The cast and crew of 'The Band's Visit' accepts the Tony Award for Best Musical earlier this month. The cast and crew of 'The Band's Visit' accepts the Tony Award for Best Musical earlier this month. The cast and crew of 'The Band's Visit' accepts the Tony Award for Best Musical earlier this month. (Photo: John P. Filo / CBS)

'The Band’s Visit': Tony winner reveals how it went from screen to stage

Turning a romantic comedy into a Broadway musical wasn't an obvious choice for playwright Itamar Moses. He explains the process in this exclusive interview.

Eleven years ago, the Israeli movie “The Band’s Visit," about Egyptian musicians who take the wrong bus and end up in a tiny Israeli town, won seven Israeli Film Academy awards and captivated audiences around the world. Now, it is the toast of Broadway, cleaning up at the 72nd Annual Tony Awards where it won in 10 categories.

Aside from Best Musical, it won three acting awards (“Monk” star Tony Shalhoub among them), and honors for its direction, score, sound design, orchestrations, lighting and book, by playwright Itamar Moses. The Berkeley, California-born son of Israeli parents scored his first Tony Award for his first musical. “I felt really happy about it but also quite surprised,” Moses said in an interview just days after the milestone moment.

From The Grapevine talked with Moses, a graduate of Yale University and NYU’s MFA program in theater, about the show’s success and what it took to achieve it.

From The Grapevine: How did you celebrate on Tony night?

Itamar Moses: There were a number of after-parties: the general Tony party at the Plaza, ‘The Band’s Visit’ party near Bryant Park, where anyone associated with our production who hadn’t been at Radio City watched the ceremony and the rest of us joined them there, and an after-after party at the Carlyle Hotel.

Why do you think the show has been so successful?

It remains a little bit mysterious to us. But I think it’s the messages it has about love and connection and, in a larger sense, not closing our borders off and shutting people out. It’s set in a tiny town where these Egyptian musicians wind up by mistake. There’s a pivotal choice near the beginning where Dena the Israeli café owner tells the musicians, ‘You can stay with us tonight.’ The show arrived at a moment when that gesture feels enormous. It’s so specific, but when you try to make something broad to appeal to the widest possible audience, it ends up meaning nothing. When you make something specific, that allows it to be universal.

Tony Winners Katrina Lenk (left) and Tony Shalhoub in a scene from 'The Band's Visit' on Broadway. Tony Winners Katrina Lenk (left) and Tony Shalhoub in a scene from 'The Band's Visit' on Broadway. (Photo: John P. Filo / CBS)

On paper, ‘The Band’s Visit’ seems an unlikely choice for a musical. How did you go about adapting the movie?

If I’d seen the movie cold, in a theater, I don’t know if I’d have thought it should be a musical. But [producer] Orin Wolf contacted me and asked me to take a look at it to see if I could adapt it and I watched it through that lens. There’s a band so that’s an organic reason for music. It’s a story about barriers, and language barriers as a metaphor for that. Music is a language that transcends that. There are a lot of close-ups in the movie and solos serve that purpose on stage.

I met with [composer] David Yazbek and we were both on the same page. We felt we should do it because it was the opposite of what you’d expect in a musical. He’d worked on several more traditional musicals before and was ready to do something different. In October-November 2013 I wrote a first draft, with no songs. Yazbek and I sat down with that script a few months later and went through it page by page, circling places there could be song moments. Then he went off to write. About half the places we circled ended up being songs in the show. Later, in workshops there were other versions of the show; we’d identify moments we missed and add new songs. We opened on Broadway in November 2017.

How about the story? What did you change to bring it to the stage?

The rule that I came up with was every storyline needed 1 1/2 more events. There are three main storylines plus a running story about the guy and the pay phone that’s always occupied. The broad outline is the same. I took the end points and extended them. The additions happened organically. In the movie, two of the musicians go home with a young couple who are having trouble in their marriage, and the wife disappears after that. We built out her part quite a bit. In the film, Dina and Tewfiq see a man at a cafeteria and she reveals he’s a married man she had an affair with. In the musical he comes over and they talk.

Playwright Itamar Moses accepting his Tony Award at Radio City Music Hall. Playwright Itamar Moses accepting his Tony Award at Radio City Music Hall. (Photo: John P. Filo / CBS)

Is this show the highlight of your career?

Yes, it’s certainly one of them. The first one was being told by a regional theater that they would produce one of my plays – my career was beginning for real. But this is one of those once in a blue moon moments that feels like things have changed in a permanent way.

Did you always want to be a writer?

I’d wanted to be a writer for a very long time. My ambition was to write fantasy novels because I loved to read them. Theater came a little later, in high school and in college. Playwriting became my focus.

Arabic and Hebrew are spoken in the show. Do you speak both languages?

I used professional translators for both as well as cast members who are fluent. I don’t really know Arabic. My Hebrew is OK. I understand it, but speak it badly. I have aunts, uncles and cousins in Israel and when I go there for a few weeks it starts to come out.

Are there plans to take the show on a national tour? And to Israel?

Of course we want to go to Israel, and our producer is optimistic about other places. We are going to have a national tour, starting in late spring 2019 in Providence, Rhode Island, with a second stop in Washington D.C., something like 18 months.

MORE FROM THE GRAPEVINE:

Photos and SlideshowsPhotos and Slideshows

Related Topics: Music