Tony Shalhoub and Itamar Moses Conquer Something Different With The Band's Visit
A pair of Tony nominees talk about their journey with an unexpected musical.
Tony Shalhoub never expected to be starring in a musical. "I've had a lifetime of being ashamed and humiliated when it comes to singing," he says.
Itamar Moses never expected to write a musical. "I have always thought of myself, and still think of myself, as a playwright," he notes.
Shalhoub, a Broadway stalwart who is known to even wider audiences for his portrayal of the finicky TV detective Adrian Monk, had to be talked into playing Tewfiq, the lonely conductor of an Egyptian police band stranded in the wrong city. On the other hand, Moses, whose plays have been seen at Manhattan Theatre Club, Playwrights Horizons, and New York Theatre Workshop, knew he couldn't say no to this opportunity, even though he had just finished writing two other musicals and wanted a break.
Both men earned Tony nominations this year for their work on a show that has proved to be — to borrow a title from David Yazbek's score — "something different" for all involved.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Neither of you expected your résumé to include a musical, so how did you get here?
Itamar Moses: I first heard about The Band's Visit sometime in 2013, back when Hal Prince was maybe going to direct it. I had just finished working for five or six years on two other musicals [The Fortress of Solitude and Nobody Loves You], and I was ready to swear off them, at least for a while. Musicals are so hard and the ecosystem is such that…you end up feeling that if it didn't move to Broadway and win everything, you failed. It's not that way with plays. But I watched the movie and I loved it, and I thought, "Oh, I see why someone thinks this should be a musical, and I think I see how to do it." So I felt like had to say yes.
Tony Shalhoub: I first heard about The Band's Visit through [producer] Tom Hulce. I said, "I think you guys are barking up the wrong tree." But I love Tom, and he introduced me to Hal Prince. We did workshops, but I was not available for a full production. Months later, I was in LA and I get a call saying "Are you interested to come back into The Band's Visit?" I was like "I missed The Band's Visit!" They said, "That never happened." I had lost track of it, assuming it was on schedule.
Itamar: Hal had stepped away to do Prince of Broadway, and we were supposed to do The Band's Visit at the end of the season at the Atlantic. David Cromer came on board to direct, and he needed time to get his arms around the material. The Atlantic was kind enough to push it to the fall. Getting Tony was like converting to Judaism. We had to approach him several times and be turned away and show him that we were serious. But thank god he said yes.
Do you both view this as a turning point in your respective careers?
Itamar: It's a big turn in my career. I've never been on Broadway before. This is my first Tony nomination. It feels like there's a very humbling lesson that can contribute to my maturity if I'm willing to learn it. Rather than something that I poured my own ego into, and created wholly on my own in private, and then tried to unveil the greatness of onto the world, the first time Broadway happened for me, it happened with an adaptation of someone else's very lovely vision, and I had to serve that.
Tony: For me, it's more of an anomaly. But I'm glad that this was my first foray into musicals. Honestly, I still see it as more of a play with music. That helps me connect to it more and feel that I'm not ill-suited. The scenes that Itamar put together, I look at them as the scenes that we all did in drama school, the scenes that you comb through volumes of plays to find. They're not long, but they're meaty. They're the perfect kind of scenes that actors love to immerse themselves in. It's a play, and once in a while, someone with a really great voice breaks into song.
Itamar: Tony is modest about it, probably authentically. He genuinely believes he can't sing, but he obviously can. Yazbek identified very early on that Tony is musical.
Tony: I told David, when we had early rehearsals that were us and a piano, "Just say it: This is probably not a good fit. My feelings won't be hurt. I've been around." And he said, "Oh, I'll tell you." I had to trust him.
Tony, you're the son of Lebanese immigrants; Itamar, you're the son of Israeli immigrants. What does working on this particular piece, and bringing this kind of Middle Eastern experience to Broadway, mean to you?
Itamar: One of the most moving moments of this whole experience was when my parents came to town for the Broadway opening. I took them by the theater just to see it, and standing across the street from the Barrymore, with them, looking at the marquee, was especially moving. This didn't necessarily have to do with them being Israeli, but I felt this very clear moment of "I reached this point by standing on the shoulders of these two people."
Tony: Working on this reminded me how important music is to that region. It was something I lost sight of. I remember when we used to go visit my grandfather, he was always sitting in his rocker, singing hymns in Arabic. I think he was in a church choir when he was a kid. All of these songs were still in his head. He would go into this trance-like thing, and the sounds…He had a really beautiful voice. He was doing it for himself, not for us, not for my grandmother. This has brought me back to my childhood and hearing him. It's beautiful.
Tony Shalhoub played his final performance in The Band's Visit on May 27.