The musical The Band’s Visit is exactly as authentic and imperfect as its characters, and in that it is perfect. Imperfect characters, of course, are those that are portrayed with non-cartoonish depth. So by “imperfect” what I really mean is a certain fullness you don’t see in the characters or plot of Mean Girls (movie and musical), for example.
The device that kicks off this Tony-sweeping, technically-a-farce adaptation from an identically titled Israeli film is that Arabic speakers often replace the /p/ sound with /b/. Thus the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, hoping to go to Petach Tikvah, lands instead in Beit Hatikvah, where they find a town stuck in the middle of the desert full of stuck people. And upon arriving, these outsiders stir up the inner worlds of the people they interact with before catching the next bus in the morning.
Over the course of one evening, we watch as the band climbs its pyramid of needs. First, the band finds shelter, food, and water, thanks to Dina, a Cafe owner who might just be afraid that she’s lost the ability to dream and to like and to love. Once these basic elements of survival are locked down, the band pursues higher goals. Young Haled wants to go out, Simon eats dinner in the home of one of the Cafe regulars, and Tewfiq, the band leader, allows himself to lean ever so slightly into the connection bubbling up between him and Dinah.
As Haled might say, The Band’s Visit wins your heart because it isn’t trying to impress. There is no flashy dance number (the set does more dancing than the actors), no final showstopper at the end, and not much by way of immediate hummability. Even the show’s pivotal song, Omar Sharif, doesn’t operate on the level of words and lyrics. Like the entire play itself, what makes that song great happens almost exactly two levels underneath what is being sung, which can make it both it very moving and initially hard to articulate why it is so. The Band’s Visit doesn’t even try to appear like it isn’t trying, and so in place of being impressive it is a deeper form of beautiful. The show just does its thing, at its own pace, exactly as book writer Imtar Moses, director David Cromer (and all of its creators) intended.
The music, written by David Yazbek and orchestrated by Jamshied Sharifi, traverses several different styles, each matched to the complexity of the character doing the singing. Over the course of 90 minutes, we are treated to non-hokey show tunes, jazz standards, songs inspired by Arabic love poems, and instrumental pieces, most of which are Klezmer and Oud flavored. Much of the music hints at exotic maqams (middle-eastern scales that are impossible to play on a piano) by utilizing non-traditional western notes. Throw in the fact that the actors on stage are playing most of the music you hear, and one effect is to create a sense of place so realistic it’s immediately recognizable, even though the faces, names, and literal locations are new to us. (A more subtle consequence of having non-speaking band members onstage is that over the course of the evening, they come to personify the idea of that the music of life is constantly around us.)
I felt the strength of The Band’s Visit to be that it deals with feelings we are all familiar with, but for which English speakers don’t have specific words. In one scene, Simon (Joseph Camal) calms a baby by playing the clarinet. Afterwards, both he and the baby’s couch-bound father, Itzik (John Cariani), say “thank you” and “your welcome” and “peace be upon you” and “I love you” only using two versions of two words. It’s a wonderful piece of writing, acting, and directing. English doesn’t name the specific emotion expressed by this scene, where we in the audience experience our humanity when we see two people authentically connect over their shared humanity. I propose we call this emotion “Ubuntu” (from the Bantu / South African humanistic concept meaning either “humanity” or “I am because we are.”) Many are the moments of Ubuntu throughout the show, including Haled’s (Ari’el Stachel) superb, Tony-award winning, implicitly mystical song about love.
Other more “advanced” emotions come from scenes in The Band’s Visit that touch on the gentle sadness of time’s passing, which in Japan is called Mono No Aware, as well as scenes that recall a deep longing for a sense of home or a slightly different life, which in German is called Sensucht and in Brazil is called Suadade. These moments are mostly made possible by the rich and layered performances of Katrina Lenk, who plays Dinah the cafe owner, and Sasson Gabay, who played Tefwiq in the film and currently plays him.
Throughout the show, the strength of the original film also shines through. Many original lines of dialog, as well as some gestures and blocking, are carried over to such a degree that I’m tempted to say that the film’s director and writer (Eran Korlin) probably deserves something like half a writing credit for the musical. A minimal amount of commentary on the Israeli-Arab conflict is also transposed from the original film. In fact, there is minimal commentary and preachiness in general, which is a nice change from some of the more “pop” oriented musicals. (If musical preachiness worked, Man in the Mirror would have solved the world’s problems already.)
In the morning, the iron-plating that Tefwiq normally wears is back in place, we audience members understand why, and the band leaves. No literal villain has been vanquished, and the only slain dragons are the ones most important and highly consequential: lack of hope, lack of dreaming, insecurity, doubting your own ability to dream, and being stuck. Yet because these are resolved internally, in lieu of any major external seismic shifts, it can seem like not much has happened. Especially compared with other musicals and movies where the antagonistic elements within people are personified, projected, and funneled into one character for narrative purposes.
As adults, it’s easy to experience arid expanses of time where our needs for dreaming and hoping never really get met. As The Band’s Visit reminds us, we dreamed, hoped, and fell in love with light, cookies, meadows, playing catch, making believe, berries, TV shows, bikes, animals, toys, and colors when we were shorter. The show also reminds us that as adults, we tend to constrain ourselves to falling in love with songs, maybe some of the things we own or read or watch, pets, and a handful or two of people (if we are lucky) over our lifetime.
It’s my impression that people’s feelings towards musicals are binary. People who have been moved by a moment or a song love the entire show, and you can’t argue them out it. I, for one, cannot think of a musical I’m sorta excited for. Which means that if one of part of a musical moves you, you’ll like the whole show in a way that you can’t describe to someone for whom things never clicked. Because of the strong sense of place created by the cast, costumes, music and set, I doubt any particular song taken out of context and listened to without having seen the show will have the same impact as it can in the show. (Maybe this is a law of musicals; a professional critic I am not. I am, however, squarely in only-listen-to-cast-recordings-after-seeing-the-show camp.)
I also say this because many will probably find a thing or two to weak about The Band’s Visit. I suspect most of what people will find tweakable are those elements left in for the purposes of being a faithful film adaptation. Right after viewing the musical, I had the impression that the show was simultaneously too long and too short; but it turns out the stretched sense of time I experienced is heavily emphasized in the original film. The final number’s name, Answer Me, I discovered, comes from one line in an Arabic song sung at the end of the movie. Also, though Papi’s song is the most exaggerated element of the show, it does provide comic relief, and it works.
But the point is that none this matters. The quibbles fade in a few days, and what you will likely be left with are the memories of when you were moved. Besides, as The Band’s Visit reminds us, things are perfect because we love them, not the other way around.