Two things are clear about composer-lyricist David Yazbek and writer Itamar Moses: They adore each other, and they each must have been the class clown. The pair come off like brothers—Yazbek the ringleader, egging on his bashful younger “sibling” to join in the tomfoolery, and Moses happy to oblige. These two can cause a ruckus in the best way.
And so they have with their new musical The Band’s Visit playing at Broadway’s Barrymore Theatre, now nominated for 11 Tony Awards. Since its Off-Broadway debut at the Atlantic Theater Company in 2016, The Band’s Visit has made waves for its unconventionality—at least in terms of commercial Broadway musical fare. The production swaps flash for contemplation, dance breaks for kinetic instrumentals by the titular band. The show has been crowned the rule breaker of the season.
“Whenever you do something because it’s according to the ‘rules’ of how you’re supposed to write a musical, that’s the wrong reason to do it,” Moses says. “Every musical—if it’s a good one—it’s going to be idiosyncratic and making up its own rules.”
In reality, the team did follow the most important rule: Trust your source. The Band’s Visit is a contemplative musical because Yazbek, Moses, and director David Cromer leaned in to the tranquility of the eponymous 2007 Israeli film about an Egyptian police orchestra stranded for a night in an Israeli desert town and the bridge that music builds between these strange bedfellows.
“The better job you’re doing at your craft or at your art, the more you’re following rather than leading in the sense that you’re listening to the thing you’re making, obeying what it wants, letting it become itself,” says Moses. “Everybody slaves to the story first and then to the characters,” Yazbek adds.
In prioritizing the story, Moses first wrote the show as a play and the pair circled moments in Moses’ draft ripe for musicalization. “If you’ve written it as a scene or as a dialogue, then there’s something for the songwriter to cannibalize,” says Moses.
Perhaps Dina’s solo is the best example of this collaboration. Moses recently rediscovered an email from Yazbek asking him to write a speech to inspire a song for her. “‘If Dina were telling Tewfiq about her love of Omar Sharif and Oum Kalthoum, just as a speech, what would she say?’” Moses recalls. His two-paragraph response led to star Katrina Lenk’s mesmerizing number “Omar Sharif,” the song that, for Yazbek, musically represents the show—though his Arabic-influenced score blends jazz, musical theatre, and more.
“There’s songs of frustration, there’s songs of longing, and it’s an unconventional musical to a large extent because there’s a lot of internal depth coming out of these characters,” Yazbek says.
“It’s a collection of ‘I long’ songs,” Moses says. “But for me, the thesis line in the script is when Tewfiq says of someone else in his life, ‘I didn’t understand him.’ That was the key that opened up what the whole show is about: the need to be understood and the dangers of not being understood and of not understanding.”
Moses and Yazbek’s understanding of each other makes this musical about commonality click.
“[With other projects] writing feels like an incredibly fun day job,” Yazbek confides. “Band’s Visit doesn’t feel that way. I suspect the next thing that Itamar and I do together won’t feel that way either.”
“Yeah,” Moses chimes in. “Sharknado The Musical.”
Ruthie Fierberg is the Senior Features Editor of Playbill covering all things theatre and co-hosting the Opening Night Red Carpet livestreams on Playbill's Facebook. Follow her on Twitter @RuthiesATrain, on Instagram @ruthiefierceberg, or via her website.