We go to the theater to be entertained. If we’re lucky, the show will leave us in an upbeat place, and that feeling might even last for a day or more.
But every so often, something comes along that moves us so deeply that we are transformed—not just for an hour’s afterglow but really for the rest of our lives.
It sounds like a tall order for a Broadway musical, but The Band’s Visit accomplishes exactly that. Seeing it transcends entertainment. It’s a transformational experience that leaves theatergoers with a sense of heightened possibility. After all, if some Arabs and Israelis can find common ground, setting aside religious, political, cultural, and linguistic differences, maybe there’s hope for the rest of us.
The Band’s Visit won 10 Tony Awards, and you still haven’t bought tickets? How many do you need it to win before you need it to go? 11? 15? 1,000?
What exactly is The Band’s Visit? You could shorthand it as a musical about the Middle East, or about the human heart, but you wouldn’t be doing justice to this extraordinary experience in the theatre.
Let me explain the Middle East part. My cousin Gaby, who has lived in Jerusalem for 50 years, explains things this way: “There are 11 million people in the region, and all but 50,000 on each side want peace. The 50,000 drive the politics of the region, so that’s why the other 10,900,000 don’t have peace.”
So The Band’s Visit tells the story of the 10,900,000. Specifically, it describes a moment when an Egyptian military band, visiting Israel to play at a new Arab cultural center in the city of Petach Tikva, stumbles into the wrong locale, Beit Ha-Tikva – a back-of-beyond settlement town 50 kilometers east of the middle of nowhere.
There’s no bus out of town that evening, and the band is stuck, in their powder blue “Sergeant Pepper” looking uniforms, with little money, nothing to eat, and nowhere to sleep.
The locals set aside linguistic, political and religious differences and take various members of the band into their homes. What happens that night as these strangers-who-should-never-have-met connect is the core of the show.
What unites the Israelis and the Egyptians, Jews and Moslems, Hebrew and Arabic speakers? Two things: music and loneliness. Through their shared love of music, whether as performers, listeners, or even roller skaters, the strangers bond. And something happens to the audience that doesn’t happen at typical cats-on-roller-skates-wearing-masks musicals: our hearts are opened, and they remain open, at least for months after having seen the show, and maybe forever.
If they gave out 15 or 100 or 1,000 Tonys for musicals, then The Band’s Visit should have won that many instead of the mere 10 trophies they took home for Best Musical, Best Original Score, Lead Actor, Lead Actress, Best Book, Best Thing That Ever Happened On Broadway Since A Chorus Line, and all the other awards it won.
That’s because the creators didn’t start with the usual motive, which is often the ending place, for musicals: “What can we do that will sell tickets to Midwesterners and Germans, forever?”
Instead, they took a story that was already a cult movie favorite and asked, “How can we create striking, exceptional, extraordinary music that will live forever in the hearts of the listeners, haunting them and challenging them to eliminate their preconceptions about people who are at first glance not like themselves?”
In so doing, they gave the cast the chance to simultaneously display the greatness of the human spirit, both as performers and as regular people who just want to love and be loved, who are starved for deep connection, and stumble into a means of finding that sense of connection.
You’re not going to get that The Lion King.
And then there is the cast.
Katrina Lenk is a Broadway star for the ages – brilliant, beautiful, real, with a fiery, “Wouldn’t you like to know?” sensuality that commands absolute attention, and a voice so stunning that you can’t stop hearing it, and you do not want to stop hearing it, long after the proverbial curtain has fallen.
Sasson Gabai, the Israeli actor who originated the role of Tewfik, the Egyptian bandleader, in the 2007 film on which the musical is based, has replaced Tony Shalhoub in the cast and plays the widowed bandleader with the understated authority, elegance and loneliness for which he won a Lifetime Achievement Award at Israel Film Festival.
Lenk and Gabai have the incomparable advantage of performing the music of David Yazbek and the script by Itamar Moses, all under the direction of David Cromer; all three of those individuals rightly took home Tonys for their contributions to the show.
In short, I’m certain you have perfectly logical reasons for not having bought tickets to The Band’s Visit. In reality, the logic behind your reasoning is not just faulty; it’s totally unacceptable. If you haven’t seen this show, you are missing an opportunity to witness what it means to be fully human. And you’re going to laugh and cry, too.