the reintroduction of the “cafeteria song.”

6 Critics took “The Band’s Visit” to their hearts immediately. The initial Off Broadway show at the Atlantic Theatre won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best musical in 2016, and the same prize from the Outer Critics Circle Awards.

The New York Times called the Broadway production “a rarity seldom found these days outside of the canon of Stephen Sondheim: an honest-to-God musical for grown-ups,” while the Chicago Tribune labeled it “remarkable and boundlessly compassionate.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, Jewish magazine Tablet called it “terrific.”

7 The cast includes many actors of Middle Eastern origin. Shalhoub is of Lebanese descent, while his replacement when he was filming season two of “The Amazing Mrs. Maisel” recently, Dariush Kashani, was born in Tehran. George Abud (Camal) is Lebanese-American, while Ari’el Stachel (Haled) is of Yemenite descent. Sharone Sayegh (Anna) is of Iraqi-Israeli descent, while Adam Kantor went from playing Motel Kamzoil in “Fiddler on the Roof” to Telephone Guy in “The Band’s Visit.”

Ari'el Stachel accepting the award for featured actor in a musical for "The Band's Visit," at Radio City Music Hall, New York, June 10, 2018.
LUCAS JACKSON/ REUTERS

Indeed, Stachel provided the Tony Awards ceremony with one of its most memorable moments in his acceptance speech, in which he echoed recent comments he made in Time magazine about how “The Band’s Visit” had allowed him to come to terms with being Middle Eastern.

On Sunday night, in a teary speech, he said: “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.”

As yet, there are no confirmed plans for an Israeli version of the musical. Still, in order to avoid any misunderstandings, perhaps they should avoid holding the premiere in Petah Tikva.