By Mary Boyle
There are only 4 Broadway musicals that have won the unofficial "Big Six" – Best Musical, Best Book, Best Score, Best Actor in a Musical, Best Actress in a Musical, and Best Direction of a Musical. The first was South Pacific in 1950, the second was Sweeney Todd in 1979, the third was Hairspray in 2003, and the fourth happened just recently in 2018. Already on a National Tour, the musical has quickly made its way to Milwaukee for this season's Broadway at the Marcus series; a very unique production called THE BAND'S VISIT.
Based on the 2007 film of the same name, written and directed by Eran Kolirin, The Band's Visit was a collaboration between Israel, France and the United States. The story is deceptively simple: the eight members of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra arrive in Israel from Egypt to play a special concert in the cultural center of Petah Tikvah. Unfortunately, the name is very close to a tiny town in the middle of the desert called Bet Hatikva, which is where the band ends up. With no other buses coming through for the day, and not even a hotel to stay the night in, Dina (Chilina Kennedy), the owner of the local cafe, takes pity on the men and, after feeding them, invites them to spend the night in her own home and those of her friends. While their rough English helps them overcome basic communication barriers, it's music that truly connects the band with their various hosts, changing all of their lives in little, but important, ways.
With music and lyrics by David Yazbek (The Full Monty, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Tootsie) and book by Itamar Moses, the story of The Band's Visit is, in and of itself, unremarkable. In fact, while the traditional Arabic music is truly primal, intoxicating and beautiful, and there are delightfully funny bits throughout the production, and Chilina Kennedy has an incredibly beautiful and powerful voice, being so removed from the troubles in the Middle East and not being Middle Eastern, I couldn't quite comprehend what made this musical win so many awards. The real power of this seemingly ordinary story, of course, is that it is Arabs and Jews – two cultures who don't often mix well – demonstrating not only that they have a lot in common, but that the life of people in the Middle East is not very different from anywhere else.
After winning the Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical, Ari'el Stachel, who played Haled, a band member, in the original Broadway cast, said, “For so many years of my life I pretended I was not a Middle Eastern person. […] I am part of a cast of actors who never believed that they'd be able to portray their own races and we are doing that. And not only that but we're getting messages from kids all over the Middle East thanking us and telling us how transformative our representation is for them. […] I want any kid that's watching to know that your biggest obstacle may turn into your purpose."
Theatre has an amazing ability to create empathy, even for large-scale world problems such as the way Middle Eastern people have been viewed and portrayed, particularly since 9/11, in our country, or conflict between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East. That is why this musical is so very important, in all its ordinariness. That is why it won so many awards. That is why it is touring across the Country so quickly after winning all of those awards, to spread the message to everyone who needs to understand that we are more alike than different; that there are universal languages that we share, and music is perhaps the greatest one.
THE BAND'S VISIT runs through December 1st at Uihlein Hall, located within the Marcus Performing Arts Center at 929 N. Water Street in downtown Milwaukee. Tickets may be purchased by calling (414) 273-7206, in person at the Marcus Center Box Office, or online at https://www.marcuscenter.org/show/bands-visit .
Learn more about the Broadway at the Marcus Center 2019-2020 Season at: