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The Band's Visit's Sasson Gabay Picks Up the Baton Once Again

The Ophir Award-winning actor has returned to his role as Tewfiq in the Tony-winning musical.

When Sasson Gabay first heard that there was going to be a musical version of The Band's Visit, he didn't believe it. "Not in a million years," he said, did he think that Eran Kolirin's 2007 film, which earned him an Ophir Award (the Israel equivalent of an Oscar), could be adapted for the stage, let alone as a musical.

But when Gabay was approached about making his Broadway debut, and returning to his signature role of Tewfiq, the conductor of an Egyptian police band stranded in the middle of the wrong city, he moved mountains. Gabay put his prosperous career as a film and stage actor in Israel on hold, moved to New York, and, at 70, is living a dream he never even thought to have.

Sasson Gabay as Tewfiq in the Broadway production of The Band's Visit.
(© Evan Zimmerman)

It's been 11 years since the movie The Band's Visit came out. Did you ever think you'd be here, back in this part, and on Broadway?
Not in a million years. I didn't imagine that The Band's Visit could be adapted into a play, not to mention a musical. This part is very dear to me. In a way, it changed my career. I traveled with it a lot, to festivals and ceremonies. I never left the role totally; it's like meeting an old friend you haven't seen for years. When [producer] Orin Wolf told me there was a chance, I didn't believe it. People ask me, "Do you dream to play Broadway?" No, I didn't. Maybe my wife's dream was the West End in London, maximum. The dream came to me. It took some time until we managed all the problems, but I think I came at the right time.

What problems were there?
I'm involved with a theater in Tel Aviv, and I have a popular play based on a character that I created on the TV series Polishuk. It took some time until we found a replacement for me. Only after my first performance here, my wife and I were walking hand in hand in Times Square, and I hugged her and told her, "Look, Daphna. It happened. We managed all the obstacles and came here. It's for real."

How does the Israeli theater scene compare to what you're experiencing on Broadway?
I'm so amazed by the audience here. The audience in Israel is not as responsive. In Israel, they're tougher, and sometimes they're running quickly to the parking lot to not get caught in a traffic jam. We have a lot of theater. It's not Broadway, but we have three major theaters. I've been involved with a theater called Beit Lessin for the last 23 years. There's a theater in Jerusalem that's more experimental, and there's also a theater in Be'er Sheva. The scene is very alive.

I had to get used to many new manners and habits in work. Here, they're very precise. When you rehearse onstage, there are numbers where you have to stand. I'm not used to it. In Israel, we're more open — although we're still accurate. I'm amazed by the devotion of [theater professionals] here.

You've now starred opposite two acclaimed actors playing leading lady Dina — onscreen, Ronit Elkabetz, who passed away in 2016, and onstage, Katrina Lenk.
Katrina is wonderful. She's a magician. She's got the right mood, the right feeling, the right action, and she's doing it very — how do you say — off the cuff. You don't see the effort. She touched my heart when she said at the Tonys that she wanted to thank Umm Kulthum and Ronit Elkabetz. I think if Ronit, rest her soul, would see her, she would have approved of Katrina. She's done justice to the part and to Ronit. Sometimes, I look in her eyes and I see Ronit. I think it's a wonderful way to memorialize her.

What's the most exciting part of this whole experience?
The work is the most thrilling thing, and also New York. New York is crazy. I've been to New York as a visitor, but to live there? I don't believe it. I feel like I'm in a movie. I'm on the 14th floor and I see Central Park. It's amazing.

Is it true you're using the same conductor's baton you used in the film?
Yeah. It's here. At the beginning of rehearsals, I used their baton, but I brought mine from Israel. It was in my drawer for years and I didn't imagine it would come to life this way. When I decided to come, I said to my wife, "I'm taking the original baton and I'm going to use it."

Sasson Gabay and Katrina Lenk as Tewfiq and Dina in The Band's Visit on Broadway.
(© Evan Zimmerman)
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