On stage at Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theater, not a word of politics is spoken between the Israelis and Egyptians in “The Band’s Visit” as they gently engage in a slow dance of getting to know each other. But playwright Itamar Moses disagrees when people say that the musical is not political.
The wildly successful show, based on the 2007 film, takes place over one night in 1996, when members of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra — wearing powder-blue uniforms, looking like members of Sgt. Pepper’s Band — mistakenly arrive in the Israeli desert town of Bet HaTikvah when they are expected for a concert in Petah Tikvah. With no buses out and no hotel in town, the Egyptians are taken in by the Israelis they meet in a local café.
“In the movie there’s a moment when they arrive at Dina’s café, and there’s a photo of a tank on the wall,” Moses tells The Jewish Week. “One of the musicians hangs up his hat over the photo. It’s a gesture in the movie, as if we’re going to bury this for now. And we liked that approach. And in any case if you start putting explicit political statements into this story, that would rupture the piece.
“I think it’s a making a political argument through what does or doesn’t happen, as opposed to what they say. It’s making the argument that when you strip away rhetoric from leaders, and things that are externally manufactured, like borders and rules, that people are people. I think that’s an enormously political statement.”
While Arabic and Hebrew are spoken onstage, it’s broken English that’s the common language. The story is about waiting and longing, of missed connections and deep, unexpected human connections, and as Moses says, “Everybody is in some phase of a love story.”
Moses, 40, the American-born son of Israeli parents, has written several previous plays, including “Bach at Leipzig” and the musical “The Fortress of Solitude.” His parents met while serving in the IDF, and came to Berkeley, Calif., when his father got an academic position. Moses says that they weren’t sure if they would stay or not, so they gave him and his sister Israeli names. They stayed.
“It’s making the argument that when you strip away rhetoric from leaders, and things that are externally manufactured, like borders and rules, that people are people. I think that’s an enormously political statement.”
He knew that he wanted to be a writer since he was about 10. At the time, he wanted to write a fantasy novel, what he most liked reading. At the end of high school in Berkeley, he began writing plays.
“I always liked books and reading, and just wanted that to be my life,” he says. Moses studied at Yale and then NYU and stayed in New York City, and soon after graduation his first plays were presented in regional productions. Now, he also writes for film and television, and says that perhaps he’ll take a detour back to fantasy writing.
Of all his work, he says that “The Band’s Visit” is by far the most explicit in drawing from his background. “It’s the first thing I’ve done that is set in Israel, that has Hebrew spoken in it, although people have told me that a lot of my characters seem Jewish, even if they’re not.
“I’m working on a couple of new plays now that are either set partly in Israel, or engage more directly with Israel as an idea. It’s almost as if adapting Eran Kolirin’s film was a half-step for me — it allowed me to open the door. And having done so I realize that I do have and feel a certain amount of authority to write about this stuff.”
Moses managed to write a script incorporating silence and pauses. He explains, “The film has a sparseness, slowness, a lot of air. We preserved that.”
In a song called “Welcome to Nowhere,” one of the Israelis describes Bet HaTikvah — with a B — as “basically black and beige and blah, blah, blah.” The fictional place is based on the Negev town of Yeruham, where Moses visited, along with the director, lyricist, some actors and the filmmaker.
“We felt the closeness of the desert, how the wind sounds. You’re at the town center and walk half a block, and the town ends,” Moses says, adding that in fact there is a hotel in Yeruham, where they stayed.