Etai Benson and Adam Kantor both have a long history with David Yazbek and Itamar Moses's acclaimed musical The Band's Visit. Though Benson and Kantor were working on other projects when the show ran off-Broadway at Atlantic Theater Company last year, they did take part in early workshops of the material. Kantor still has various script drafts and character breakdowns saved in his email.
They vividly remember how the The Band's Visit looked very different way back then — it didn't have a full score and Harold Prince helmed the early workshops, with David Cromer taking the reins in 2016. "It was really something that needed to be seen," says Kantor. "There's only so much you can get from reading or listening to it."
When spots opened up for the Broadway transfer, Benson and Kantor jumped at the opportunity. Benson plays Papi, a lovelorn Israeli desperate to get the attention of a girl he pines for. Kantor plays a character simply called "Telephone Guy," a man waiting by a payphone for a very important call.
Jumping into an already well-oiled machine wasn't as difficult as it may seem on the outside. In addition to those early workshops, both have an affinity for the Eran Kolirin film on which The Band's Visit is based, and saw the show's original downtown run. They're ready to take the journey.
You two have a circuitous route to the Broadway production of The Band's Visit. Tell me about your trajectory with the piece and how it has changed during that time.
Etai Benson: I was in a workshop that Hal Prince directed, prior to David Cromer being involved. That was, maybe, two years ago. It was very different.
Adam Kantor: I also did a reading with Hal Prince. They were starting to cobble together how this piece was being adapted from the film. There was only one song that was played, "Answer Me," which I'm now singing in the show.
Etai: Cromer's fingers are on everything in this show. He works microscopically, and a show like this needs that kind of nuance and detail.
Adam: Itamar Moses said something like "the piece is greater than the sum of its parts." David Cromer's contribution to the piece is so vital to the experience of it.
What was it like to watch the show at the Atlantic, and did seeing it prepare you in any particular ways for joining the Broadway cast?
Etai: I'm Israeli-American, so when this film came out 10 years ago, I remember being deeply moved by it. Seeing it onstage downtown was a very emotional experience for me. It hit me on a soul level that I wasn't expecting. I was in tears for most of the show. Being able to experience what it was as a musical was very helpful to prepare for the audition. On the page, it's really hard to understand the style, but having seen the off-Broadway production, I knew how to approach it. I already understood Cromer's tone.
Adam: I remember watching it in a daze. I was very, very moved, and I think a lot of it was seeing that the seed of something became so fully realized and how Itamar honed his work from the original film script to a stage adaptation. He is continuing tweaking now. And David Yazbek's score is so magnificent. It felt like they were on the cusp of complete magic. It felt so real. It didn't push for anything.
Do you treat this piece as a "musical" or a "play with songs" or something else entirely?
Adam: It feels like how we want all musicals to feel: fully realized and excavated. No bullsh*t allowed.
Etai: Cromer won't allow for that. He comes from the tradition of downtown theater. Every musical should be held to this standard of details and excavation – that's a great word for it.
Adam: There's a consistency in pulling back among the creative team. We're never going for the sentimental, emotional sledgehammer.
Etai: Even if something has been getting a laugh, if it's not truthful or grounded in storytelling, it doesn't belong in the show. Cromer is not precious.
Where does this piece fit in the canon of "Jewish" musicals like, say, Fiddler on the Roof?
Adam: I'm not thinking of this necessarily as a Jewish piece. I say it's universal. Of course, there is an obvious connection, and there is Hebrew in the show. On a visceral level, American Jews will find some kind of connection that component, but—
Etai: Israelis are very different than what we think of as American Jews. As an Israeli, I've always felt a deeper connection to the Middle Eastern traditions than the Yiddish, Ashkenazi traditions. I don't feel like people will go to this and think Fiddler.
I'm getting tweets from Israeli Broadway fans that are like, "I can't believe this little movie from our country is a major new Broadway musical." They're in shock.
It's such a cool moment to be experiencing it. Diversity in storytelling is so important. Not just in casting, but in the kinds of stories that are being told. It feels like our show is at the forefront of that right now. We're looking at this story through a Middle Eastern lens, but it's really a human story that speaks to everyone.
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