When the Israeli film The Band’s Visit premiered at international film festivals in 2007, it was an instant hit, receiving notable awards including the Un Certain Regard - Jury Coup de Coeur at Cannes. What moved critics and audiences was director Eran Kolirin’s quiet, understated depiction of Israeli and Egyptian characters finding shared comfort in loneliness.
The film spans one day in the lives of musicians from the Egyptian police force who travel to an Arab Cultural Center in Israel to perform but confuse their destination city with a similarly named desert town. The nervous and disoriented band members approach a modest café and meet its owner, Dina, who offers to house them for the night, displaying kindness where they expected apathy.
The musical adaptation of The Band’s Visit makes its world premiere Off-Broadway at Atlantic Theatre Company. Opening December 8, the show reframes the narrative through song, externalizing the isolation and longing that each character embodies, and showcasing a blend of languages and musical styles. Like the film, it is a show embracing cultural differences.
Yazbek and Moses both come to this project with a trove of personal knowledge of each of those cultures. Yazbek has a Lebanese father, several Arabic-speaking relatives and memories of time spent in Lebanon and Egypt; Moses has two Israeli parents, several Hebrew-speaking relatives and memories of time spent in Israel. “If I didn’t have direct connection to the region, I might have felt less authority,” says Moses. “I didn’t worry about if I was allowed to do this adaptation.”
The two artists have each written extensively for theatre and television (Moses’ Bach at Leipzig, Completeness, and the musical The Fortress of Solitude; Yazbek’s The Full Monty, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown), but The Band’s Visit offers new creative territory—a musical set in the Middle East and their first time collaborating—and an opportunity to draw on personal insight of Israeli and Arabic heritages.
In writing the script, Moses referred to dialogue from the film and his own sense of “how Israelis speak English,” but all of his relatives are Israeli and, as he says, “the ‘music’ of it is imprinted on me.”
The most significant conversations in the show occur in English between Egyptians and Israelis, particularly Dina, played by Katrina Lenk, and the Egyptian band leader, Tewfiq, played by Tony Shalhoub. But Arabic and Hebrew permeate the many interactions that characters have within their own groups. In the original film, those lines are accompanied by subtitles, but for the musical, they are deliberately untranslated. Director David Cromer emphasizes body language and facial expressions so that the audience infers the tone of each exchange.
“The idea is that we hit the sweet spot where it’s all enjoyable,” says Moses. “This is something Cromer says a lot, ‘The audience appreciates it when you don’t hold their hand.’ The collective group mind is very smart and if you hold their hand too much they get ahead of you.”
To get the translations just right, Moses wrote the dialogue in English (his Hebrew is decent but imperfect, he says), consulted with translators, and then ran it by Arabic and Hebrew speakers in the cast who gently guided, “You wouldn’t say it like that, you’d say it like this.” The experience of a language barrier is actually integral to the story, and for those audience members who understand both or either language, there’s an added level of enjoyment, like overhearing a secret.
For Yazbek, creating an authentic score had its own process, specifically the inclusion of Middle Eastern instruments. “That was one of the attractions of this show,” he says. “Even as a kid, hearing artists like Oum Kalthum on the radio. I spent the whole summer in Lebanon one summer. I remember being kind of transported by [the music].”
As with Yazbek’s Tony-nominated score for Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, in which he blended Spanish and Latin styles with his own pop stylings, the music in The Band’s Visit merges pop and musical theatre sounds with Arabic inflections.
“The stuff that I really love about that music—Arabic classical music—there’s a taste to it, almost like a blend of spices,” he says. “I hear the drum grooves and those instruments, the doumbek, and the riq. I was excited to be able to write for it, knowing that I’d bring my style to that kind of music.” And because it’s a show about musicians, there are moments apart from musical numbers where the musicians play. “The way we would expand [on the film] is that the vast space that is internal in all these people could be externalized in the songs.” Yazbek refers to it as an “ocean of commonality. It’s interesting what everyone has in common: yearning, love, loneliness, joy.”
As much as The Band’s Visit digs into daily experiences of Israelis and Egyptians, you won’t hear a single political conversation in the show. “One of our favorite things is that it’s political in a gentle way,” says Moses. “In music, if you play a chord, but you leave out the fifth, the audience hears it anyway. This is like the fifth of the show.”
Even without being overtly political, the show has “become really actually vitally important in the last week,” according to Yazbek, as The Band’s Visit’s spirit of inclusion feels ever more relevant, if not urgent. “I’m watching audiences and why are people in tears? A lot of it has to do with the commonality and relief when you see that [wall between people] melt the way it does in the show.”