“It was beautiful. You brought your own character to the role,” Sasson Gabay is telling Tony Shalhoub, who recently won a Tony for starring in the musical The Band’s Visit. Gabay is the Israeli actor who originated the character of the stern and melancholy police officer Tewfiq, playing the role in the 2007 film from which the musical is adapted. “I stole your performance,” Shalhoub replies genially. “Acting is thievery.” Gabay agrees: “We are in the business of thievery without being caught.”
On June 26, just a few weeks after The Band’s Visit swept the Tonys, Gabay will step onstage when Shalhoub leaves the show for good. (He’s been out and back once already: Dariush Kashani replaced him when he went on hiatus in March to shoot his TV series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, although Shalhoub then returned for a few May performances.) A veteran of Israeli theater and film, he expects to stay in the show for up to a year. He’s conducting with the same baton he used onscreen.
The two actors had not met until recently, but they have admired each other’s work and have friends in common. We got the two Tewfiqs together to discuss why such a small film has had such impact and what the actors have learned, and can learn, from each other.
What do you think it is about this particular story that has connected with so many people?
Sasson Gabay: I don’t know. It’s very easy to say when something goes wrong. When something succeeds and has potential, you cannot exactly define why. The minute it premiered, it was like throwing a small stone into a puddle. Eran [Kolirin], who wrote the script, said this: Usually there’s soundtrack only for big heroes, and here you take the very simple characters, like somebody who washes dishes, and all the sudden you put a background soundtrack to his life and he gets attention. It also corresponds with humanity, with simplicity in life, and the encounter between two cultures. It’s genuine.
Tony Shalhoub: I was a big fan of the film, but I wouldn’t have guessed that it could be a musical — and when I first heard that idea, I thought, That’s destined to fail. But I’m always wrong, so there you go.
SG: We were the representative of Israel to the Oscar for the foreign film, and there was a big issue about it.
TS: I remember — because there was so much English they didn’t see it as a foreign film. Bet they’re sorry now.
Sasson, it must have been an unusual feeling to come back around for a second go at this character.
SG: It’s like meeting an old friend again and giving him another life. He was never dead in my mind, and now he’s getting a new life onstage. I saw the play, I saw the cast — I saw Tony’s work on tape.
TS: It’s better on tape.
SG: No, no, it’s never better on tape. And it’s got so much power without being forceful. And I thought about you a lot, you know, during all this process. I was a fan of yours since Monk, you know? I’ve seen them all years and years ago before I was —
TS: Before you were born [Laughs].
Were there parts of Sasson’s performance in the film that really struck you?
TS: The thing that I tried to hold on to in our rehearsal process, with the help of [director David Cromer] of course, was that opening image of the film: the lineup of the orchestra and a close-up, a close-up of Sasson. There’s this level of stillness and stillness, but not a relaxed stillness. A moment of waiting, of anticipation with the weight of this whole man’s life which he captures so deeply. Without knowing too much about this movie or the story, we get that this man is a fish out of water. He’s had a very, very intense and somewhat tragic history, but he’s holding on to this dignity.
SG: Yes, he’s fighting to stay.
TS: To survive.
Sasson, what have you learned from the other actors who’ve played the role?
TS: What not to do!
SG: Well, I was looking and try to steal some tricks. To see what’s working and what’s not. That’s what’s good about theater — that you’re teaching yourself and learning every performance.
TS: Even though I don’t sing much in the show, that was something that was really, really terrifying for me. Singing a cappella. You just launch in, and you just wanna hope that note is something near where it’s supposed to be. Singing the duet part with [Katrina Lenk] — she’s such a powerhouse, and her support and her patience with me during the process … You watch her sing — I defy you, you cannot see her breathe.
SG: The cast were so gentle to me. I wonder if all the American casts play this like this, because —
TS: No, no.
SG: It’s not like this? Because in Israel we tend to be more rough. More envious. If you see something good you don’t say it.
Are you getting used to New York?
SG: To do a musical here, it’s good reason enough to make a shift in your daily life. My kids are all grown up. I’ve got three grown kids and two youngsters.
TS: How young are your youngest?
SG: My youngest is 18. His ceremony of graduation was today. He will come with my wife in a week, and they will spend a month here.
Much has been made here about how the musical tries to depict Israel and its culture accurately and authentically.
TS: Do you think it’s likely that it will be done in Israel?
SG: I think it will. Probably in other places also. I listen to the Hebrew, for instance— they worked on it so carefully.
SG: So accurately, it’s amazing. So, you know, and I’ve talked to Israeli people who came to the show before, and they were also surprised by the accuracy and the writing — the Arabic and the Hebrew and the singing.
Tony, you’re leaving the show just as it swept the Tony Awards.
TS: If I’d known this was gonna happen, I’d have stopped wasting my time doing straight plays! I’ve been out of the play for two weeks now, and I miss it a lot. I miss the people and the exhilaration of being on that stage every night. But I have sort of an embarrassment of riches right now, because I’m shooting The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and that’s also a very challenging and interesting project, and it’s also working with fabulous people. If I could figure out a way to do both I would, but it’s just not possible.
SG: That’s what’s difficult and beautiful about this profession. You cannot know where your joy will come from.
TS: You could know where your sadness is gonna be.
SG: You could aim to do something and it goes wrong, and then you don’t think about something and it’s a joy.
SG; For me it’s especially flattering to be invited here. Broadway’s kind of something that we look up to.
TS: You’ve not done Broadway before?
SG: No. Never. This is my first.
Any advice on that front?
TS: Oh, I don’t think he needs my advice. He’s such a seasoned veteran.
SG: It’s always useful.
TS: Well, the only thing I would say is when you’re doing a play and working in these old theaters you just really have to take care of your health, because there’s certain kinds of things in those old buildings. There’s dust and who knows what’s in those rugs and those walls. When we first got into the theater I was getting sick and coughing and sneezing, and so you just have to really keep taking the right kinds of good supplements and it’s really about getting enough rest. It’s not like doing theater in other places, because New York is so intense. The pace is relentless and that can wear on you, as much as the eight shows a week.
SG: To do eight shows a week, I’m not used to it.
TS: You don’t do that in Israel.
SG: If we have a success, we’ll be run monthly, say, 20 times. If it’s a big success. But it’s a good reason enough to come and to make a change in life, and I’m looking forward for the play. To be on this show, to be good in this show, to put my input into it after Tony and Dariush have done a great job.
TS: Well, feel free to steal any of it.
SG: Okay. I will.
*A version of this article appears in the June 25, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!