November 18, 2018

How an Israeli Movie Became a Tony-Winning Musical

A 2007 Israeli movie about Egyptian musicians who take the wrong bus and end up in a tiny Negev desert town is now Broadway’s biggest sensation. 

“The Band’s Visit” dominated the 72nd annual Tony Awards, winning 10 of the 11 categories in which it was nominated, including best musical.

“I’ve had almost a week to process it, and it’s beginning to feel real,” best book of a musical winner Itamar Moses said in a telephone interview. “I wasn’t counting on me winning and I never thought we would win close to 10 [Tonys]. It was an insane and wonderful night.” After a round of celebratory parties, “I was in bed by the reasonable hour of 3 a.m.” 

The show “definitely did get a box office boost after the Tonys,” Moses confirmed, but it has been an audience and critical favorite since it opened in November 2017. 

“When we first started working on it, we thought we were making something idiosyncratic and small and unusual but also very poetic and emotional,” Moses said. “We thought it would find its audience but it arrived at a political moment when audiences were hungry for [its] messages, the idea that we’re enriched when we don’t close ourselves off to love and connection, and in a larger sense, close off our borders and shut people out. Its hyper-specificity resonates and allows it to be universal.”

Best Musical goes to The Band’s Visit at THE 72nd ANNUAL TONY AWARDS broadcast live from Radio City Music Hall in New York City on Sunday, June 10, 2018 on the CBS Television Network. Photo: John P. Filo/CBS

Moses first watched “The Band’s Visit” in late 2013 when producer Orin Wolf proposed making the movie into a musical. He began writing a draft, without songs, and then collaborated with composer David Yazbek to figure out where those songs would go. Modifications and additions were made in workshops and during the off-Broadway versions of the show. 

Although the basic story remained the same, Moses replaced elements that wouldn’t come across on stage and fleshed out some characters that appear only briefly in the film. 

The idea of hostile governments matters less when you strip it down to a bunch of strangers needing something to eat and a place to stay. It reminds us that we’re all just human.” — Itamar Moses

There are some small moments of wariness on both sides “that gesture toward political reality,” Moses said. “Like the movie, it has an enormously political message in the absence of overt politics. The idea of hostile governments matters less when you strip it down to a bunch of strangers needing something to eat and a place to stay. It reminds us that we’re all just human.”

Casting actors of Middle Eastern descent as the Egyptian musicians made sense and “was the right thing to do,” Moses said. Ari’el Stachel, who won the Tony for best supporting actor, is the California-born son of a Yemeni-Israeli father and Ashkenazi Jewish mother from New York. Iranian Dariush Kashani temporarily has replaced Tony-winner Tony Shalhoub as bandleader Tewfiq, but Iraqi actor Sasson Gabay, who played the role in the movie, will take over the role on June 26.

The show’s creators also have Middle Eastern heritage. David Yazbek’s father is Lebanese and his mother is Italian and Jewish. Moses, who was born in Berkeley in 1977, has Israeli-born parents who met in the military. His mother’s parents left Poland for Palestine in the 1920s and became kibbutzniks, and his father’s family — assimilated German Jews — were in denial about the Nazis and ended up escaping Germany just in time. 

Moses was brought up in a “hippie Northern California version of Judaism” that involved a Jewish day school, a Jewish youth group and Jewish friends who are still in his life today. “I went to Yale and now I work in the New York theater. I’ve always moved in spheres with a big Jewish presence,” he said. “There’s also something about the way I think and the way I write that feels Jewish. There’s something talmudic about playwriting. It’s about wrestling with a question that’s somehow unanswerable, considering all sides of it and, in the end, then throwing up your hands at the audience and saying, ‘What do you think?’ That’s very Jewish.” 

Best Book of a Musical goes to Itamar Moses for The Band’s Visit at THE 72nd ANNUAL TONY AWARDS broadcast live from Radio City Music Hall in New York City on Sunday, June 10, 2018 on the CBS Television Network. Photo: John P. Filo/CBS

Inspired by his interest in sci-fi fantasy novels, Moses wanted to be a writer as a kid, but discovered theater late in high school and continued to pursue it in college and in his post-graduate studies at New York University, concentrating on playwriting. His credits include “The Four of Us” and “Fortress of Solitude” on stage and “Boardwalk Empire” and “Men of a Certain Age” on television.

His new play, “The Whistleblower,” about a television writer who has a nervous breakdown and starts telling the unvarnished truth to everyone in his life, will premiere in Denver next year. 

Meanwhile, plans are in the works to launch a national tour of “The Band’s Visit” in late spring 2019. “I assume L.A. is on the list,” he said, noting, “we’ve gotten inquiries” about taking it to Israel. “Of course we want to go. Our producer is also optimistic about other places in the Middle East.”

For Moses, winning the Tony for his first Broadway show is his greatest achievement since he learned for the first time that a regional theater would produce one of his plays. “A career in theater is very up and down,” he said. “This is one of those once-in-a-blue-moon moments that feels like things have changed in a permanent way.”