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How Broadway’s Tiny Musical Made Its Big Song

The Band’s Visit runs 90 minutes. It doesn’t have an intermission. It doesn’t have an 11 o’clock number, partly because it doesn’t have a second act. The Broadway musical adapted from the 2007 Israeli indie film eschews flash and theatrics in favor of subtlety and silence. What it does have though is “Omar Sharif,” a quietly gorgeous number that happens almost exactly halfway through the show. Up until the song begins the audience watches as the members of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra — the band — wander around a town in Israel where they’ve mistakenly landed — the visit — and are hosted by Dina, a local café owner played by Katrina Lenk. Dina has been trying, fruitlessly, to connect with the band’s leader, Tewfiq, all evening. It’s not until they find a common connection, the music of Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum and movies starring, yes, Omar Sharif, that the two are able to really communicate as Dina sings, across a cafeteria table, about her memories of listening to the radio and watching the television as a girl in Israel.

It’s a simple-seeming song with sparse but poetic lyrics — the phrase “jasmine wind” occurs a half-dozen times and somehow sounds new with each utterance — that manages to draw in the entire audience and become the show’s standout number. Vulture sat down with director David Cromer, book writer Itamar Moses, and composer-lyricist David Yazbek, and Lenk — are all nominated for Tony awards in their respective categories, added with another seven for the show’s total 11 nods — to talk about the process of translating scene into song and creating a number that is unlike anything most people, the creative team included, traditionally believe Broadway is supposed to be.

From Screen to Stage

Itamar Moses: I wrote the first draft essentially as a play. “What are the things about the movie that do sustain onstage? And what do I have to change and how?” Then Yazbek and I sat down and went through that script, page by page, one glorious afternoon, and circled potential song moments. That moment in the cafeteria scene where she talks about hearing Umm Kulthum on the radio was one of the things we circled that day.

David Yazbek: The more I do this, the more I find myself running from the stuff that seemed like the right choice the first time. But this was clearly a moment that could be musicalized.

Moses: Some of the things we’d circled we ended up saying, “I don’t actually think there’s a song there.” But that one — it just stuck.

Yazbek: Then I don’t hear from him for three months! I’ll try to make good songs out of what we’ve discussed and then I will talk to Itamar — sometimes exhaustively, just to get even a sentence that I might latch on to.

Moses: That is true. He would call me and we’d just have these long conversations where sometimes I wouldn’t even have to say much other than “No.” Maybe I’d say one or two things back, and then he’d be like, “All right, all right, that’s good! I’m gonna think about that.”

Yazbek: Yeah, then I’ll hang up because I’ll want to go write something. I don’t understand how people don’t work that way.

Moses: He did ask me to write as if there were no song and Dina just had a monologue, where she talked about how hearing this music on the radio makes her feel and seeing these movies. It’s sort of stream-of-consciousness. It mentions Cleopatra, who ended up being up in the song.

Yazbek: If he has the word Cleopatra in there, then “Boom!” That really leads right in to a potential lyric. And if we have Cleopatra … who would Omar Sharif be? Probably like a desert thief on a horse or something.

Email from Moses to Yazbek, July 29, 2014:

So here’s the first part of what she says, currently towards the end, but that we’re presumably thinking about moving up to the dinner scene:

“Do you like Arab movies, Tewfiq? Omar Sharif, Faten Hamama … You know, when I was young, we used to have here on television. Arab movies, Egyptian movies. And every Friday at noon, all the street in Israel was empty because Arab movie every Friday afternoon. And me and my mother and my sister we sit and we see Egyptian movie and we cry our eyes out. We were all in love with Omar Sharif. We were all in love with love.”

And perhaps she goes on to express something like:

“The feelings were so big, so unashamed. Everything mattered so much. Part of an ancient culture, and ancient tradition, going back to Cleopatra and Marc Anthony, and before, ancient Pharoahs. Not like our lives in this little town where nothing important happened ever. It felt like how the world was supposed to be, how we all wanted our future to be. You hope to meet your own omar sharif, to have these big feelings with, and to take you away from your boring like. To turn you into Cleopatra. You meet a man and you want him so much to be that. Probably that’s what tricked me when I met my husband. I thought I was in a movie. But life isn’t a movie. And they don’t show arab movie so much on TV here anymore. But when I was young I could believe in love because of those movies and because of Omar Sharif.”

Email from Yazbek to Moses, July 29, 2014:

This is great. Thank you. It’s going to be a great song.

An Un-Broadway Broadway Number

Cromer: The very first words are “Umm Kulthum and Omar Sharif.” So that …

Yazbek: That gets you somewhere!

Cromer: All you hear for the first couple of moments in the song are these strange, beautiful words — I mean, the name of Omar Sharif is more familiar to a Western audience than her name, but “Umm Kulthum.”

Katrina Lenk: I had forgotten this because I’m so used to knowing who Umm Kulthum is now — that this might be a name most people don’t know.

Yazbek: It’s a more Western song than you’d think. It’s certainly not the kind of music that you hear in a Broadway show — most musical theater just breathes its own air, and then the air gets stale. When I did the demo I orchestrated it in a certain way and used Arabic instruments right from the start. If you’re writing for an oud, then there are certain things that are gonna happen — it’s a fretless instrument, so those chord progressions might be something you’d hear a contemporary Israeli or Arabic songwriter using.

I have memories of being a kid and going to Lebanon as a 7- or 8-year-old and watching television on a small black-and-white television at my grandfather’s house up in the mountains — I had never seen Star Trek before, and you could only see half the screen because there were three languages of translations on the screen. That sort of made me feel like I was walking in Dina’s shoes, even though she was in Israel and in the desert. There was something about all of that it suggested, I believe, this chord movement. The two first chords and maybe the next two — those four.

Lenk: There was a general exploration we did as a cast about how to make this song seem natural and effortless, how much accent to use, whether to use vibrato or not. When there’s less vibrato it seems more like talking than singing, so it seems more conversational and immediately accessible. Also, there’s not a lot of vibrato used in Arabic classical music — the singers do ornamentation and melismas and things, but not vibrato the way that we use it. Which makes the song sound less Western.

Yazbek: I mean, as soon as you hear that song in long notes, you’re like, you’re somewhere else, even though you don’t know where it is. It’s a waltz, too. It’s in three.

Lenk: In listening to Umm Kulthum songs and classical Arabic music and klezmer and all the other influences that Yazbek had intuitively sort of worked into the music, you wind up stylistically referring to things that you’re not even aware that you’re referring to.

Yazbek: At one point somebody said something like, “These songs are too poetic!” Do you remember that?

Cromer: Yeah! Ha!

Moses: I must have blocked it out.

Yazbek: And I’m like, “Did you see the movie? Are you reading what Itamar’s writing?” I don’t know why the term “lemon leaf” came up but that was probably the first of those kinds of terms, and I was just like, “Oh.” That and the jasmine thing. I know that I smelled jasmine in Lebanon, around my grandfather’s house, and I remember that because there was a lot of bees and I was afraid of bees.

Cromer: Once we think about it for a couple of years we can then explain — we can then pretend this is what we meant. Because after a couple of years, if something is well thought of you can say, “What I did, totally …”

Yazbek: You can do that to make yourself seem smarter than you are. Or you can do that because you’re getting paid to do a master class. But the truth is a lot of it is about a frame of reference, taste, experience.

Cromer: Instinct.

Yazbek:  I wrote the bridge kind of late in the process. The bridge is the part where she starts singing, “And the living room becomes a garden.” It’s possible that that was something you wrote to me or said to me …

Moses: There’s this rule, you want songs to be active. But people sometimes think that means like, “They’ll sing a song while they rob a bank!” Action can be all kinds of things. So we’re like, “They’re sitting at a table in a cafeteria, what’s the event of the song?” And we did at some point have a conversation about how maybe the event of the song is that it somehow makes this ugly cafeteria, under fluorescent light, beautiful. The lyric of the bridge might have come out of that.

Lenk: We talked for a while about, should it be a TV set or a radio. I just am so in love with the idea of the TV set, which — just the word, the two words, “TV set,” are immediately relatable. It’s such a boxy sounding word. It’s so pedantic. “And then that TV set then becomes a fountain”… the lyrics get me every time at how a kid’s imagination can turn something that’s so mundane into something gorgeous and thrilling.

The Song That Almost Wasn’t and the Staging That Almost Was

Yazbek: There was going to be a song [at this point] for [Tony Shalhoub’s character] Tewfiq.

Moses: We’re in scene seven and he hasn’t sung yet!

Yazbek: Dina goes to the jukebox, puts in her coin, and Arabic music starts playing, and she sort of starts dancing to it. And “Omar Sharif” was the first idea, but someone was suggesting, like, “No, no, no! We want to hear Tewfiq. He’s falling in love with her.”

Cromer: There is conventional wisdom that says, “Well, she’s singing quite a bit. And we had to spread the wealth.” This is what you’re supposed to do in a show. And that’s always dangerous thinking.

Yazbek: Our every instinct that we both had was like, “Oh, you know, okay [we’ll give him a song].” And I wrote a song. It’s not a bad song, but it’s so much more powerful to see him fall in love as she’s singing about her childhood.

Cromer: And Omar Sharif” was cut. That was before I was on the show.

Yazbek: It was gone for a long time, at least six months. I was thinking this might be one of the best songs I’ve ever written. But the one thing I know about doing this stuff is collaborating — if everyone is serving the story and the show, then you’re gonna have more chances of artistic and even financial success. I wanted to look into myself and say, “Okay, this is tough, but you can do it.”

Cromer: Meaning cut the song.

Yazbek: But it was against every instinct I had.

Moses: Cromer came in, and said, “Well, I want to understand this. I want to understand how we got to this point. Show me songs that were cut.”

Cromer: David called me and said, “Listen, we cut a song from the scene in the cafeteria. I feel very strongly about it. I really, really want to put it back in the show.”

Yazbek: Ha — I don’t remember that.

Cromer: Oh, I remember. I had a rough patch on this song, because I wanted so much for it visually. We spent a lot of money on a little piece of technology for it — a very small turntable under their table that rotated very slowly so that you could see around them. Lights moved. There was beautiful choreography that Patrick [McCollum] created. It was, on paper, a perfectly good idea, and we worked it, and worked it, and worked it, and it was almost right. But it wasn’t, and I had to kill it. I’ll forgive myself by saying it was in service of the lift of the song.

Yazbek: I’ve seen Katrina sing that song in Barnes & Noble on their little stage. I’ve seen her sing it with my band in a cabaret setting. I’ve sung it in clubs and the lyrics take you to the place you need to go. And sometimes, if an audience is engaged enough, the words are gonna take them where you want them to go. It turns out you don’t really need stage magic to help.

Lenk: Just hearing the words without the music can kind of give you a sense of the emotional space of the character.

Creating Beauty in a Cafeteria

Cromer: The scene is as much part of the song as anything. She is attempting to find something to talk about with him. She’s trying. He’s desperately uncomfortable. She wants to talk. So she’s working to draw him out, and they happen to accidentally land on, in conversation, a topic where they have a shared interest. I love a scene with fluorescent lights, where people are eating a sandwich.

Yazbek: In the conversation, she wouldn’t be waxing so poetically. But because of what she’s remembering, and because of the stuff that’s bubbling maybe below the surface of the conversation, you get away with the song. More than get away with it. You set the rules for the show. It’s the first song, I think, that really sets the rules for the show.

Lenk: I take a big bite of a sandwich right before the song, and sometimes there’ll be like a little cucumber seed that decides to come out in the middle of a big note. It’s usually not a problem, but now and then, oh boy — my eyes might start watering, and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, this is the moment when I just start coughing.’ There’s a war between me and some cucumber happening.

Cromer:  At the end of the song, Tewfiq does something he’s never done for the entire show up to that point, about 45 minutes. He instigates conversation. He says, “Not everyone feels like you.”

Yazbek: It’s a connection. If I’m sitting in that chair at that table, I’m falling in love with her.

Cromer: The thing that we take some pride in is that she just stays in the chair.

Lenk: It’s really an unusual thing to just sing a whole song while you’re sitting. We tried all sorts of different things choreographically — getting up from the table, fancier things, more elaborate things, and it always seemed too much.  It instantly makes you feel relaxed when you’re sitting. Also, in heels, it’s hard to sometimes feel grounded.

Cromer: We always wanted the thing to flow. That song certainly floats by its very nature. Floating, drifting, wind, jasmine, all the breeze, all of this aroma, all of this stuff. And then, in a wonderful coincidence, Katrina — she has a background in dance, just moves like that. You don’t need much beyond her just staying in the chair. I mean, there is gorgeous light by Tyler Micoleau, there was beautiful design by Scott Pask, there was beautiful projections by Maya [Ciarrocchi], choreography by Patrick. But it was — everyone’s ego was in the backseat to the song. So you’re almost not meant to see it. You’re only meant to feel it.

Lenk: Yazbek and Cromer were very respectful of me finding those things out and discovering things in rehearsal.

Cromer: In rehearsals, the actors were doing a movement discipline we called Gaga that may have reawakened a lot of that movement in her.

Lenk: It’s not like Lady Gaga — it’s an Israeli dance philosophy and a movement language philosophy, so it’s a way of communicating a sense rather than a shape.  Like there’s feathers under your skin or you’re moving your hand from your back rather than from your hand. There’s all these very specific sensory tasks.

Cromer: There’s a section of the song where her floating arm is so lovely [that] we wanted to make a whole moment out of her hand being the leaf drifting on the wind. Just for a second. In this quite big theater.

Yazbek: And that’s something that you could literally see falling in love with: a hand gesture.

Cromer: Something I discovered later, once we were in previews, is that “Omar Sharif” almost exactly at the middle point of the show. And they’re sitting center stage, downstage, in the middle of the stage, in the middle of their time together and she sings this song. So it became to me the heart of the thing.

Moses: In a way the song is the centerpiece of the whole show, and the scene is the gesture. It’s like a fractal, and you zoom in smaller and smaller. The DNA of the whole show is somehow in “Omar Sharif.”

Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.

How Broadway’s Tiny Musical Made Its Big Song