I am typically not one for Broadway musicals. I have seen a few and some I really enjoyed. However, I still do not consider myself a fan of the Broadway style. I think some of the reason why is that I am just not that into the delivery style, and the songs can be really cheesy. I have friends who adore Broadway musicals and I am glad that it is their thing, but I am just a bit picky.
In 2018, I watched the Tony awards with a friend. I had never watched the Tony awards before. I don’t really follow award shows now but when I did, it was usually the Oscars. Watching the Tony awards, I either was not aware of or did not care about most of the productions. I remember seeing a performance of a musical based on SpongeBob SquarePants and the overly obnoxious, saccharine acting and presentation and I was just not digging anything about it. Still, I watched.
As I was watching, there were a lot of wins for a musical I had not heard about which is nothing new. Though, my friend I was with who loves musicals, was not quite aware either. Competing for 11 nominations, the production won 10 of them, including the Tony for “Best Musical.” It was a peculiar musical. Understated, lacking in grandiosity. It didn’t appear to have all the trappings of what I consider to be standard Broadway motif. Though, with one performance, and having no other information, I was sold. I really wanted to see The Band’s Visit.
The Band’s Visit, a musical adaptation of a 2017 Israeli film (that is not a musical), was the big winner of the 2018 Tony awards. The story involves an Egyptian police orchestra band that is travelling to Israel to perform at an Arab Cultural Center. While they are trying to get to the bustling city of Petah Tikvah, a translation error, a classic set up in a fish out of water story, has the band ending up in a small desert town called Bet Katikva. While the band is stranded overnight having to wait for the next bus the following day, the members of the orchestra have a major impact on the listless denizens of this nowhere Israeli town.
Watching the Tony awards, the song performed was “Omar Sharif” performed by Katrina Lenk. In the scene, Lenk, as Dina, goes out on something resembling a date with Tewfiq, the captain of the police orchestra portrayed by Tony Shalhoub. While they discuss the band sticking to traditional Arab music, Dina shares with Tewfiq that she used to listen to Egyptian radio stations as a child with signers like Umm Kulthum. She also shares her love growing up with Omar Sharif films. It is a tender song about the impact these legendary cultural figures had on her, able to sense the lemon and jasmine scents of their representation. While Tewfiq is in the scene, Dina performs solo with him silently watching this woman express herself so freely when one imagines there is little opportunity to do in such a small town.
Despite garnering so much acclaim, I had never heard of it before. And neither had anyone else I had spoken to about it. Then, and even still, any conversation about Broadway is dominated by Hamilton, and rightfully so as it managed to expand the Broadway landscape with its diverse representation and catchy hip-hop tunes. And if it isn’t Hamilton that people are talking about, it is a jukebox musical based on some popular singer’s career.
So, when tickets were announced for Chicago, I had to go. I even managed to get a big discount by waiting for a special. In the weeks leading up seeing the musical, I was incredibly excited. I only knew that one song. “Omar Sharif” sold me. I refrained from listening to the rest of the musical or even watch the original movie because I wanted to go in as fresh as possible.
All the while, I am telling people about the musical. And not a single person among my friends had heard of the musical. Some of them are not that into musicals, but even the ones that were just had no idea. It was so bizarre.
The Band’s Visit was praised for being a “musical for grown-ups” and noted for its positive impact on the portrayal of Middle Eastern actors and performers. Now, when representation is something that is heavily considered and discussed, a musical like The Band’s Visit going under the radar for so many people, despite all the Tony wins, just seems so bizarre. I know that it has a lot of traditional Arab music and the songs are not filled with socially conscious, politically charged hip-hop elements like Hamilton, but it is a musical worthy of attention.