The Cast Of 'The Band's Visit' On What Makes The Broadway Smash Relatable

Jun 7, 2018
Originally published on June 7, 2018 8:07 pm

The Band's Visit is a Broadway musical that tells the story of human connection and commonality between cultures. When an Egyptian police band gets stranded in a tiny Israeli town, the musicians wait in a cafe — and get to talking with the locals.

The plot is simple and the set modest, but since its debut on Broadway in late 2017, the show has become the surprise smash hit of the season. Now, the musical is nominated for 11 Tony Awards, including best musical, ahead of Sunday's award ceremony.

Tony Shalhoub and Katrina Lenk play the show's leads, bandleader Tewfiq and cafe owner Dina; both are nominated in acting categories. When the cast stopped by NPR's Tiny Desk this spring to perform selections from The Band's Visit, Shalhoub and Lenk sat down afterwards to chat with All Things Considered host Ari Shapiro.

"It's kind of a respite for all of the noise and strife out there. It's kind of the perfect antidote, really, nowadays, for all the madness," Shalhoub says of the show's plot, noting that the story focuses on people more than politics. "It's about people taking risks, reaching out toward each other, trying to communicate and coming together over the common love of music."

This show lacks the bells and whistles of typical Broadway hit. Lenk says its intimacy is what makes the show stand out. "I think the characters that are in the show are immediately relatable. Yes, they're not in America, but there's 'that guy' and everyone knows 'that guy.' ... They've been that person at some point in their lives," she says. "I think everyone can relate to the characters and also bring their own experiences to the show and take back what it means to them personally."

Hear more of the conversation at the audio link — and watch the full performance in NPR's Tiny Desk series.

Audio engineer Josh Rogosin contributed to this story.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Tony Awards are this weekend. And the musical "The Band's Visit" has 11 nominations. "The Band's Visit" is about a band of Egyptian musicians who get on the wrong bus and end up in a tiny town in the middle of Israel's Negev desert. The next bus doesn't leave until the following day so they wait. It's a small story that tackles intimate themes, like what it means to connect.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

SHAPIRO: Cast members from "The Band's Visit" recently stopped by NPR for a performance as part of our Tiny Desk Concert series. It's where musicians play a few songs in front of a small audience for an online video. Tony Shalhoub plays Tewfiq, the Egyptian bandleader. Katrina Lenk is Dina, the Israeli cafe owner. After the Tiny Desk Concert wrapped, I asked them a few questions in front of that live audience, and we've woven part of their performance into this chat as well.

(APPLAUSE)

SHAPIRO: This is so exciting because after nearly 800 Tiny Desk Concerts, this is not only a first in having a Broadway show here, this is also the first ALL THINGS CONSIDERED Tiny Desk cross collaboration. To begin with, the Middle East is in the news a lot these days. So what do we get out of a show that brings together Egyptians and Israelis and is set in the Middle East and doesn't really dig into the news, doesn't even really take on the conflict directly at all?

TONY SHALHOUB: Yes, this...

(LAUGHTER)

SHALHOUB: I'm just going to jump in.

KATRINA LENK: Do it. Do it.

SHALHOUB: Yeah, this piece is - it's not about politics, it's not about governments. It's really about two different cultures and coming together. And it's kind of a respite from all of the noise and the perfect antidote, really, nowadays for all the madness out there.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

SHALHOUB: (Singing in foreign language).

It's about people taking risks, reaching out toward each other, trying to communicate and coming together over a common love of music.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

SHALHOUB: (Singing in foreign language).

SHAPIRO: This show is the surprise smash hit of the Broadway season. And one reason it's been such a surprise is that it does not have many of the things that we think of as being essential to a big Broadway musical. This show is intimate. This show is quirky. This show doesn't tie everything up in a bow with a big song and dance number. Why do you think it's been such a success in spite of that?

LENK: The mystery.

(LAUGHTER)

LENK: I think the characters that are in the show are immediately relatable, somehow. Yes, they're in - you know, they're not in America. But there's that guy and everyone knows that guy and they've been that person at some point in their lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

LENK: (Singing) Friday evening, Omar Sharif, in black and white and blurry through tears. My mother and I would sit there in a trance. He was cool to the marrow, the pharaoh of romance. Sunday morning, Umm Kulthum, her voice would fill our living room.

So I think everyone can relate to the characters and also bring their own experiences to the show and take back whatever it means to them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

LENK: (Singing) And the living room becomes a garden. And the TV set becomes a fountain. And the music flows in the garden and everything grows.

SHALHOUB: It's really about people who feel a sense of sort of isolation or kind of a hunger for them to reach the world and the world to reach them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ADAM KANTOR: (Singing) That's the sound of longing. Are you there? Are you there? Will you answer me?

SHAPIRO: Tony Shalhoub and Katrina Lenk, both Tony nominated for their roles in "The Band's Visit." Thanks so much.

LENK: Thanks for having us.

SHALHOUB: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

KANTOR: (Singing) When the sun and moon and stars are gone, what's left is only you.

SHAPIRO: You can watch the full Tiny Desk Concert from "The Band's Visit" at nprmusic.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.