Throw the Book at Them

You may have noticed in my belated recap of the 2017-2018 Broadway season a severe lack of love for The Band’s Visit, the consensus pick for the best new musical of the year.

Heck, I even preferred Jimmy Buffet’s Escape to Margaritaville. For fear of losing the smidgeon of credibility I’m clinging to, this incendiary hot-take calls for some justifying.

A 2,000+ word justification, in fact.

By any conventional artistic metric, most would rank the introspective, emotionally-resonant work over the shamelessly trashy night of mindless glee any day of the week. Though I think each of these ends are equally difficult to achieve — in fact, it might be harder for the latter to excel because natural born snobs will always turn up their noses, regardless of its execution — I prefer to evaluate art based on how closely it hits the intended mark. Escape to Margaritaville, no matter how arbitrarily lowbrow you consider it, is exactly the musical it sets out to be. The Band’s Visit, on the other hand, at least where I’m sitting, falls short.

Any surveyor of modern theatre must wrestle with the ever-increasing phenomenon of movies being adapted into musicals, of which The Band’s Visit is one, based on the little-seen, but much-loved, 2008 Egyptian film of the same name.

Personally, I’m not as opposed to these theatrical adaptations as many of my critical counterparts, largely because totally original musicals have never actually been the norm, despite what some nostalgia-blinded folks may have you believe. Sure, not many movies inspired the Golden Age of musicals, but that was partially due to film still being a relatively new artistic medium. However, a vast majority of these musicals adored by the “they were better back then” crowd are adapted from literature of some kind (fiction and nonfiction novels, short stories, operas, fairy tales, real life events, headlines ripped from the news, etc). As usual, these 20th century text-based adaptations are no better, nor worse, than 21st century celluloid-based adaptations; they’re just different.


But, these differences demand that audiences evaluate them, well, differently. Back in the day, much could be made of how a show DRAMAtically either expanded upon or — as was often the case with the behemoth Great Works of Literature — reduced the original story to fit the confines of onstage storytelling. Adapting films, however, takes far less work, mostly because it’s a far more similar art form to theatre. As such, discerning audiences should always keep in mind that though the unoriginal story unfolding before them may be enjoyable, the show does not deserve credit for the quality of the original tale.

(This idea actually relates to jukebox musicals as well. Though this is probably a piece for another day, Beautiful is a prime example of what I’m talking about here. Most people LOOOOOOVE Beautiful, but how much of their adoration should actually be chalked up to the musical? Any night full of Carole King music will be a good time, but in no way did the creators of the musical actually participate in the creation of this music. Though audiences may appreciate learning about her true life story that inspired her widely-cherished catalogue, the musical tells this story with as much depth, style, nuance, insightful observations, and hard-earned emotions as can be found on King’s Wikipedia page. Sure, her songs may be performed by a sensational cast, but if that’s all an audience gets, they’re basically paying Broadway’s ludicrous prices for a glorified cover band. Anyone is free to love a tribute show, but that doesn’t make it great art. Beautiful may be the most enjoyable night on Broadway to some (not me), but that doesn’t make it great theatre. HOLY DIGRESSION!)

Instead, musicals based on movies should be judged primarily on the two elements specific to the form: the original score, and the way that the original story is adapted to be told in a way only possible on a stage. (Yes, being able to see a beloved performer tackle a beloved, pre-existing role can justify an adaptation as well, but that’s much more common when it comes to celebrity-reliant play adaptations). I used to associate these two elements with specific members of the creative team: the composer(s) for the former, and the director(s) (along with his/her design team following their direction) for the latter. Yet The Band’s Visit is the first instance in quite some time of a musical nailing both of these areas, yet still coming up short. It serves as a reminder that many people vastly underestimate the importance of a consistent feature in almost every musical: the book.

Like most quality musical adaptations, the story of The Band’s Visit — an all-male Egyptian orchestra is invited to perform in Israel, but they end up in the wrong (though similarly-named) sleepy town, and they spend one stranded night utilizing music to cross the cultural chasm to connect to the local, but foreign-to-them, Israelis — is well-suited to the malleable dictates of musicals for a bevy of reasons. Most obviously, music clearly plays a key role in the story, so telling the story with songs feels appropriate, and even natural.

For his part, David Yazbek — who contributes the music AND lyrics — achieves the goal with which all composers are tasked in this movie-to-musical alchemy: figuring out the right moments of plot and/or, more crucially, character development that music can emotionally heighten more than any other form of artistic expression. Further, he pulls off the rare treat of not only differentiating the sound of each song from the others by rooting every one in the characters singing them, but even more impressively, the entire score sounds utterly distinct from the usual derivative drivel that’s become Broadway’s standard operating procedure.

Through his sensitive directorial touch, David Cromer — along with his design team — creates a distinct stage world that both grounds and elevates the story, largely through atmospheric tone. Utilizing the precise minimalism of Kai Harada’s sound and Scott Pask’s set design, along with Tyler Micoleau’s evocatively-lush lighting, Cromer undeniably places the events in the Middle East, yet transforms the space into more of timelessly (both definitions of that word apply; this is a universally relevant story, AND it feels like the temporal breadth of a life is lived in this one night) spiritual, purgatory-type place where lost souls who’ve given up trying to find their way end up doing so through the guiding light of each other.

Cromer’s extensive work directing plays is on full display here, continually opting less for the conventional, so-obvious-it-borders-on-pandering presentational style of most musical stagings, and instead focusing on the powerful messages that can be communicated by theatrically manipulating bodies in the sort of shared space that only theatre can provide. Play directors increase the magnitude of their ‘smaller’ stories by exhaustively deriving as much meaning from every little detail at their disposal, no matter how small. Since The Band’s Visit is like a play, a narratively-simple yet emotionally-complex tale, Cromer’s understanding of the power of theatrically manipulating bodies in a shared space — in addition to Yazbek’s always insightful contributions — thematically deepens, through theatrical subtext, the more straightforwardly-told movie, leading to a richer, theatre-specific understanding of the story.

Israel adds further resonance as a setting for this story because it’s long been associated with the type of existential waiting that also besets these characters. Many religious folks — a lot of whom live in the holiest spot on the planet for multiple religions — believe that their respective prophets will touch down back on Earth in the land that is now Israel. As such, they’re all, in a way, just living for that (judgement) day. The characters that populate The Band’s Visit suffer through their boringly-monotonous lives in search of purpose. As such, they’re all, in a way, just waiting for what comes next, which will hopefully be better.

This association between the existential plight of the religiously faithful and the secular rest has long had a home on the stage, most (in)famously in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, which sympathetically exposes the hopeful fallacies that many people convince themselves to believe just to justify getting through each day. To reinforce this notion, Cromer borrows Beckett’s signature sparse aesthetic; the largely set-less, unchanging open space conveys both the loneliness of the characters — with their inability to progress symbolized in the set never fundamentally changing; though the locations change and both the actors and characters physically move, their inner existence remains Waiting for Godot — AND their capacity to fill that emptiness with Gogo and Didi’s brand of creative imagination to discover meaning in the meaningless chaos of life.

This concept is a double-edged sword that revolves around one’s adopted perspective; people are either pitiable for duping themselves into believing they should and can pursue a different end that ultimately never comes, or they should be respected for finding a way to persevere in this hopeless world. Beckett — and many artists before and since — understood that theatre is as apt of an artistic lens as any to explore the idea of how much power individuals have to change their lives, because the very dynamic of live theatre reflects this existential view. Performance after performance, audiences falsely feel like the story unfolding in front of them is happening for the first time, yet all of the performers basically occupy Beckett’s daily cyclical existence. Within this unchangeable framework, how much does really change — even if it’s imperceptibly insignificant — from performance to performance? Like the revolving stage underneath each character, there may be movement through time, but what can actually change when we’re all just going around in circles?

The Band’s Visit‘s answer — like Beckett’s — is captured in the personal relationship theatre facilitates between artists and audiences. The show (of life) may be the same every night, but the unpredictable human element — both on stage and in the house — adds subtle diversity that makes it all worthwhile. For both life and theatre — always inextricably linked — there may be a general text that everyone unavoidably adheres to, but that doesn’t mean they can’t put their own spin on it. Even when the text is as seemingly pessimistic as Waiting for Godot, the roaming, inquisitive ramblings of Gogo and Didi’s friendship still has the power to make life changeable, and thus livable, from day to day. Within the inescapability of life’s meaningless, people can uncover their own individual meanings from the tangible human connections embodied in and by the theatre.

Perhaps that’s also why The Band’s Visit’s design team decided not to pay too much attention differentiating the space on stage for every scene. The walls — culturally- figurative, but literal in the actual set — that usually separate people are nowhere to be found here; rather, everyone is free to connect with each other, societal boundaries be damned. They may speak different languages and be from different countries, but none of that prevents humans from recognizing the universal humanity in one another that transcends all difference. Theatre not only connects people within the same room, it can also transport everyone to lives lived in other, though still related, worlds.

I sincerely hope this global bent was the reason the otherwise-excellent ensemble was directed to speak in the most ridiculously-exaggerated accents, led by Tony Shalhoub (the exception: Katrina Lenk, whose dynamite and dynamic performance stands out, mostly for its quality, but also for its accent authenticity). They still turn in emotionally sound performances, but their accents couldn’t help but distract from the profundity underneath.

Actually, that statement pertains to much of The Band’s Visit; it has lofty ambitions that are often actualized, but its downfall is as theatrically pedestrian as wonky accents: a subpar book.

I will be the first to admit that book writers — especially for movie adaptations — reeeeeally have their work cut out for them, work that playwright Itmar Moses, a rookie to the field, just isn’t up for. Though the following is of course a gross generalization with stellar exceptions, strong books are often those that audiences don’t notice — like a subtly effective film score — which is why so many undervalue their importance.

Audiences will always focus on the first five letters when it comes to MUSICals, but they often don’t realize how much the success of the songs relies on the textual structure around them. A book must string one song to the next, ORGANICALLY progressing the narrative — be it of the emotional, character, or plot-driven variety — while trying to maintain the audience’s attention through engaging dialogue. All this is even harder when adapting a movie into a musical, which mandates a book writer take a collection of songs not written by him/her, and a pre-existing, known narrative also not written by him/her, and cracking how to seamlessly meld the two.

Even though it’s obviously a tall order, the inferior quality of musicals can’t be forgiven when the book fails to deliver. I capitalized ‘organically’ above because it’s extremely difficult — yet even more extremely important — to strike the right balance between all of these job descriptions without lending an artistically crippling air of artificiality to the proceedings. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what Itmar Moses brings to the table.

While watching The Band’s Visit, I continually marveled at the ingenuity of the score and direction…but as soon as any of the characters opened their mouths just to speak, the show stopped cold, and I was immediately removed out of my marveled state. Each of these scenes feels like they have an excessively transparent agenda, to impart specific information necessary to build to the next song. I appreciate the attempted intimacy — especially when compared to the big stories, crazy comedy, and/or outsized emotions that musicals usually revel in — but grounding song-and-dance in real-world stakes requires a palpable sense of living and breathing humans shuffling across the stage; Moses too often bumps up against the suffocating confines of what his role demands, scaling back the necessary emotions to nothing.

The Band’s Visit is still worth a visit, but it may not prove to be as memorable of a trip as the hype has promised.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s