Out of Egypt

Chilina Kennedy and Sasson Gabay star in “The Band’s Visit.”
Photo by Matthew Murphy

The Tony-Award winning musical “The Band’s Visit” features three languages — Hebrew, English and Arabic. But unlike the 2007 movie, the theatrical telling of an Egyptian police band that arrives in an Israeli Negev town by mistake doesn’t use subtitles, says Itamar Moses, who penned the script for the unexpected hit Broadway musical now in a month-long run at the Kennedy Center.

“For people who watched the movie, they understood everything, either because it’s in a language they now or because they can read the subtitles,” Moses, 42, says in a telephone interview.

For the musical, Moses says the creative team chose to play a theatrical game with the audience. Thus, unless viewers speak Hebrew or Arabic, they won’t understand every conversation on stage word for word. But context and physical dialogue convey much that is missed in actual dialogue.

“I liked the opportunity to create an unspoken tension,” he says. “How do I make everything clear enough from context? It forced me to make the most important things that are said to be said cross-culturally — basically that means in English.”


He enjoyed working with this structural limitation and did craft some of the Hebrew dialogue, which was then checked by Israeli dramaturg Zohar Tirosh-Polk — and the Israeli-American actors in the show also provided input, particularly on idiomatic Hebrew. For example, at one point a character is supposed to ask, “Are you alright?” Instead of a direct translation, Moses uses the idiomatic “At normali?”

The point of not translating everything the actors say, Moses explains, “helps create a feeling in the audience that mirrors the feelings that the characters have at various points. When something’s said that you don’t understand and you’re straining to grasp what you can from tone and context, you have the same feelings as the characters.”

Moses and composer/lyricist David Yazbek crafted the surprise hit of the 2018 Broadway season. “The Band’s Visit” earned 10 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Book for Moses and Best Original Score for Yazbek in 2018.

With the Egyptian band stuck in the fictional Bet Hatikvah, and the next bus out not due until the following morning, members of the small Israeli community take in the Egyptians. They share dinner, conversation, hopes and dreams and relish a bit of excitement in their banal lives.

English becomes the lingua franca for the Israeli townsfolk and the visiting Egyptian orchestra to converse.

Growing up in Berkeley, Calif., with Israeli parents, Moses heard Hebrew at home and studied it at the local Jewish day school, but claims he’s a bit shy of full fluency. He credits piano lessons for his playwright’s astute ear: “I wouldn’t say that I’m a musician, but I played piano growing up. I’m musical in a general sense,” he says. “I have an ear for the musicality of the way people speak — their inflections, their word choices, the rhythms of how different people talk and how different kinds of people talk.”

Moses majored in humanities at Yale before earning an advanced degree in playwriting at New York University. He already had a successful career as a writer of intelligent dramas often tinged with humor when director Hal Prince came calling. Moses’s credits included two original musicals — “Nobody Loves You,” a satire about reality TV, which premiered in 2012, and an adaptation of “The Fortress of Solitude” from Jonathan Lethem’s novel, which premiered in 2014. Prince left the creative team during the play’s development stage, but he had already left his mark in suggesting Moses for a remake of sleeper Israeli hit movie.

While “The Band’s Visit” had a successful and critically acclaimed Broadway run, it’s unclear how the show will play across middle America. “We’re about find out,” Moses says.

He noted the national tour’s first stop in Providence was well received and he predicts that Washington’s audiences are similar to New York’s — sophisticated, Jewish or Jewishly amenable, and politically liberal.

“As the show fans out across the country, my theory is that it will speak even more to people from especially small cities and towns,” Moses says. “It is about ordinary people living their lives in their town, then these strange visitors come to town … something transpires and then they disappear.

“In a way,” he adds, “the arrival of the musical itself, in these smaller cities and towns, where it will play for a while then leave, is a meta-mirroring of the story within the show.”

“The Band’s Visit,” by Itamar Moses and David Yazbek, through Aug. 4. Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater, 2700 F St. NW, Washington; $45-$149; for tickets, call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.

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