The film-turned-stage-musical “The Band’s Visit” may be set in a desert town, but the eminent Israeli actor Sasson Gabay has found the property to be fertile territory.
Gabay created the character of a reserved orchestra leader named Tewfiq in the 2007 movie about an Egyptian police band that accidentally gets stranded in a sleepy, isolated Israeli town, where musicians and residents strike up a rapport. It’s a quiet tale, filled with poignancy and delicate humor and boasting a mere wisp of plot. When Gabay heard there were plans to turn it into a musical, he remembers thinking it was “the craziest idea ever.”
The adaptation went ahead, with David Yazbek providing music and lyrics, Itamar Moses providing the book and Tony Shalhoub (TV’s “Monk”) originating the show’s version of Tewfiq. Directed by David Cromer, the 2016 off-Broadway production transferred to Broadway in 2017 and went on to win a whopping 10 Tony Awards, including best musical. When Shalhoub left the cast in 2018, the no-longer-skeptical Gabay returned to the Tewfiq role, first on Broadway and then on tour.
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“The Band’s Visit” is just one highlight of Gabay’s career: His credits also range from productions with Tel Aviv’s Beit Lessin Theater company to the TV series “Shtisel” to “Rambo III.” But he particularly cherishes Tewfiq, as he noted in a phone interview before the musical’s return visit to the Kennedy Center, where it runs through July 17 in one of the tour’s final stops. Speaking from Worcester, Mass., the 74-year-old performer discussed, among other topics, how his Tewfiq has changed over the years.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What difference is there between the character of Tewfiq in the movie and the musical?
A: There is a difference between the technique of film and stage, although you are bound to be truthful, to portray and produce real emotions, whenever you do acting. But on top of that, the character grows with me. Maybe when I was younger he was more sharp, solid and rigid. In the years since, I feel he’s become more compassionate, more soft, more mature, more considerate, less aggressive and rigid. People ask me, “How can you do the role over and over?” And I keep answering that it’s a journey that will never end. You are always different, and you always learn something. What you want to achieve in a certain scene is set, but there are so many ways that you can say one line.
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Q: You’ve stuck with the tour, even though you’re a famous actor and people surely want to cast you in new projects.
A: It’s kind of my baby, this character and “The Band’s Visit.” Since I’ve done it, my career in many ways changed, in Israel and internationally. And I really care about this play and this character. I don’t want to neglect it. I feel I am lucky to go all over the U.S. Some people do that as the journey of their lives, and I do it while I am working.
Q: Did the reverberations of the story of “The Band’s Visit” affect your decision to stick with it?
A: When you are doing something you are happy with artistically and idea-wise, it makes it easier for you to stay doing it. Also, I am making a living — don’t forget this. But “The Band’s Visit” speaks about humanity and a likeness between people. We are always associated with conflicts in the Middle East, but here you see how we are all alike. We all have the same need of communication, of compassion. We have similar problems. I don’t like to use the word “message,” but as a “Band’s Visit” actor, you are kind of a messenger of something positive and human, and that makes it easier to do it.
Q: You studied theater and psychology at Tel Aviv University. Has studying psychology helped you with acting?
A: When I decided to study theater, I wasn’t sure about my ability to be an actor, although inside, I felt that I belonged to this profession. Since human beings and human behavior interest me, I decided to study psychology. I don’t think psychological knowledge can help you in acting, but it says something about your interest in people.
Q: How do you cope with the strains of touring?
A: You get used to it after awhile. The first leg of the tour [before a pandemic hiatus] was harder on me. It took me time to get accustomed to the machinery of moving every two, three weeks. On the second, I know more how to behave with new places. Luckily, I am with my wife [Dafna Halaf Gabay] most of the time. It makes it easier. We’ve been to very interesting places; we’ve been also to less interesting places, but if you are curious, you can find interest everywhere.
Q: Anything you’d like to add?
A: I am really proud and happy that this special musical was produced on Broadway and has been successful till this very day. The musical itself is not a typical Broadway musical. There’s no razzle-dazzle. It’s a gentle musical with a lot of silences, a lot of breath. People love it, even though the cultures depicted are so remote from them. It’s a journey for the audience. After they leave the theater, something remains in their heart and their minds.
John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St. NW. 202-467-4600. kennedy-center.org.
Dates: Through July 17.