Broadway play with Middle Eastern setting wins top honors

As musicals go, The Band’s Visit (adapted from a 2007 Israeli movie of the same name) is a quiet and unassuming play — in other words, an unlikely hit. But this quirky Broadway show recently completed an almost-perfect sweep of the 2018 Tony Awards, winning 10 of the 11 prizes it was nominated for, including the top honor of Best Musical.

Set in an Israeli desert town called Bet Hatikva, the play’s events unfold over the course of one evening. An Egyptian police orchestra, scheduled to perform at the similarly named town of Petah Tikvah, is accidentally transported to the wrong place. No bus is available until the next day, so the musicians are stranded overnight.

Local residents offer to house the visitors, and soon, the Egyptians and their Israeli hosts discover that their lives are linked in unexpected ways.

Despite the tensions between their countries (an unspoken backdrop to the characters’ interactions), the visitors and townspeople find themselves drawn together by music, laughter, and a longing for human connection.

Unusually for a Broadway musical, the play’s songs aren’t designed to advance the plot. Instead, the tunes serve primarily as meditations on each character.

Some of the songs express the boredom of living in an isolated hamlet (“Waiting,” “Welcome to Nowhere”), while others are dreamy and nostalgic (“Omar Sharif”) or tender (“Haled’s Song About Love,” “Answer Me”). But throughout the play, there’s an undercurrent of “hope, faith and yearning,” as composer David Yazbek told National Public Radio.

People standing on stage accepting award (© Michael Zorn/Invision/AP Images)
Lead producer Orin Wolf, center, and the cast and crew of “The Band’s Visit” accept the award for best musical at the 2018 Tony Awards on June 10. (© Michael Zorn/Invision/AP Images)

Yazbek wrote the play’s music and lyrics, and like many of the people associated with The Band’s Visit, he has Middle Eastern roots. A native New Yorker, he is of mixed Lebanese and Jewish ancestry. His collaborator, playwright Itamar Moses, is the California-born son of Israeli immigrants, while lead producer Orin Wolf, from Cleveland, is married to an Israeli woman.

Several cast members also have ties to the region, including actors Tony Shalhoub and George Abud, who both are of Lebanese descent, and actor Ari’el Stachel, who is of Yemeni Jewish heritage.

Echoing its creators’ American and Middle Eastern origins, The Band’s Visit features a musical score that blends classical Arabic motifs with elements of jazz and musical theater, a hybrid sound that’s unlike anything else on Broadway.

Moses, interviewed by Forbes magazine, attributed the success of The Band’s Visit to the musical’s intimacy and emotional power — and its universal themes, which resonate with audiences and critics alike.

“When you strip away the arbitrary, man-made things and borders and rhetoric of political leaders, people are people,” Moses said. The play “has a message people are hungry for.”