Israeli actor Sasson Gabay is currently starring in a hit Broadway musical about a group of stranded strangers finding kindness and connection in a small town in the middle of nowhere.
But no, it’s not the Newfoundland-set Come from Away: It’s The Band’s Visit, a kind of quieter cousin set in Israel’s Negev Desert, and winner of the 2018 Tony Award for best musical.
Since June, Gabay, a veteran Israeli actor of stage and screen, has been in the show playing the role of Tewfiq – a part the actor knows well; he originated the role in the 2007 cult film of the same name that the musical is adapted from.
The formal and reserved conductor of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, Tewfiq and his band have come to Israel from Egypt to play at an Arab cultural centre in a city called Petah Tikva, but, due to a mix-up at the bus station, end up in the (fictional) town of Beit Hatikva.
There, they encounter a café owner named Dina and other eccentric, lonely locals, who put them up for the night – just one night, not five like the residents of Gander put up stranded airplane passengers after Sept. 11 in Come from Away.
Just like that Canadian musical, however, The Band’s Visit has been embraced by theatregoers as a heartwarming story of interconnectedness that stands in sharp contrast to our politically polarizing times.
“It’s political in the way it’s not political,” explains Gabay. “We are people – we are the same, we have the same need: we need the love, we need the caress, we need the understanding of each other.”
I met with Gabay, as gentlemanly as the character he plays but less reticent, on an unexpectedly snowy day in Manhattan this fall. The weather had caused traffic chaos, but the actor used to warmer climes in Israel shrugged it off, saying he got used to to snow while shooting in Montreal last year. In 2019, he will appear in La femme de mon frère, the first full-length movie directed by Montreal actor Monia Chokri (Les affamés, Laurence Anyways).
It was shortly after wrapping his work on that Québécois film that Gabay got the offer to return to the role of Tewfiq on stage, as Tony Shalhoub (who won a Tony for his performance) was preparing to leave it.
When producer Orin Wolf had first told the actor of his plans years ago to turn the quiet and melancholy film into a musical, with composer David Yazbek and playwright Itamar Moses, Gabay was skeptical but intrigued – and he leapt at the chance to join the cast even though it meant leaving the ensemble at Tel Aviv’s well-known Beit Lessin Theatre to take the part.
“It’s like meeting an old friend and hugging him and celebrating with him,” Gabay says of reuniting with Tewfiq. “The challenge of doing it on stage, on top of it on Broadway … I never dreamed in my wildest dreams.”
While there are plenty of examples of actors playing a character on stage then reprising the same character on film, the reverse is very unusual.
Gabay says he has kept his character the same as in the movie, even though his main scene partner playing Dina – a woman obsessed with Omar Sharif movies with whom Tewfiq forms a beautiful bond – is no longer the Israeli actress and director Ronit Elkabetz, but Tony-winner Katrina Lenk. (Elkabetz sadly died in 2016 of cancer.)
Tewfiq has got older, as Gabay has, however. “As I grew up, I made the character grow up, so Tewfiq, my Tewfiq now on stage, is more mature,” says the 71-year-old actor. “He’s gained some years and experience in life. I think he’s become more deep in his emotions and his pain and his burden that he’s carrying on his shoulder.”
Tewfiq’s secret burden is not something you hear much about in The Band’s Visit – the dialogue is, as Gabay says, “stingy” and you only learn fragments of information about the characters.
Another thing you don’t hear much about in the script is the Arab-Israeli conflict, despite the fact that this Arab orchestra has arrived unannounced in a small and remote Jewish community. Any tension remains beneath the surface.
Though Jewish, Gabay has played many Arab parts in his film career – from a Syrian defence minister, to a Palestinian terrorist, to an Afghan arms dealer in Rambo III, a part for which he is still recognized.
Born in Baghdad, his mother tongue is, in fact, Arabic – but in 1951, when he was three years old, he moved with his family and much of his community from Iraq to Israel.
“I belong to the generation that the kids knew Hebrew, the new language, before their parents,” he says. “I remember my mother studied in Hebrew and I used to, as a kid, help her doing her homework and correct her.”
In order to play Tewfiq originally, Gabay carefully studied how Arabic is spoken in Egypt – and also what an Egyptian speaking English might sound like, since the movie’s (and musical’s) Israeli and Egyptian characters mostly communicate in English. (The original film, written and directed by Eran Kolirin, was famously rejected as Israel’s foreign-language film submission to the 2008 Academy Awards due to the amount of English spoken in it.)
Indeed, the whole reason the Egyptian orchestra winds up in the middle of the desert in The Band’s Visit hangs on the fact that in Arabic there is no “p” sound, which leads to that Petah Tikva/Beit Hatikva mix-up.
On the day I meet Gabay, the snow means he has arrived late from an earlier interview and is accompanied by fellow cast member Samir Shukry, an Israeli-Arab singer and a fabulous multi-instrumentalist well known in his home country. The two are friends on stage and off – and Shukry sticks around for the interview, interjecting his own thoughts from time to time. (He pipes up, for instance, to note that Palestinians have no problem with the "p" sound.)
I ask Shukry what he thinks of Gabay’s Egyptian accent and portrayal. “It’s an honour to be with this person here – really excellent actor, great actor,” he says. “He’s up there, really – not because he’s sitting here!”
The two share a laugh. “I really want to emphasize how happy I am about this production and this film that gives this relation in the Middle East between Jew and Arab, Israeli and Egyptian, another face," says Gabay.
Postscript: The Band’s Visit, which is booking in New York’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre to June, has one final thing in common with Come from Away: Canada’s David Mirvish is a co-producer. Unlike the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra’s arrival in Beit Hatikva, it won’t be a surprise at all if this gentle gem of a musical shows up at one of Mirvish’s Toronto theatres on tour in the 2019-2020 season.