I had been wanting to see the Broadway musical “The Band’s Visit” for some time now. Despite its rave reviews, including numerous Tony awards, a handful of people whose opinions I respect told me the show was overrated. This, of course, did not deter me, as I would not miss a play whose setting was Israel. I had loved the 2007 Israeli movie on which it is based, so I approached the musical version with relatively low expectations so as not to be disappointed.
As it turned out, I was not disappointed in the least.
It’s a seemingly quiet show about nothing consequential, as we are told both at the outset and at the conclusion. The story is a fictional account of a small Egyptian musical ensemble scheduled to represent its country by playing at the opening of an Arab cultural center in the Israeli city of Petach Tikva. The band mistakenly take a bus to a remote and sleepy fictional Israeli desert town called “Bet Hatikva.”
The band members are hospitably taken in by the town’s residents overnight and the next morning are on their way to the correct destination. So that’s it.
That’s the whole story. But what unfolds are a series of touching and heart-wrenching vignettes about love, loss, forgiveness, the power of music and our common humanity. It moved me to tears.
There is nothing explicitly political in the story, and therein lies its power. After Egypt attacked Israel in 1948, 1967 and 1973, Egypt and Israel negotiated a peace treaty in effect since 1979. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s assassination in 1981 was largely attributable to that courageous act. Peace between Israel and Egypt has been a “cold” peace at best. I, for one, have never met an Egyptian tourist in Israel, and it is rare to hear of Israelis traveling to Egypt.
But in the boredom and lackluster make-believe town of Bet Hatikva, we actually experience a powerful vision of hope, kindness and normality among Jews and Arabs. As they struggle to communicate with each other in broken English, their ethnic differences and history of conflict melt away. Indeed, the recent history of warfare is simply a non-issue. Dina, the female lead, sings a beautiful song recounting her experience as a child in Israel watching Egyptian romances on television and goads Tewfiq, the very reserved and proper band leader, into singing a beautiful and poignant love song in Arabic. Both the Egyptian guests and their Israeli hosts learn life lessons from each other during their unexpected overnight together. Both groups, after all, share the same values of Middle Eastern hospitality and taking in the stranger.
At the outset of the show, there were signs projected in English, Arabic and Hebrew to turn off your cell phones, a seemingly unremarkable gesture. However, there is clearly an unspoken subtext in this show about peaceful coexistence. Perhaps the name of this sleepy town of Bet Hatikva is entirely intentional, as its literal translation is the “House of Hope.”
The Egyptian overnight guests may have no dramatic, life-changing impact on the Israeli townspeople who host them, but they leave their mark in their hearts and they are likewise touched by the experience in a quiet but profound and personal way. Would that this utopian vision of people-to-people humanity becomes the norm in this not-so-sleepy part of the world, and in my beloved Jewish homeland. And if you’re in New York, see “The Band’s Visit.” It’s a quiet musical gem.
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