Last Sunday one of the most extraordinary musicals I have ever seen ended its Broadway run. I apologize for being so late to the party, but, if you’ve seen anybody’s reaction to The Band’s Visit, you’ve heard similar awestruck commendation. I don’t like being redundant because it renders me redundant, you know? So, I’ll briefly describe the show, discuss a commercial aspect, and tell you that if you’ve missed it, you’re plum out of luck. (This reminds me: I’m out of plums and must run to a market later.)
What was that?
Much as I don’t like being wrong about things, I have to start with a confession that I had an idea about The Band’s Visit before seeing it that turned out to be totally off-base. It’s set in an obscure part of Israel and many of the characters are Egyptians. This description led me to believe the show would touch on the much-commented-on Arab-Israeli conflict. I thought, somehow, that the shared language of music would somehow draw a group of people together who are normally across a political divide, mellifluous sounds overcoming prejudice.
It’s not expressing a political opinion that a lot of people have a lot of strong feelings about Israel, and I found it a challenge to get myself into the mood to see a show on that subject. Wondrously, The Band’s Visit stays true to its setting, depicts differences between Israelis and Egyptians, and yet makes no comment on any “hot button” issue. What a relief! I’ve complained, in the past, about “spinach musicals” – shows that are supposed to be good for you, but don’t provide the comforts of unhealthy vittles. I think of a line Carolyn Leigh wrote, “Sermonize and preach to me; make your sanctimonious little speech to me.” Who wants that?
Theatrically speaking, I prefer candy. But I don’t mean to say I don’t like serious musicals. The Band’s Visit is one. And feels, somehow, like an intriguing straight play. Characters rarely burst out in song. One particularly important number has no lyrics – it’s on clarinet and doesn’t build to an applause button. There were plenty of times I couldn’t quite tell what was going on, what the show was communicating to me.
And then, in one of the most infectious and beautiful ballads of Broadway’s past half-century, the meaning of everything that had gone before came into focus, like I was adjusting binoculars.
Extraordinary enough for you? The Band’s Visit has very little action. “The band” – that is, a set of uniformed male musicians that have gotten lost on their way to a gig – is, essentially, a main character. But, unlike most characters in musicals, they take almost no actions. And yet, when they make music, they have a catalytic effect on all who hear them.
Director David Cromer, one of those MacArthur geniuses, is experienced with straight plays, not musicals. His attention to detail, on a stark Scott Pask set (say that three times fast), allows us to concentrate on a succession of quiet moments. These amount to a meditation on the human need to connect, and how music nudges us in that direction.
And what music! The songs by David Yazbek are varied, sometimes exotic, often rapturous. So, if I say The Band’s Visit feels like a play (by Itamar Moses) it shouldn’t sound like I’m denigrating a perfectly wonderful score. It’s just that the show often uses music in a way most musicals rarely do.
Here’s something that strikes me about contemporary musical theatre: Four years in a row, the Tony has gone to a work that, in certain ways, is wholly unlike anything that has gone before. That’s an exciting transformation, if off-putting to traditionalists. It’s been a hell of a time: Fun Home, a memory play that never offers up easy answers; Hamilton, which is Hamilton; Dear Evan Hansen, which beat two other extraordinary musicals for the prize, Come From Away and Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, and The Band’s Visit. Usually, you need a few years of perspective to declare an era transformative. But come on! Those are six shows none of us could have dreamed of a decade ago.
The Band’s Visit, I’m pleased to report, recouped its entire $8.75 million investment. But here we are, less than a year after it won the Tony Award for Best Musical, and it’s closed. Something’s Rotten…had more performances. I find something disturbing about the shortness of The Band’s Visit compared to other Tony laureates.
But I embody the problem. Glance back at my second paragraph. The Band’s Visit is not only hard to describe and not anything like what I expected, it doesn’t sound wonderful. Not in the way, say, a comedy about silly missionaries in Africa sounds wonderful. (And there the magic words “South Park” get many TV-viewers interested in attending.) Commercial Broadway requires something of a crave factor. That is, when someone first hears about a show, there’s got to be some reason they want to go. Cyndi Lauper score about a drag queen saving a shoemaker – people want to see that. The Band’s Visit is very much like a dream. And if I start telling you about this dream I had, your eyes are likely to glaze over. In fact, I’m surprised you’ve read this far.
Tiny country; tiny town; tiny company
There are no production numbers. Nothing is big; everything is small, intimate. The Band’s Visit began at the rather small off-Broadway Atlantic Theatre. I saw it from the first row of the mezzanine at the Ethel Barrymore, one of Broadway’s smaller houses (about 1000 seats). Call me a snob about these things, but it was very important to me to see it in New York. Soon, the show will be off on a national tour, where it will play some theatres with more than 4000 seats and that’s just horrifying to me. Being close enough to see actors’ faces is essential to the experience.
Now, after the big house tour, it’s possible small theatres will start mounting it in more appropriate spaces. Try to imagine you’re in the modest abode of a couple who’ve recently had a baby. And the baby won’t sleep. And the couple’s relationship seems frayed by parental struggles. (So far, this is very similar to the musical I’ve been writing, Baby Makes Three.) In comes a quiet gentleman, carrying my favorite musical instrument – the clarinet, which I loved from the time one was played in my childhood apartment. He plays directly into the crib, lulling the baby to sleep. And this draws its parents closer together.
I told you it was like a dream. But what a happy one.