Meet the 'The Band’s Visit' Surprising New (And Old) Israeli Star

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Sasson Gabay and Katrina Lenk in "The Band's Visit" on Broadway.
Sasson Gabay and Katrina Lenk in "The Band's Visit" on Broadway.Credit: Evan Zimmerman / MurphyMade 2018
Itay Stern
Itay Stern
Itay Stern
Itay Stern

Just as he’s done in every performance he’s been in for his entire life, Sasson Gabai, one of Israel’s most senior actors, stepped onto the stage three weeks ago with his right foot first, muttering some words to himself intended to dispel concerns about an evil eye jinxing his performance. Nevertheless, something was different.

'The dialogue began last October, but I didn’t believe it would happen, since Shalhoub had already been cast for the part, and went on to win the Tony'

This time, it was the Barrymore Theater in New York, where Gabai was appearing in front of an American audience who had come to see him and the Tony Award-winning play in which he was starring. The worries and quickened heartbeat were more intense than usual.

Sasson Gabai. 'I never dreamt of it, the dream dreamed me.'Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Gabai had been called to take over for Tony Shalhoub in the stage production of “The Band’s Visit,” playing the role of Tewfiq, the conductor of the Egyptian band that comes to perform in Israel, and mistakenly ends up in a remote town in the Negev desert. He had played the part 11 years earlier in the original film version directed by Eran Kolirin.

Now that his face adorns billboards on Broadway and his photo has appeared in The New York Times’ theater section, it seems that after 40 years Gabai has conquered a peak he didn’t believe he ever would. At the age of 70, he packed his bags and left his home base at the Beit Lessin Theater in Tel Aviv, where he’s been performing continuously for 23 years.

Sasson Gabbai in 'The Band's Visit' on Broadway.Credit: Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

“I never dreamt of it, the dream dreamed me,” says Gabai about the opportunity that fell into his lap. “The dialogue began last October, but I didn’t believe it would happen, since Shalhoub had already been cast for the part, and went on to win the Tony. Tzipi Pines [the general director of the Beit Lessin theater in Tel Aviv] was very understanding and allowed me to take up this opportunity, which really is exceptional.”

A shot from the original 'The Band's visit' film.Credit: Shai Goldman / Yes

Gabai has played in American films before (“Rambo 3” may be the best known of them), but a starring role on Broadway was something special. “I always maintain a threshold of sensitivity and excitement in each performance. You have to make it precious and important, despite your previous experience,” he explains. “This was a different kind of excitement, since I already had the experience, the control and maturity, as well as familiarity with the character, since I had shaped it. I had been a source of inspiration for having played the character in the film.”

He was born in Baghdad in 1947. His résumé boasts dozens of roles on the screen, on TV and in the theater, as well as a long list of awards. He’s married and has five children and five grandchildren. He began his career at Jerusalem’s Khan Theater, before moving to Israel's nationa theater, Habima, and the Cameri theater, and from there to Beit Lessin theater, where he became its lead actor alongside actress Yona Elian. 

A brilliant political comedy

'I don’t have a Facebook account and apparently I’m the only actor on Broadway right now without a Twitter account. I have Instagram, but it’s very passive'

“Polishuk is a character who is like a fish out of water. He’s thrown on land and told to get by,” says Gabai, in describing the well-loved character. “He does somersaults trying really hard to survive in a world he has no affinity with, doing everything in order to succeed and for the sake of being loved by the media. It’s the opposite of the hero in ‘The Band’s Visit.’ Today’s politicians make fools of themselves, outdoing the satire of Polishuk. You open the paper and can’t believe that there are politicians who’ve uttered such stupid things. This problem exists not just with us – here there is a president who speaks so crudely you can’t believe it.”

A scene from the Israeli film 'The Band's Visit,' with the late actress Ronit Elkabetz and Gabai.
Gabai took over the role previously portrayed by actor Tony Shalhoub, seen in a performance of "The Band's Visit." Credit: LUCAS JACKSON/ REUTERS

Has his great success given him peace of mind or is he still worried about how he’ll be remembered? Gabai has no unequivocal answers. “I’m so aware that we’re nothing but a speck of dust; that even the giants disappear. We must remember that we live in one world and that we’re fated to spend a few years together, so let’s be good to one another. As for my work, I always look for more, I never rest on my laurels. I always have more to learn, keeping my mental flexibility and performing agility. The profession of acting is about the here and now, especially the theater, which is why I love it, since there is a need for contact with the audience. It’s important to me that the audience loves me. Pardon the expression, but you want it from both a 5-year-old and from an adult. It doesn’t matter who you are as long as you love me.”

Do you think this need for love becomes dependence?

“Happily I manage to enjoy life even when I’m not on stage. I have my family, children and grandchildren, as well as good friends. There are moments when I’m alone and I’m not happy all the time, but I have moments of happiness in life, mainly with simple things: going for a meal with my family, going on a trip, hugging my grandchildren. The word ‘dependence’ is not the right one. ‘Need’ is more apt. It’s a need I’m aware of and I’m thankful for having it. Acting is a way of life. An actor who doesn’t act is like a fish out of water. It’s my way of expressing myself and it’s the best way I can do that.”

Between New York and Stockholm

While Gabai is in New York, where he is expected to appear in the play through the coming year, he also features back home in the new Hebrew TV miniseries “Stockholm,” which premiered on Monday on the Israeli public broadcater Kan TV.

He plays Amos, an economics professor who lives in the shadow of his friend and colleague Avishai (Gidi Gov), who, as the story opens, is found dead in his apartment a few days before the scheduled announcement of the winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics. Amos and Avishai’s other closest, lifelong friends, who are played by other renowned Israeli actors Tiki Dayan, Leora Rivlin and Dov Glickman, decide to conceal the fact of Avishai’s death long enough for him to be awarded the prize and gain his place in the history books.

A shot from the new Israeli TV series 'Stockholm.' The Nobel prize winner is unfortunetaly dead.Credit: Ronen Ackerman
The cast in "The Band's Visit" on Broadway.Credit: Evan Zimmerman / MurphyMade 2018

At least this is how they explain to themselves their bizarre move, which drags them into a macabre comedy of errors. Later on it transpires that the decision to keep the professor “alive” derives from vested interests that include pursuit of status, turf wars, old grudges and plain old avarice.

In the first episode Rivlin’s character becomes the target of an online lynch. It’s obvious that she, like the rest of the gang, hasn’t really mastered the transition into the era of social networks.

“It took me years to get into this world of technology, but now I’m sort of connected. I was a technophobe, and in some way I hated it since it undermined the world I was familiar with, one that included a personal touch. I’ll always prefer buying in a store over purchasing something online, but my kids and grandkids are living that kind of life. It’s a world I’ve resigned myself to. I don’t have a Facebook account and apparently I’m the only actor on Broadway right now without a Twitter account. I have Instagram, but it’s very passive. I found that this was a good solution, since if I have anything to say to the world I can do it through that account. Over the years I’ve learned that there are some advantages to social networks, whereby everyone can express their opinion. Everyone has a voice, which is an advantage but also a problem.”

The topics covered in “Stockholm” – which is based on the novel by Israeli author Noa Yedlin, who also wrote the teleplay – are something Gabai is familiar with. “I tried to neutralize it to the best of my ability, but I don’t believe there is anyone who is completely immune to it,” he says about the pursuit of status. “I don’t believe anyone who says he doesn’t care and that he doesn’t want to win an award, an embrace or recognition. Getting acclaim is part of our profession. No one is immune. This is true in any field. Even if you make bread, you’ll want recognition that you bake the best.”

“It was a pleasure to work with Dovale Glickman, Tiki Dayan, Leora Rivlin and Gidi Gov. These are colleagues who are my age. We’ve already shown what we can do, so we worked together quietly, without elbows or a need to show off.” Gabai is also very complimentary of director Danny Sirkin and screenwriter Yedlin.

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