BY MARTHA STEKETEE
ERAN KOLIRIN'S 2007 film, The Band’s Visit, is set in the deeply political geography of rural Israel in 1996. It tells the story of a small Israeli town where daily routines get disrupted by an unexpected visit from Egyptian musicians. Though aiming for Petah Tikvah, where they are scheduled to play a concert, the band members have found themselves — due to language miscues — in Bet Hatikva, where they stay overnight.
Efforts to communicate with the town’s residents produce opportunities for humor, drama, and problem-solving. These people from two cultures land on English and on the klezmer-influenced Mediterranean music they share to speak across barriers on matters of friendship, love, and loss.
In December 2016, a musical theatre adaptation of The Band’s Visit premiered in Atlantic Theater Company’s Off-Broadway Linda Gross Theater. Eleven months later in November 2017, it opened at Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre. It was nominated for 11 Tony Awards and won 10, including Best Musical as well as trophies for its direction, book, score, orchestrations, lighting, sound, leading actress, leading actor, and featured actor.
Just days before the musical opened on Broadway, its lead producer Orin Wolf, director David Cromer, librettist Itamar Moses, and composer David Yazbek sat down for a panel discussion hosted by the American Theatre Critics Association, moderated by Martha Wade Steketee.
Where did the process start, who was first on the project, and who did you have to cajole to get involved?
ORIN WOLF: I saw the 2007 film at the Other Israel Film Festival. My wife is Israeli, so I was familiar with Israeli events going on around New York. I immediately hungered to put the story onstage. For me, the filmmaker Eran Kolirin made what felt like a piece of theatre about people being stuck. That’s something that always interests me theatrically: people being stuck in one place. The story dealt with language barriers, people struggling to find the right words, and it was about musicians. It felt to me like it was a natural fit for the stage. My wife was into the idea, but everybody else thought it was a horrible idea. I was naïve and stubborn and passionate.
I tried to get in touch with Eran through his agents, and everybody said no. Finally, I got his email through a relative of mine and asked him for coffee during my annual summer visit to Israel. It took him 13 years to write and make the film, he said, and he didn’t want to reopen that door. The second time I met him, almost a year later, I said, “If you understood theatre the way you understand film, I think you would have chosen to make this as a play.” That was of interest to him.
DAVID YAZBEK: Boy, that’s a great line.
OW: I’ll never have a line that good again. It opened a flood of information from him. He sent me hundreds of pages of scripts that I had to have translated. And then we started. I got the rights and started thinking about it as a play and worked with Hartford Stage for a while. We did a reading of the screenplay onstage. My instinct was right: hearing these stories onstage and seeing these amazing characters just seemed to work.
Then it was a process of going through different versions and people asking me if it was going to be a play or a musical. I just wanted to tell the story. I didn’t know enough about musicals to think of it that way. Eventually, Hal Prince, who is a mentor of mine, got excited about the piece and asked to get involved to help develop it. We met, and [David] Yazbek and Itamar [Moses] ended up coming to the table with some ideas. There seemed to be this perfect perception of the piece that we shared.
We started approaching it as a more traditional musical, creating compositions and hearing songs, and Itamar creating scenes and a through line. Then [David] Cromer stepped in with a very serious and very deliberate approach and an idea about how he should stage it. It took about two years to get the rights.
When did Hal Prince come into the process? Was he a key connector to Yazbek and Moses?
ITAMAR MOSES: Musicals are too hard, they take too long. In my heart I was saying: “no more musicals!” Then I and David [Yazbek] got an email from Hal Prince’s assistant. “Hal Prince would like to meet with you.” You don’t say no to that. Let’s say this was early 2013.
I hadn’t watched the movie. I knew it was a big hit in Israel and was this small but beloved indie film. The first time I watched it was with the question in mind, “Could this be on stage, could it be a musical?” I thought, “Oh no, this is a musical. I’ve got to do it.”
I felt the intimacy of the story, how much it depended on small connections between individuals, which theatre excels at. How still it was. And there was a very organic reason for there to be music in it. First, there’s this band. And second, music is one of the zones of connection between the people, a language that the characters use to communicate. I thought, “OK, that justifies it being a musical.”
I perversely really liked how unspectacular it was. I always feel that, in ideas for musicals that already seem like musicals, there’s a trap. You’re doubling down on something that’s already in the material. Something that seems to push against the musical form always interests me more.
When I first became involved, I thought I might be the right guy to do it, because my parents are Israeli, I’ve been there, I have relatives who live there, I have this tie to the region, I have voices from the region in my head.
DY: Orin contacted me. And there was that Hal Prince lore about it. You don’t say no. Soon I was on the phone with Itamar, trying to figure out if we were seeing the same tone. You can see a movie, even a movie as unique as The Band’s Visit, and see different things in it. I got excited about trying to create something that I’d never seen before in musical theatre. I was excited when we were speaking. I felt like we both had the same goal.
When you’re writing a musical, you’re living in a particular world for years. I was equally excited by the fact that I would get to live in the world of Arabic classical music, which I’m a big fan of. So, my trepidation turned into interest and that turned into excitement.
When did you connect to David Cromer?
DY: The story gets really interesting when David comes aboard. I felt like we connected with the flint, the spark from the flint. His sensibility is right on the nose.
DAVID CROMER: I came in about two years ago, when I got a call from Itamar, who asked if I had seen the film or wanted to read the script or listen to the demos. I was just coming off being pretty burned out, sort of lost, running on fumes. I listened to the demos and got excited about the subject. I loved the story and loved the movie and got very excited about the music. It sounded like it could be something that would be an important and interesting little detour into how musicals generally seem, that you could execute anything if you execute this well.
Anything is an interesting idea if you find out what’s in it, if you find the DNA of it and make it manifest. And I think those guys have done that. I got very excited and campaigned. I was very nervous about the meeting we had to have, because I really, really wanted the job.
It’s largely just manifesting the writing, which is interesting enough as it is. The thing we accidentally did that was smart was to never run away from the film. The film is glorious unto itself. This is not an improvement on the film, this is not making the film better, this is not what the film wants to be. The film is the film, and we love it and we reference it and we never run away from it. We steal from it liberally. I said, “If this is a beloved film, then these are the iconic moments you have to have, like Rocky running up the stairs. You know what I mean? You have to see the front of the café, you have to see the guys lined up. You have to see the three of them at the table with the trumpet. We set about doing some workshops and started to cast it.
There are scenes without songs in this musical. There was a point where you guys were ahead of me, and it took me a while to catch up with certain things. There were developmental conversations, and we did about six months of readings and workshops when I came in. People were stopped by the nontraditional nature of it. There weren’t big group songs, and many of the songs were internal monologues.
IM: Yazbek and I discovered that through trial and error. We wanted to listen to what the material seemed to want and to honor that, but we would have moments where we’d say, “Well, surely, we need a number that does this, we need a big solo for this guy.” And every time we tried to push something like that into the material, we could feel the show rejecting it. Like a bad graft or something.
I’ve been able to watch Cromer quite closely for a couple of years on this, and I can now articulate a couple of things that make him special as a director. First, simply stripping away an actor’s bad habits or actor’s acting. You’ll often hear him say things like “Just sit in that chair like a person would sit in it” or “Just say that like a person would say it,” reminding them not to act. He’s aware of the way in which there is inherent dramatic intention in every moment of life, simply because we as humans living don’t know what’s going to happen next. It’s dramatic that I don’t know the next question you’re going to ask, and I don’t know if I’m going to react to it effectively. It’s a matching of that to the material.
DC: One more interesting thing happened in the process of the piece rejecting material. … There’s a major character played, Iris, played by a marvelous actress and wonderful singer, Kristen Sieh, who doesn’t have a song. We’re gloriously happy to have her, and the character leaves an enormous impression on the audience, but it became clear that the character wouldn’t sing. She has a beautiful voice, but that character simply wouldn’t sing. Where she was pitched as a character and what she’d been going through, that character wouldn’t participate in the show in that way.
Tell us about composing and casting this world.
DY: Some characters can be played by actors or actresses who are not good singers, if they deliver it right. I always think of Sam Levene who played Nathan Detroit in the original Guys and Dolls. And some of my favorite theatre singers are people who consider themselves bad singers. With a show like this, there are some characters you can say, as long as the character is in that voice, imperfections are fine.
But because this is a show about music, and because music is the deepest metaphor for the even deeper things we’re talking about in the show, you have to have some great voices. I’m not a fan of the trained theatre-type voice, you know? When Katrina Lenk came in and sat down and sang, I don’t remember what song she sang. She has an absolutely unique voice, the perfect voice for the character Dina, and the perfect voice for the song “Omar Sharif.”
IM: None of us knew her. We needed something very specific: a woman who has charisma, can sing all of those songs, is a great actor, can do the accents, could be from the region, and is of a certain age. Who is this? This person literally may not exist. And then she walked in, did the scenes, did the song. This has happened to me only a couple of times ever, where an actor is so good and so right, but you don’t know them. You have to start making phone calls because you don’t understand why this person isn’t already a giant star. Sometimes it’s just that those talents haven’t collided with the right opportunities.
DY: Then you learn that she’s a great violin player and a great violist.
DC: And a ballerina!
DY: There were so many remarkable individuals in this show, including George Abud, who is a great Arabic and Western musician who can also tap. There are eight great musicians in this show, not all of them in the band. Some of them are acting. And they all get to play from the heart. They all get to improvise. You get to hear what they’re feeling. I’ve never seen that in a show. I’ve never seen people who are world-class, not just musicians but also artists, who get to say something new every day musically.
DC: There are songs in the show that are instrumental that are performed by virtuosic performers who are not musical theatre singers. They’re not just singing. They’re front and center performing, singing with their hands and their lungs and their skill and their articulation.
The song that you decided didn’t make sense for the character to sing that you alluded to earlier — is that music somehow still in the show?
DY: That song was a fast, pattery song for an angry character. It actually works in the context of the show, in terms of the musical lexicon of the show. The character didn’t want that much weight at that point of the story. I knew it as soon as we tried it. I was ready to get rid of it.
IM: The character’s arc was right without it. I think the show is a great example of a certain axiom: if you try to write something cynically designed to appeal, to be about everything and to appeal to everyone, you end up writing something mushy and generic. This show is a great example of trying to be hyper-specific and authentic about a particular region and a particular group of people. Going through that wormhole, you come out the other side to a place of enormous universality.
DC: The universal is in the specific.
DY: That’s where the power of the show is, too: the specific, the moment, that individual split-second moment. That’s what Cromer serves, and that’s what we’re writing. That’s all I care about: the moment that you’re in.
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