Why 'The Band's Visit' Is Going to Storm Broadway -- As An Anti-Musical

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Matt Murphy
Katrina Lenk and Tony Shalhoub in The Band's Visit.

When David Yazbek first saw the 2007 Israeli movie The Band’s Visit, he wasn't immediately convinced it could become a musical. Unlike the plots of The Full Monty and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown -- movies he had previously and successfully adapted into Broadway shows during the past two decades -- the story about an Egyptian music group traveling to perform in an Israeli city and instead ending up in a dull desert town for one night felt rather quiet.

Still, the veteran composer, along with book writer Itamar Moses, saw ­potential to create a kind of anti-musical: no big song-and-dance spectacle, but rather compositions influenced more by the ululating rhythms of Middle Eastern music than by the ­symmetrical verse-chorus-verse structure of traditional musical-theater tunes.

“There was an exciting chance to do something that felt absolutely new,” says Yazbek. “Every show is about melodrama. But can we write a musical that is not about pushing [emotional] buttons?” The Band’s Visit premiered off-Broadway at the Atlantic Theater Company last December and, ­following reviews that unanimously declared it the best musical of the year, will open on Broadway on Nov. 9.

“The show sneaks up on you,” says Tony Shalhoub, who plays the lead role of Tewfiq, conductor of the Egyptian band, alongside actress Katrina Lenk. “The scenes are very short vignettes interspersed with songs, but you become invested in the characters and their stories. Yazbek has identified these people through the music, through the mood he creates.”

Yazbek didn’t grow up dreaming of writing the next Broadway megahit. While he admired the lyrical wit of shows like Company and Kiss Me, Kate, he ­primarily played in bands and idolized post-punk acts like XTC. A musician himself, Yazbek has put out four pop albums and written for TV (he co-penned the theme song to the ’90s PBS program Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?).

But he calls The Band’s Visit, his fourth Broadway production, one of the first projects outside of his solo work “where I’m very comfortable and it feels like I’m home.” And, as Shalhoub notes, Yazbek’s understated musical feels like the next step forward at a time when the definition of musical theater is no longer set in stone. “When something like Hamilton or Dear Evan Hansen comes along, it really changes things, and it looks like the appetite for the American musical is shifting,” says Shalhoub. “This is the next evolution of that. This is a different flavor altogether.” 

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 11 issue of Billboard.