The Band’s Visit

robertsondaviesplain copy copy.jpgBy Ruth Geye
One of the most well-received shows of the season, David Yazbek and Itamar Moses’  The Band’s Visit is a very unlikely musical. In the spectacle-driven medium of Musical Theatre, shows adapted from subdued indie dramas – particularly subdude indie dramas not even half in English that few Americans have watched – don’t often make it to Broadway.
Perhaps that’s a mistake. Most would look at the original film and ask, “They can barely speak to each other, how can they sing?” However, what those masses miss – and what Yazbek makes a thesis of his piece – is the notion that, perhaps, singing is easier.
The show opens with an overture played by the musical’s titular band, an organic implementation of the actor-instrumentalist trend more similar to its use in the musical adaptation of Once than John Doyle’s favorite revival gimmick. When the curtain rises, the band members stand in a bus terminal, speaking in rushed, unsupertitled Arabic when Camal (played by George Abud) nervously suggests, “Maybe we should speak English,” both conveniently facilitating a language switch for the audience and establishing within the narrative the supposed dissonance of speaking Arabic in Israel. The rest of the show is similarly tri-lingual and unsupertitled, relying on context and perhaps too convenient but still dramatically justified switches back to English to tell the story.
At the top of the show, the titular band sets out for the busting Israeli city of Petaḥ Tikvah to play at the dedication of the new Arab Cultural Center, but winds up in the remote Negev village of Beit HaTikvah due to some phonological peculiarities of Arabic: there is no /p/ sound in Arabic, while in Hebrew the פ can be pronounced either like the English “p” or “f,” the Arabic equivalent ف only retained the /f/ sound, consequently many Arabic speakers wind up substituting /p/ with /b/ since they are both plosive consonants. Haled (played by Ari’el Stachel) is no exception. The fact he is busy flirting with the girl behind the ticket counter with references to his beloved Chet Baker while making the very important purchase does not help.
Shortly before boarding the wrong bus, Band Leader Tewfiq (played by Tony Shalhoub) says, “There are those who doubt us, and unfortunately some of those people are in control of our funding. So, there will be no embarrassments. There will be no mistakes,” simultaneously hamming up the dramatic irony for all audience members even slightly acquainted with the plot, and establishing the stakes for Tewfiq and his Ceremonial Police Orchestra.
Lights come up on a shabby cafe and we finally begin our opening number, “Waiting.” The lyric is cheekily self aware; the turntable shifts the set as we hear the line, “Sometime it feels like we’re going in a circle.” The lyric meanders conversationally, but every so often, even through the hectic meter, everything lines up on the beat for an exceptionally satisfying rhyme. There is a long wait for the payoff in “There’s the kind where you’re expecting something new or even strange / But this kind of waiting, you keep looking off out into the distance even though you know the view is never going to change,” but when it gets there, it lands all the more powerfully. The song lacks traditional structure – a verse, chorus, or bridge for the song couldn’t be neatly defined – but variations on “Waiting, for something, for anything to happen” serve as a refrain of sorts, weaving through the lyric, often layered with other counter melodies.
“Waiting” establishes setting before the band arrives, but the second song of the show, “Welcome to Nowhere,” serves a remarkably similar purpose. While the first verse is Dina explaining the mistake Tewfiq and his band made (itself a double beat of the conversation Dina and Tewfiq had immediately prior to the start of the song), the rest of the song skewers the monotony of Beit HaTikvah, just as “Waiting” did. “Welcome to Nowhere,” which is in many ways a stronger song musically and lyrically, is made to feel redundant.
The show then begins to shift between three different narratives as members of the band are divided up for the night: Dina and Tewfiq on the town, Haled and Papi with his friends at the roller disco, and Camal and Simon at Izik’s house with his dysfunctional family. Dina gets in a lot of exposition about her wounds and some well-timed visual knife jokes in “It is What it Is,” while Izik’s father Avrum’s “The Beat of Your Heart” establishes family dynamics and delves into the show’s thesis about the synonimity of music and love, asking, “But music and love, who can tell them apart?”
The next scene is perhaps the most beautiful in the show, a moment of connection between Dina and Tewfiq over the music of Egyptian star Umm Kulthum, that taps into another key element of the show, a connection between supposedly disparate cultures. The show’s composer/lyricist, David Yazbek, and several of its actors themselves straddle the “binary” of Jewish and Arab the show seeks to bridge. Yazbek’s mother is an Italian Jew while his father is Lebanese, Ari’el Stachel who plays Haled, one of the Egyptians, is a Temani-Ashkenazi Jew, and Sharone Sayegh who plays Anna, one of of the residents of Beit HaTikvah, is Iraqi-Israeli. With this blurring of lines between the two categories, the show becomes not only a celebration of Arab-Jewish cooperation, but a validation of Arab Jewish identity.
The one element of that conversation lost in translation from movie to musical came with the casting of (the wonderful but not Arab, Jewish, let alone Arab Jewish) Katrina Lenk. In the film, Dina is played by the late great Ronit Elkabetz – a Moroccan Jew who herself grew up hearing both Arabic and Hebrew spoken at home. When Elkabetz’s Dina says to Tewfiq, “Tell me something in Arabic…to hear the music” she is connecting back to something in her own past as a Maghrebi Jew; when the two bond Egyptian film and music, it’s not just a shared interest, but a cultural connection. That scene from the film is included nearly word for word in the musical and then continued in what is a bit of a double beat (and one of the best new musical theatre compositions in recent memory), Dina’s solo, “Omar Sharif.” One can only imagine the added dimension to the already beautiful lines, “Umm Kulthum and Omar Sharif / came floating on the jasmine wind / from the west, from the south / honey in my ears / spice in my mouth.”
The Hebrew- and Arabic-speakers in the show communicate through broken English, but music is a common language. When characters sing, their accents thin and syntax mends, revealing beautifully eloquent thoughts hidden behind a language barrier. Everyone becomes much more eloquent through their music, with the exception of Papi who is the only character to sing with broken English. Perhaps it’s this connection between music and love established earlier that explains the discrepancy. Papi sings, “I don’t know what to do with the girls / I don’t know where to start” to start “Papi Hears the Ocean.” He explains in a choppy rhythm and idiosyncratic English accompanied by ocean sound effects that he knows nothing about girls and love. It’s a stylistic departure from the show’s other songs, but it serves character. The next song goes the complete opposite direction in form and content, a gorgeous Jazz ballad from Haled who completely transforms into a midcentury crooner to tell Papi a thing or two about love.
The story meets back up with Tewfiq and Dina who are sitting in a park, stewing in a subdued romance. It’s at this point Tewfiq sings for the first time, 1 hour and 10 minutes into the show, a strange choice for a musical’s male lead. If we are to continue with the metaphor that music represents love, Tewfiq’s silence reflects his guarded heart; he is still hurting from the loss of his beloved wife and child. The song he offers up is not his own words, it’s a folk song; he is able to sing a song of the past, but not one of the present. Overlapping his melody, Dina launches into “Something Different,” trying to parse the meaning of his words, wondering if he’s singing about love or fishing. For the first time in the show, music is not a look inside a character, but another wall built. Perhaps this is why Dina ends her night of quiet passion with Tewfiq by sleeping with Haled, a seemingly unjustified action that, in fact, reflects these two character’s impulsiveness in contrast with Tewfiq’s guarded nature.
Yazbek and Moses have crafted a story about an apolitical Israel/Palestine, a Pan-Middle Eastern culture, a world where Arab and Jew are not opposites, and populated it with actors who live that reality. These people who are a “contradiction,” Jews of MENA-extraction, actually make up the majority of Israel’s population. An Egyptian Arab and an Israeli Jew are more likely than not to have a grandparent who spoke the same language and that kind of unaddressed similarity between Arabs and Israelis, Arabs and Jews is the heart of The Band’s Visit. How music can be the language that translates between the two? That’s the whole story.