Composer-lyricist David Yazbek burst onto the Broadway scene when he earned a Tony nomination for his Broadway debut, The Full Monty. A light pop-rock sound dominates that first Main Stem score, and his follow-up took at turn toward the bold and brassy—and earned him another Tony nomination. Yet he took hold of another brand new style with Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, exploring aharmonies and Spanish rhythms—and earned another Tony nomination. Yazbek’s daring is on display again this season with The Band’s Visit, the Israel-set intimate musical about an Egyptian police orchestra that winds up in the most boring of desert towns instead of the Arabic Cultural Center.
Using authentic Arabic instrumentation (the oud, the riq, etc.) combined with comic sensibility and romantic, sweeping melodies, Yazbek won the Tony for Best Score at the 2018 Tony Awards and the album has been nominated for a Grammy. (He won the Drama Desk Awards for Oustanding Lyrics and Outstanding Music as the show premiered Off-Broadway last season.) Clearly, Yazbek takes his own advice of “listen to everything” and allows styles to blend like spices. Here, the artist reveals his writing process behind the songs on The Band’s Visit album—now available from Ghostlight Records.
Which song inspired the turntable scenic design? Which song is based on his own experiences with his wife? What’s the secret to “Omar Sharif” working the way it does? What is written and what is improvised? Yazbek tells all below:
The first seven seconds of music you hear are a fast, tight, clearly Arabic orchestral run announcing the style of the score, the virtuosity of the musicians you’re about to meet and the quirky humor of the show you’re about to see. The rest of the overture is meant to transport you quickly to the Middle East and to psych you up for the first scene. It ends with a pair of exciting runs set over some kick-ass percussion that ends with Lights Up at the Tel Aviv Airport and, incongruously, a line of Egyptians dressed in powder blue polyester band uniforms just standing there, apparently waiting.
Also waiting are the Israeli denizens of Bet Hatikvah, not for a bus or anything in particular. This is a song about a feeling—the feeling of living in a small, dusty desert town and wondering why you’re here, what you should be doing, and what might happen next. “This kind of waiting, you keep looking off out into the distance/ Even though you know the view is never gonna change.” David Cromer, our director, tells me that the line, “Sometimes you feel like you’re moving in a circle/ Around and around with the same scenery going by...” inspired the turntable that is central to the set.
3. “Welcome to Nowhere”
The Israelis get a kick out of the fact that the Egyptians have accidentally landed in their nothing little hamlet Bet Hatikvah instead of the happening city of Petah Tikvah. I enjoyed writing this song because it connected me intimately with Dina, whose voice and personality I was exploring. As she introduces the Egyptians to her town she’s wry and clever, tough and appealing. “What is the voice of Israeli sarcasm?” is the question this song tries to answer. I wrote a sort of “dance-break” section, but dancing clearly didn’t feel right in the number. In rehearsal, John Cariani came up with the genius idea that the “dance” would just be him spinning the lazy susan on his cafe table and pointing at it proudly, then wowing everyone by spinning it in the opposite direction.
4. “It Is What It Is”
This is a kind of slant-reprise of “Welcome to Nowhere” in which Dina wryly tells us a little bit of her backstory while chopping some watermelon for Tewfiq and Haled, her new guests. At first I set out to write a complete song but Dina’s fatalism makes her throw the end away with “...and blah, blah, blah...”
5. “The Beat of Your Heart”
Andrew Polk, who never considered himself a singer, reached way down and pulled out this lovely performance, singing his heart out about what turns out to be the main themes of the show: love, music and connection. I stole some of the images from my own experience of first seeing my now-wife dancing in the crowd as my band played a gig. I still choke up when Andy begins the song. George Abud’s (Camal) violin solo comes out of nowhere and is the first evidence of the virtuosity of our onstage musicians.
As some members of the band settle in for the night, they take out their instruments and start a little jam. There’s a nice story about this piece: I was in a van in the Negev desert [in Israel] with members of the cast and creative team when George Abud handed me the oud he had been playing. He’s a master of the instrument; I’m a total piker but his playing inspired me and, in a rare instance of spontaneous generation, I came up with the melody for this instrumental. I still have the voice-memo of me playing the melody into my phone then saying “Hey, George? How’s that? You like that?” You can hear him say, “That’s good, that’s very authentic!”
7. “Omar Sharif”
I think Katrina Lenk’s rendering of this song is astounding because it’s so intensely romantic yet so truthful. You don’t just stumble into a performance like this, no matter how vast your talent or natural gifts (and she has one of the most unique vocal instruments I’ve heard). It’s also the result of focus on one’s craft, or crafts in this case. What’s on display here is Katrina’s deep musicianship, vocal chops, and integrity as an actor. As Dina sings about her childhood memories of the mysterious Arabic culture that came to her through the radio and TV, Tewfiq becomes deeply enchanted with her. Thanks to Katrina’s performance, so does the audience. What a gift to a composer.
Our show doesn’t merely pay lip service to the idea that Music = Love = Union. It’s on evidence every night as these world-class musicians improvise to the rhythms and melodies of the show’s instrumentals. I think this is the piece’s secret weapon. When music is played from the heart, a real non-manipulative connection is made with the listener that deepens the connection of the story and characters. Someday, we’ll record a version of this with long solos that the band can really develop.
9. “Papi Hears the Ocean”
Poor kid can hardly look at a woman without fainting, the doofy groove of the song wrote itself; the lyric, “Sinking down, down, down like a schmuck...” suggested the chromatic descending melody, which—to my delight—immediately reminded me of “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” from Carmen. The aces in the hole here are Etai Benson’s smart comic choices, including the character voice he uses for the song. It’s not easy to write funny lyrics, but it can be even harder to deliver them. You have to land the jokes but even a bit too much forcing can ruin everything. This is an exceptional comic performance, helped along by the sound of a cheap tourist guiro scraped with a pencil.
10. “Haled’s Song About Love”
On the surface, Haled is the smooth young girl-chaser who uses Chet Baker as a pickup-line, but to me he’s our show’s spiritual key, the character who facilitates connection and who instinctively understands that we’re all fingers on the same hand. That’s what this song is about. He’s ostensibly telling Papi how not to melt down around women but he’s telling us all that we’re all raindrops in the same puddle. Sufi poetry is filled with longing love-songs that sound earthly, even carnal, but are really pointing at union with God. The Song of Solomon from the Torah has that same quality. Haled probably doesn’t know it yet, perhaps he’s too young, but he’s connected to a deep truth about both kinds of Love.
11. “The Park”
Even though it’s not really a song, we included this on the album because the poetry of Tewfiq and Dina’s dialogue, combined with the musicians’ ultra-sensitive playing, is as evocative as any ballad. The music is semi-improvisational, with the musicians reacting to the emotions of the actors. You need great musicians to pull this off, ones who listen, not just play.
Tony Shaloub is another actor who never considered himself a singer, yet here he is a cappella in a Broadway musical. This is the only time in the show that you hear Tewfiq singing—I had tried several times to write the character a conventional song but I eventually realized that parsing out his thoughts destroyed the mystery and depth of his feelings. Dina asks him to sing, for the first time in perhaps years he digs down and brings up this lonely melody. The song is in Arabic, but Tony’s unique voice tells you all you need to know about Tewfiq’s heartache and the intensity of this quiet man’s inner emotions.
13. “Something Different”
The four-note phrase that ends “Itgara’a” is echoed by Dina and becomes her song about Tewfiq. We’re hearing her thoughts as she puzzles out the strength of her attraction to this odd older man. I borrowed a melodic phrase from “Omar Sharif” and turned it into the chorus of this song to show that there’s perhaps an element of idealized fantasy to her attraction, a possibility she’s fully aware of: “Is this my Omar Sharif?” There are hints at her feelings in the orchestration as well. The arrangement goes back and forth between slightly erratic pizzicato strings and legato piano flourishes. While demo-ing the song, I accidentally called up the same pizzicato string patches I had used in “Waiting” and then played them with the syncopated parts over the waltz-time of the song. It immediately conjured up an image of Dina’s synapses firing over “the taste of something strange.”
14. “Itzik’s Lullaby”
Itzik starts singing a standard lullaby to his baby but his self-doubts and confusion intrude. I think John Cariani’s unforced performance, delicate as rice-paper and painfully intimate, really makes this song. Immediately after he refers to his family as “The loser and the loser’s wife,” Camal, who is outside in another area, starts playing and humming and the rest of the band joins in as if to say “We all have troubles, we all have pain. But we have music.”
15. “Answer Me”
This is the first song I wrote for The Band’s Visit, the “first olive out of the jar” as Richard Rodgers used to say, and it informed all the work I did after it. The song begins with the Telephone Guy waiting, as always, for a call that never comes. All of the people we’ve met join one by one in counterpoint. The only time in the entire show that you hear everyone in the cast singing together is near the end of the song. It only lasts ten seconds or so and our people sound so glorious that I was tempted to lengthen or repeat that harmony section but it quickly became clear that the brevity heightens the intensity. The expansive harmony narrows to a soft unison as everybody expresses what we all wish for, what we all wait for—some kind of connection.
16. “The Concert”
Essentially an epilogue to the play, it also functions as a release into the joy of music played from the heart by superb instrumentalists. This represents the public concert The Band plays when they finally reach Peta Tikvah, with a “P.” Every solo is a slam-dunk with a magnificent grand finale on darbuka by Maestro Ossama Farouk, reminding us wordlessly: “Maybe music is the food of love but music and love, who can tell them apart?”
When you watch the show this music can slip right by you because it plays on the restaurant jukebox but our musical director Andrea Grody suggested we listen to it carefully and consider using it as a bonus track. Dean Sharenow (with whom I produced the album) and I were impressed by the mood it sets and by the musicians’ beautiful solos, so we readily agreed. People ask me where the titles for the instrumentals come from. They’re all names that I remember from the Lebanese side of my family. The first time I visited Lebanon, at age seven, a very old woman was introduced to me as “Aunt Afifi”; she had a pet hedgehog. Incidentally, I first heard Arabic classical (or “Oriental”) music on that trip; it was Oum Kalthoum on the radio of a taxi. I’ve been entranced ever since.