Back in 2007, if you had asked Israeli star Sasson Gabay if his lead role in “The Band’s Visit” – a low-budget, quiet, contemplative Israeli film – was the one that would hit it out of the park and eventually be turned into a Tony Award-winning musical, he would have said “impossible.”
Now, 13 years later, the Iraqi-born Gabay is living out an unlikely journey reprising his stellar film performance as Tewfiq in the touring production of “The Band’s Visit,” the theatrical adaptation produced by Orin Wolf, directed by David Cromer, with book by Itamar Moses and music and lyrics by David Yazbek.
The Broadway in Boston presentation of the musical, which was scheduled for March 24 through April 5 at the Citizens Bank Opera House, was canceled along with all theater productions as part of Governor Charlie Baker’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Broadway in Boston anticipates the show will be rescheduled at a later date.
Gabay’s character in the offbeat, tug-at-your-heart story is the conductor of an Egyptian police band that gets stranded overnight in an outpost in the Negev. The narrative unfolds slowly in the course of a day through conversations between strangers – the stranded Egyptian musicians and the Israelis who take them in – that spark human connections and emotional bonds.
The musical garnered 10 Tony Awards in 2018, including Best Musical, Best Actor for Tony Shalhoub, and Best Actress for Katrina Lenk.
In June 2018, Gabay stepped into the lead role on Broadway and kicked off the national tour in Providence a year later. The cast includes Broadway actress Janet Dacal as Dina, and several members of the Broadway cast, including Pomme Koch (Itzik) and Joe Joseph (Haled).
By a turn of circumstances, to Gabay’s delight his 21-year-old son Adam Gabay, was cast for the production, in the role of Papi.
The Jewish Journal caught up with Sasson before the Boston production was postponed.
“It’s been a kind of great, beautiful journey, life changing with me,” Gabay said about his long, unlikely connection with “The Band’s Visit.”
He and others associated with the film got their sense of its appeal at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, where the audience gave a 20-minute standing ovation. “We realized we had something in our hands,” Gabay said.
“Since then, this movie and character never left me,” said Gabay, who’s won many awards for the role, including the 2007 European Film Award for Best Actor. Three years later, when producer Orin Wolf visited him in Israel with his idea to transform the film into a musical, he was eager to be part of it.
“Deep in my heart, I didn’t tell him, it was the craziest idea ever,” he said.
This was a timid, quiet film, with no car chases, no driving plot. Eight years later, he was impressed when the musical opened.
After Shalhoub left the Broadway production to take up his role in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” Gabay was offered the chance to reprise his role.
“I was really amazed at how they managed to take a gentle film, to make a gentle musical,” he recalled after arriving in New York. “Being on Broadway was the thrill of my life.”
Gabay and his wife, Dafna, a children’s book writer who traveled with her husband and son on tour, have five children.
Adam, their youngest, is the only one who followed in his father’s footsteps into an acting career.
“One of my best treats is to stand in the wings and see his solo. I am really proud of him,” Gabay said.
Among the scenes he finds most poignant is when he’s sitting on a bench with Dina, a moment of romantic tension. He sings “Itgara,” a deeply moving, haunting Arabic melody, and the pair then shares a duet on “Something Different.”
“What happened with this material is really a miracle. It’s a human story, not extravagant,” he said. The way it has struck a chord with audiences around the world is deeply moving.”