Sometimes, you can only be honest with strangers.
"It's much safer to talk about things with someone you don't know and will never see again," said playwright Itamar Moses. "They don't know the story you've built up around yourself."
That curious freedom shapes "The Band's Visit," the new Broadway musical about a group of Egyptian musicians who get lost on their way to a concert in Israel. Stranded in a small town, they pass the time with the locals, eating at their tables and sleeping in their spare rooms.
To Moses, who wrote the musical's book, that's a perfect catalyst for drama. "Everything that happens is only possible because these two groups of people don't know each other," he said.
Take Iris, an Israeli wife and mother who finds her own birthday party crashed by musicians her husband brings home. After years of mute frustration with her marriage, she suddenly reveals everything.
"The eyes of these strangers on her life make it impossible to ignore what she's been trying to suppress," Moses said.
Janet Dacal, the lead actress of the musical, echoed that sentiment. “We (should) all embrace strangers, rather than push them away. They can impact us in beautiful and meaningful ways,” she said.
Dacal, who has portrayed such strong female characters as Carla from “In The Heights” and Alice from “Wonderland," plays the role of Dina, a local cafe owner in the town. She is the first person to offer the musicians help by offering them food and shelter for the night. She has experienced love and loss but has lost sight of her hope for the future.
“I think that this role is one of the most beautiful roles written for women in the musical theater genre in a very, very long time,” Dacal said.
Dina starts as a woman who is just living her life from one day to the next, but as the musical progresses, she continues to open up and learn new things about herself by speaking with the new visitors. In this way, many others in the town also experience a similar revitalization of life.
“I feel like all of us human beings are living our lives day to day not yet knowing when the moment will come that will change us,” Dacal said. “Whether it’s significant or just something that nudges us in a very minimal way that eventually has a very long impact.”
The story of "The Band's Visit" focuses on two very different groups of people: the Egyptian musicians and the Israeli locals, who speak different languages and must communicate using a tentative English. The language barrier between the two groups creates obstacles for them and only becomes bridged through the music and culture the two groups share.
"When you don't have unlimited language as a tool, you really have to get to the point right away," Moses said. "People aren't going to talk around the truth, because they don't have the words."
Naturally, that limited vocabulary affected Moses' playwriting.
"But I never lamented it as a limitation," he said. "I really enjoyed the tension between the simplicity of the language and the depth of the emotion. Sometimes there's nothing better than having a constraint."
“The Band’s Visit” is a representative story of the diverse lives and cultures in the Middle East, but it also goes beyond that, and becomes representative of the human experience as a whole.
“It's an opportunity for people to see themselves on stage and for people to be exposed to different cultures, different music and see that at our core, we're really all the same. ... It is a celebration of humanity and how we are able to relate to each other despite our differences,” said Dacal.
In the wake of the pandemic, many people have experienced some form of isolation and a need for something to change in the world. The characters in "The Band’s Visit" embody the spirit of these very human needs and tendencies.
“I promise that you will be moved in some capacity and, given the time that we're living in, having that connection and sort of experiencing the show will make an impression,” Dacal said.
“The Band's Visit” will be at ASU Gammage from Feb. 8–13. For tickets and more information, visit asugammage.com/bandsvisit.
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