From Park Slope to the Negev Desert: Eagle interview with playwright Itamar Moses on ‘The Band’s Visit’
It seems appropriate that the hottest play currently on Broadway is set in the Negev desert. “The Band’s Visit,” the critically acclaimed, many performances-sold-out-till-Spring Broadway hit, is based on the 2007 Israeli film and tells the story of an Egyptian police band that’s sent to the wrong remote village in the Israeli desert, where the locals, skeptical at first, take them in. The play becomes a moving exploration of cross-cultural exchange. And a quiet gesture of hope.
The play’s book was written by Park Slope resident Itamar Moses. Moses’ previous plays have included “Bach at Leipzig,” “Celebrity Row,” “Back Back Back,” “Outrage” and the musicals “Nobody Loves You” (with Gaby Alter) and “The Fortress of Solitude” (with Michael Friedman). Moses was born and raised in Berkeley, California, and earned his bachelor’s degree at Yale University and his Master of Fine Arts degree in dramatic writing from New York University.
Recently, at Kos Kaffe on Fifth Avenue in Park Slope, I sat down with Moses to discuss “The Band’s Visit,” the joys and perils of adaptations and the serendipity of such a gentle, charming wisp of a play becoming the mega-hit of this Broadway season.
Brooklyn Eagle: Let’s start at the very beginning: When did you first hear one of your plays read aloud? What was the experience like?
Itamar Moses: I probably first heard a play read aloud in college. And the experience was simultaneously thrilling and traumatic. Thrilling because there’s an inherent high to hearing actors speak your words and bring characters that came out of your head to life. Traumatic because — especially when you’re first starting out — the gap between what you were aiming for and what you actually achieved is really big, and the size of that gap becomes super obvious as soon as you hear the play out loud. Actually, that isn’t only true when you’re first starting out, it remains true. So, to this day, hearing my work aloud is thrilling and traumatic for the same reason. Exhibit A: I’m answering this email during a reading of one of my plays at an off-Broadway theatre and I am hiding in lobby outside the room because it’s too scary to be in there.
Eagle: “Bach at Leipzig,” although a drama, has music as a major theme. Had the idea of writing the book for a musical occurred to you before “The Band’s Visit.”
IM: Well, as “The Band’s Visit” is my third musical, and I also wrote the book for the previous two, I guess the answer to this question is “yes.” I wrote musical called “Nobody Loves You” that premiered at the Old Globe in San Diego in 2012 and then appeared off-Broadway at Second Stage in 2013, and I wrote a musical based on the Jonathan Lethem novel “The Fortress of Solitude” that premiered at Dallas Theatre Center and then appeared at the Public, both in 2014. But each of these three musicals came out of a particular set of circumstances that made we want to write the particular show as opposed to an abstract desire to write musicals: “Nobody Loves You” happened because I wanted to write a show with my friend Gaby Alter. “Fortress of Solitude” happened because Daniel Aukin and Michael Friedman asked me to collaborate with them, and I wanted to work with them, and loved the novel. But, as you note, music is also important in some of my non-musicals and that’s because I’m (sort of) a musician. I played classical piano as a kid, and still noodle around on the piano when I get the chance. And it is true that music can bypass the psychological defenses of an audience and have a greater impact than almost anything, so that does make musicals an attractive form… difficult as they are to get right.
Eagle: Let’s move on “The Band’s Visit” itself: What were the challenges of fashioning such an astute, clever, charming and moving play from such minimalist material? [“The Band’s Visit” is based on a 2009 Israeli film of the same name, written by Eran Kolirin. The current musical playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Broadway had its first run at the Atlantic Theatre Nov. 11, 2016–Jan. 8, 2017.]
IM: [Laughing] The fundamental challenge had to do with the absence of an obvious or overt plot. There weren’t big events… I mean forget car chases, there is rarely even an argument in the film! Thus, one challenge was: How do I blow things up a little bit plotwise but in a way that honors the spirit of the story? Because one of the things David [Yazbek, writer and lyricist] and I found was that if we blew things up too much, it violated the spirit of the underlying story. So one challenge was trying to figure out how to add things, but in a very organic way that felt natural. Another challenge was how to incorporate the music, because obviously the film was not a musical.
Eagle: That’s a good segue to my next question: Did you build in music cues into the first draft of your script?
IM: No, I wrote the first draft just as if I was writing a straight play with no songs. Just to figure out how to make a version that would sustain on stage, that involved eliding and compressing various scenes, just thinking about the mechanics of an evening of theater. Then David Yazbek and I sat down with that script and went through it page by page, selecting the moments we thought utilize the music. And in some cases we were right, and in some cases very wrong.
Eagle: You used the word “organic,” so I gather you wanted the songs to occur naturally, spontaneously. For example, the second song of the show “Welcome to Nowhere,” with the residents of Bet Hatikva singing about how boring it is living there? What was the genesis of that number?
IM: [Laughing] Funny you should ask — and that’s another good question. Because if you remember in the movie…
Eagle: I’ve actually never seen the film.
IM: Well, in the film, we meet the band in the bus station and follow them into Bet Hatikva. But in the musical, we meet the band at the bus station and then weave ahead of them to the town. So we had this narrative territory of showing the town before the band arrives that was never in the movie. So that number “Nowhere” originally began with some scenes within it and character introductions — the married couple, the kid who works at the cafe who is so shy with women — then David built the songs around them. And then once the song was built we realized we didn’t actually need the scene. So often, we let the songs replace the narrative dialogue or action of the film.
Eagle: Was there any concern about having the Arabic and Hebrew dialogue go untranslated?
IM: Yes, initially there was. But that concern went away once we were in previews at the Atlantic, off-Broadway, and it became clear that the audience was tracking everything just fine. But until we did get an audience, we were concerned. I felt from the very beginning that I wanted to hear a lot of Arabic and Hebrew in the play and that I didn’t want it to be translated. The game that we would play was could it all be structured so that people would speak their own language between themselves but when they needed to speak to others they spoke in English. We would keep an eye on how well the audience was following everything, and up until even a few weeks from our official Broadway opening we’d be clarifying or changing a line. Maybe we say that line in English or that line half in Hebrew. I mean there’s some kind of a line between mystery that is intriguing to the audience, that makes you lean in more, and mystery that’s frustrating and confusing. We’ve managed to stay on the correct side of that line.
Eagle: What keeps Dina in Bet Hatikva? She’s so vital, so beautiful, so filled with promise. Why does she stay in this remote, isolated desert town?
IM: That’s the key question, right? What keeps any of us from following our dreams? It’s not made clear in the film how long ago her marriage fell apart and we also keep it vague in the play. My guess would be it was long enough ago that she had already become entrenched in owning the cafe that she’s felt like she’s put down roots. And, you know, as we get older… and she says at one point she’s now too old to have children, so that would place her solidly in her 40s. As we start to get past 40, it gets harder and harder to move, to change.
Eagle: Why do you think she’s never had children?
IM: My answer would be that it’s linked to her wanting to be a dancer. And by the time she realized she couldn’t have a career as a dancer, it was her biological clock had stopped. In fact, I know a lot of people now who are having that paradoxical dilemma. “Well, I want to have kids someday, but not until I accomplish X,Y & Z.” And yet [laughing] they’re not really taking steps toward X, Y & Z.
Note: The following paragraphs contain spoilers
Eagle: I was surprised that Dina would fall into bed with Haled. I felt like it cheapened her a bit. I felt that if she’s going to sleep with anybody, it should be Tewfiq [played indelibly by Tony Shalhoub] with whom she’s had this emotional connection. Not Haled, who seems like a one-night stand. Did that give you pause?
IM: [Laughing] Well, first I can pass the buck, because it’s what happens in the movie. For me, when I saw the movie and was doing the adaptation I saw it [Dina’s going to bed with Haled] as one a dramatization of the core themes, a microcosm of what the whole story is about, which is we don’t always get who we want or what we want. We miss the target by a few inches.
Eagle: We take the wrong off-ramp…
IM: Yes, exactly, and we end up over there. Also, I think that there is something — and you’re not the only person who’s had that reaction — it reminds a little bit of what happens in Sofia Coppola’s film “Lost in Translation,” where Bill Murray’s character and Scarlett Johansson’s character never make love. Because what transpires between them is more important than the physical act of making love. I think the same goes for Dina and Tewfiq. She can sleep with Haled because it won’t really matter. It’s something that can be let go of, whereas making love with Tewfiq would be too important to let go of.
Eagle: I just felt Haled’s not worthy of her.
IM: I would say it’s not a question of judgement. It’s not who is worthy of her but what, or who, does she need at that moment, as a person. She feels that it’s the best thing she can do for herself at the moment.
Eagle: Final question: Do you think there’s any way Dina and Tewfiq will ever get together? Will he return to Bet Hatikva?
IM: I think that what they had is all they’re ever going to have. It’s a profound, spiritual bond that helps them get slightly unstuck in their lives.
Eagle: So, instead of [Humphrey] Bogart and [Ingrid] Bergman’s Paris, they’ll always have Bet Hatikva.
IM: I think they’ve have this incredible interaction but it’s completely self-contained. They’ll both be changed and be grateful for what happened between them, but the possibility of their ever eventually reuniting is almost beside the point. It’s an encounter that happens in a bubble. To try to take it beyond would only burst the bubble.
“The Band’s Visit” is currently playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre at 243 West 47th St.
For information on tickets, schedules and merchandise, visit thebandsvisitmusical.com.
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