The Band's Visit: A Rabbinic Broadway Review
The difference between a B and a P is slight. What does it matter if you accidentally switch the Hebrew letter bet, which makes a B sound, with the letter pey, which creates a P sound? In the new Broadway musical The Band’s Visit, this seemingly small variation changes everything. A Egyptian ceremonial police band travels to Israel and accidentally goes to Bet Hatikva instead of Petah Tikvah, a tiny mistake that propels an entire 90-minute production.
Based on a true story, The Band’s Visit opened on November 9 to rave reviews, and is currently playing to sold-out houses. It is incredible that a musical that takes place in a self-proclaimed nowhere town in the middle of the Israeli desert is such a big hit. It is incredible that American audiences are so taken with a play that contains many words and phrases in Arabic and Hebrew with little translation. And perhaps most incredible, this show does not contain a word about the conflict, ownership of land, or competing regional narratives.
At its heart, The Band’s Visit is about a group of people who have experienced hardship and loss, whose lives have not necessarily played out the way they hoped or intended. The residents of Bet Hatikva are bored, waiting for something out of the ordinary to happen to them. The band members carry their own physical and emotional baggage; their unique identities are reflected in their instruments, and in their narratives that lie beneath the surface.
This musical refuses to settle for surface-level interactions. Characters meet one another, and yes, of course, they judge; but then they push forward to connect on a deeper level. In the course of one night, each character discovers something about a peer, teaches someone, or shares something vulnerable. In doing so, each character, learns something profound about himself/herself.
The songwriter, David Yazbek, has a Jewish mother and Lebanese father, and the author, Itamar Moses, is the son of Jewish Israeli immigrants. Yazbek stated that when he knew he was going to write a musical that takes place in the Middle East, he did not want it to be about the conflict. He created a score that weaves together Arab and Israeli musical themes, so that the listener cannot tell them apart. His songs tell stories about people, without distinguishing where they are from.
With his script, Moses reinforces this idea. He commented in an article for NPR, "It suddenly felt really urgent to say that people are people... and when you strip away politics and the sort of rigid tribes that we seem to cling to and belong to, everybody can connect over the need for food and shelter and music and the need for love itself."
This show contains a powerful message: that each of us, whether from Israel or Egypt, whether wearing a band’s uniform or a cafe owner’s apron, whether we can distinguish between a P and a B, moves through life looking for connection. Each of us is formed by our past experiences, hoping to encounter people who will truly listen as we tell our stories.
What if those on opposite sides of the conflict could put aside labels and judgements, and simply listen to one another?
What if we could make beautiful music together and discuss our emotions in a caring and thoughtful way, as we see with the characters in the show?
What if we could be open to others in a way that prompts us, in turn, to learn about ourselves?
Each of us has music to make; though we go about it in different ways, our songs deserve to be heard, connecting us with those we meet along the way.