‘The Band’s Visit’ is a Story of Connection for These Isolating Times

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A scene from 'The Band's Visit' Broadway play, where Joe Joseph is in costume as a military band member and Layan Elwazani plays a box office clerk.
Layan Elwazani and Joe Joseph from the cast of 'The Band's Visit,' which makes its Bay Area debut at Golden Gate Theatre on Jan. 11. (Evan Zimmerman, MurphyMade)

Writing a book for a musical is a challenging task for any author. Itamar Moses, despite all his success as a playwright, found it to be downright daunting.

Yet the Berkeley native found a project that drew him in. After a successful off-Broadway run in 2016 followed by a triumphant Broadway transfer, Moses’ initial reticence of handling the script for The Band’s Visit paid off with a stunning statuette—the Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical in 2018.

The show, which garnered 10 Tonys in total, including the Best Musical prize, makes its Bay Area debut at BroadwaySF on Tuesday, Jan. 11. The show will continue through Feb. 6 at the Golden Gate Theatre.

The musical is based on the 2007 Israeli film of the same name written and directed by Eran Kolirin. (The film’s original star, Sasson Gabay, also plays the leading role of Colonel Tewfiq in BroadwaySF’s production.) Eight men of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra are booked to play a concert at an Arab cultural center located in Petah Tikva, Israel, but a miscommunication accidentally puts them in Beit Hatikva, a sleepy town without much going on. Through a series of poignant interactions, the forlorn citizens are forever changed by the powder blue band through the show’s 100 uninterrupted minutes.

The cast of 'The Band's Visit' in powder blue military band uniforms.
When an Egyptian military band accidentally arrives in a small Israeli town, they make unexpected cultural connections in 'The Band's Visit.' (Evan Zimmerman, MurphyMade. )

Writing for a medium where songs are the stars of the show, the script always has the potential to be an afterthought, which Moses understands.


“Good lyrics often express poetically what people’s inner lives are in a way that dialogue can’t,” he says. “Putting those things together can be really difficult because you’re inherently operating in two contradictory modes. At times the dialogue gets overly explicit and the subtext comes right to the surface, or it can be purely functional and just about handing the baton from one song to the next. It’s just a very tricky process.”

While a musical is often judged by the quality and hummability of its tunes, Moses explains that if the story doesn’t work, then nothing works: “It’s also the thing you spend the least time on because staging numbers, learning songs and doing choreography takes longer.”

Moses’ path from his days growing up in a Jewish family in Berkeley took him to Yale University in the mid 1990s, where he graduated in 1999, and then to New York University, where he earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in dramatic writing. He has had world premieres at many major regional theaters throughout the country, including in his hometown at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2008. While he has also spent time in television writing for shows such as HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and TNT’s Men of a Certain Age, it’s his writing for the stage that has been his bread and butter.

Adding Tony winner to his lengthy resume is quite the culmination of a successful career as a playwright, yet Moses sees the award as a smaller piece of a grander puzzle.

“The show is such an unusual piece of work because there were crucial contributions from people based on a film that none of us wrote,” says Moses, who resides in Brooklyn. “To make something that is more than the sum of its parts and getting a major award like that is actually a great lesson in the fact that it’s really not about you.”

Those contributions Moses speaks of came from director David Cromer and composer and lyricist David Yazbek.

Joe Joseph, Sasson Gabay and Janet Dacal (left to right) in 'The Band's Visit.' (Evan Zimmerman, MurphyMade)

The show’s Broadway run in 2017 took place in a very different climate than the one the country finds itself in now. Today, the pandemic has amplified a societal sense of solitude for many. Moses feels the show has brought about some new insight that comes with the communal experience of living disconnected lives.

“Is the pandemic creating new resonance for the show? I would say it is, but I think what it reveals about the show is actually something quite simple and fundamental,” he says. “The show is about the experience of living, about the value of slowing things down and taking a moment to listen and connect with what’s in front of you, along with the people you’re with. It’s about these fundamental human needs, these things we often ignore when we’re swept up in our usual busy lives.”

Moses has found some wonderful parallels in that theme of place. He returned to the Bay Area this past August to be with friends and family for the first time in a year and a half due to the pandemic. Still, no matter how long he’s away from his hometown, Berkeley is never far from his heart, or his work.

“I think the Bay Area, among other things, is a court and a place of arrival,” he says. “The mixing of cultures encountering one another and those points of encounter are really interesting. Having immigrant parents and this big Israeli community in the area, hearing people speak English with an Israeli accent, all that was a big part of the music of my childhood.”

The Band’s Visit runs Jan. 11-Feb. 6 at Golden Gate Theatre. Tickets and details here