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In Broadway’s ‘The Band’s Visit,’ mistranslation leads to musical connection

When the members of an Egyptian band arrive in an Israeli city for a performance, it's clear something is wrong -- they've gotten the name wrong and ended up in a sleepy desert town. That's the premise of a new musical, "The Band's Visit," that's connecting with audiences and critics alike. Jeffrey Brown reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Finally tonight, a small musical that has become a hit of this Broadway season, an early favorite for the Tony Awards, and based on some unusual source material.

    Jeffrey Brown has the story.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    When the members of the Alexandria, Egypt, ceremonial band arrive in Israel for a performance, it is immediately clear something is wrong. They were expected in the city of Petah Tikva, with a P.

    But through a mistranslation, they have come to the sleepy desert town of Beit Hatikva, with a B, where Dina, owner of the one tiny cafe, lets them know there’s not a lot going on.

    The new musical “The Band’s Visit,” set in 1996, is about missed opportunities, crossed signals, little and big things, like love, that do and more often don’t happen. And it’s connecting with audiences and critics alike.

    The New York Times called it a musical for grownups. At Sardi’s Restaurant in Times Square, we talked with members of the production team, including actress Katrina Lenk, who stars as Dina.

  • Katrina Lenk:

    I think it’s about loneliness, and our choice to remain lonely or to not be lonely when an opportunity comes around. It’s about taking little risks. And it’s also about how music and art are bigger connectors than just language alone.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The story unfolds in one night, as the hapless band, looking, as one character says, like Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, gets stuck in town, and the equally hapless locals take them into their homes and lives.

    Without a shared language, communication is in broken English and beautiful music. It’s based on a 2007 film, without music, of the same name, that writer Itamar Moses adapted to the stage.

  • Itamar Moses:

    Absolutely everything that happens is just a very, very gentle natural outcropping of that very basic situation. And yet, by the end of the movie, you feel like something really important and sort of life-changing has happened for these people.

    So, I thought that was really sort of profound and interesting. And I thought it would be cool to try to see if you could preserve that in a different form.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Turning the story into a musical, and deciding when a song is best for capturing a moment, fell to composer David Yazbek.

  • David Yazbek:

    A song in a musical can serve a lot of different purposes. And if you’re adapting a movie, sometimes, the song is like a close-up in a movie. You might go close up on someone’s face and get — the picture speaks 1,000 words. Music does the same thing.

    A song can also just be a way of going much deeper into a character, or a relationship. That’s the other thing that we were exploring in this.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

     The relationship that could happen is between Dina and Tawfiq, the straight-laced, but deeply humane leader of the Egyptian band played by Tony Shalhoub.

    In the show’s signature ballad, titled “Omar Sharif,” Katrina Lenk as Dina sings of how much she loved Egyptian movies and music as a young Israeli girl.

  • Katrina Lenk:

    I’m just overjoyed that I get to sing such a beautiful song, and that people do seem to be responding to it in a way that they love it maybe as much as I do. That’s a really exciting, special experience to have.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Several cast members and writers visited Israel before the production to see the real town on which the story is based.

    They knew a tale of Israelis and Egyptians comes with plenty of historical and political freight, and decided, as in the film, to focus on the smaller human scale within the larger drama.

  • Itamar Moses:

    I wouldn’t say that it’s accurate to say that the show is not political. I think it’s enormously political, but the argument it’s making is about the sort of manmade arbitrariness of politics, and that, in the absence of those imaginary structures, people connect over all kinds of things.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    One of the charms of the production directed by David Cromer, several members of the Alexandria ceremonial band are actually in the theatrical band. They’re musicians, as well as actors, including violinist George Abud, who brings something else to the performance.

    As an Arab-American from Detroit, he hopes the music, the play and his presence in it makes a larger statement.

  • George Abud:

    Growing up, you don’t have much to go with as the young Arabic kid, and much to go with in seeing yourself represented in the performing arts.

    That’s why a lot of Arabic kids don’t become actors, because they don’t think it’s something for them. And then, also, their families don’t think of it as something for them. So, I think if there were more stories being told, and they were being welcomed more into the theater by their stories being regularized, or their actors getting to be part of these shows, then the kids would be like, oh, that’s another option for me.

    It’s just a way to open up the world a little bit.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And just another way that makes “The Band’s Visit” an unusual and welcome addition to Broadway this season.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Jeffrey Brown in New York.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And proof that Broadway keeps turning out such great material.

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