When composer David Yazbek began working on “The Band’s Visit” years ago, he remembers watching the 2007 film that serves as the musical’s inspiration — about a ragtag Egyptian orchestra stranded in an Israeli hamlet for a night — and seeing an image that declared the film’s intention to leave politics and religion outside the frame. As the band sits down at a cafe, a photograph of an army tank hangs on the wall beside their table. One musician looks at it uneasily and gently places his hat over the photo.
“It’s like an announcement that the story needs to not be encumbered by surface politics to deliver its message,” says Yazbek, in a phone interview.
The story of Israeli Jews taking in and bonding with a group of Arab musicians resonated when “The Band’s Visit” premiered at the Atlantic Theatre Company in 2016 and then moved the following year to Broadway, where it would win 10 Tony Awards, including best musical. With Israel and Hamas now at war, it may seem even more painfully relevant. Yet the musical, with a book by Itamar Moses, is as gentle as a Mediterranean sea breeze and doesn’t wade into the tumultuous history of Israel and Palestine. “[The show] is about Egyptians and Israelis — so Jews and Arabs — and yet there’s never a flashback to a war scene or a big fight about politics,” Yazbek says. “It’s all on a very intimate human level, and that makes it affecting.”
Boston audiences will now get a chance to discover its charms in a Huntington and SpeakEasy Stage Company co-production that begins performances Friday.
In this disarmingly simple story, the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra — wearing bright powder-blue uniforms — find themselves stuck in a desolate Israeli town, the fictional Bet Hatikvah, after a transportation and language mix-up. With no hotels in this backwater and a bus not arriving until the next day, the townspeople bring these weary (and wary) travelers into their homes for the night. Despite the cultural and language divide, bonds are forged over a deep love of music and shared experience.
“At a time when we feel so separate, it’s a show that’s really about connecting,” says Jennifer Apple, who plays the charismatic cafe owner Dina. “In the zeitgeist that we’re living in right now, having people from [different groups in] the Middle East sitting on a stage and coexisting, not fighting but talking and sharing joy and happiness and love and culture, that feels very political right now.”
Apple, who’s lived in Israel and has family there, was deeply affected by the Hamas massacres last month. Her cousin was one of the scores of concertgoers killed by terrorists at the Supernova music festival near Gaza. She learned the news just as she was packing to come to Boston. “I feel that responsibility to show the humanity of this Israeli woman,” Apple says of her character. “She is a part of who I am.”
In the show, Dina leads the charge to assist the musicians. She brings the reserved, straitlaced conductor Tewfiq (Brian Thomas Abraham), a widower, to her apartment to crash for the night. They eventually go out for dinner and bond over a love of Arabic music and film. Later, they confess their deepest secrets, fears, and regrets. “They’re both damaged, and this is probably the first time in a long time that there’s been a connection on the heart level for either of them,” says Yazbek.
Trumpet player Haled (Kareem Elsamadicy), a swaggering ladies man, helps anxious Israeli cafe worker Papi (Jesse Garlick), who’s hilariously petrified around women, find the confidence to talk to his crush Julia at a skating rink while revealing his own insecurities. Cafe waiter Itzik (Jared Troilo) brings violinist Camal (Andrew Mayer) and assistant conductor Simon (James Rana) to stay overnight with his family. During the awkward dinner, Itzik’s frustrated wife, Iris (Marianna Bassham), laments that Itzik refuses to grow up. Later, Simon plays his unfinished concerto for the group, and Itzik acknowledges his shortcomings. Then there’s a character known only as the Telephone Guy (Noah Kieserman), who waits obsessively by a pay phone for his girlfriend to call.
While nothing monumental happens in the show, a powerful current of emotion runs beneath the surface — from fear, pain, and regret to joy, sorrow, and longing. “It’s like the closest musical to a Chekhov play I’ve ever experienced. There’s a lot of subtext, and what’s not said is just as important as what is said,” says SpeakEasy artistic director Paul Daigneault, who’s helming the production. “People are choosing their language and words very carefully. So we want to live in the pauses and the discomfort, which sets up the rest of the play when there is connection.”
A songwriting shape-shifter, Yazbek is the composer and lyricist of the crowd-pleasing Broadway comedies “The Full Monty,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” and “Tootsie,” all based on the popular films, along with an adaptation of Pedro Almodóvar’s “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.” “You think of musical theater as an artform that tries to pull heartstrings or chorus-kick its way into excitement as opposed to landing genuine emotions,” Yazbek says.
But with “The Band’s Visit,” Yazbek was working in a more contemplative and small-scale (yet no less acerbic) mode, one that’s more in line with his work as an artist and performer fronting various rock bands. “You’re always trying to find something of yourself in writing a song. There were only four or five songs in ‘The Full Monty’ where I could really plumb some depths. But with ‘The Band’s Visit,’ most of the songs are me really looking into myself. Almost every song in it is very personal.”
Indeed, he shows off his influences in songs like the wry “Waiting” and “Welcome to Nowhere,” with their deadpan lyrics, the ravishing ballad “Omar Sharif” that “floats in like a jasmine wind,” the Chet Baker-style torch tune “Haled’s Song About Love,” and the yearning ode to fleeting connection, “Answer Me.” The eclectic score is a stew of classical Arabic music, klezmer, jazz, pop, and more.
“It’s a type of music I’ve had under my skin for a long time, because it speaks to part of my background,” says Yazbek, a native New Yorker whose father is of Lebanese descent and whose mother was half Jewish. “I could think of certain relatives of mine and people from generations past.”
Thematically, the show also explores Yazbek’s longtime interest in Eastern spirituality, meditation, and Sufi poetry. “The thing that made it the most personal was that I felt this deep spiritual undertone to the whole piece. So I was writing in a poetic way. I felt like I was doing something two or three layers deeper than usual.”
What does Yazbek hope audiences take away? At the risk of sounding “too woo-woo,” he says with a laugh, “there’s a Sufi, Buddhist message that has to do with the truth that we’re all the same. When you meet and spend time with people and put away the labels, you’ll find more often than not that you’re basically communicating with another version of yourself. . . . We’re all the same person wearing different faces. We’re all fingers on the same hand.”
THE BAND’S VISIT
Co-production of the Huntington and SpeakEasy Stage Company. At the Huntington Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave. Nov. 10-Dec. 17. Tickets from $30. 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at email@example.com.