Composer David Yazbek says there’s a reason “The Band’s Visit,” opening Tuesday at the Orpheum Theatre, doesn’t feel like other stage musicals: “No screaming.”
Yazbek has become the go-to guy for Broadway musicals based on movies, which is practically every Broadway musical these days. Although not all have been successful, he notes that every show he has completed made it to Broadway, which is a feat in itself: “Visit,” which won Tonys for best musical and score in 2017, is the cream of the crop. The musically undistinguished “Tootsie,” which just announced plans to close at a loss, is at the other end of the spectrum. In between, his songs were the bright spot in the flop “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” which became a success in London, as well as “The Full Monty” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.”
Not surprisingly, when Yazbek was hired for “Visit,” he went back to the 2007 movie, which was Israel’s submission for the foreign language film Oscar. He had seen the low-key comedy/romance, in which a tiny Israeli town is rocked by the arrival of a sort of Egyptian marching band. But nearly a decade had passed and he wanted to remember what he loved about it.
“I realized it leaves with you a unique feeling because of its tone. I realized, ‘Wow, this is a very special piece. If we can make a [play] that has this similar, quiet tone but that builds so powerfully without being manipulative and loud — you know, no screaming — we can do something really exciting,’ ” said Yazbek by phone from New York.
He composed the last song first. The dreamy stunner “Answer Me” begins quietly and builds power, much like finales such as “Sunday” in “Sunday in the Park With George” and “Make Your Garden Grow” in “Candide.”
“None of those songs are manipulative,” said Yazbek, agreeing to the comparison. “They are not about, ‘Look at us, look at us!’ They’re more about, ‘Here we all are. This is us.’ It’s just more satisfying, I think, than when a chorus kicks in and you have to applaud because there’s confetti raining down from the ceiling. It’s about the music. That’s art, as opposed to whatever the other thing is, which I’m not opposed to and which I have done.”
“Answer Me” has elements of Arabic tonality but sounds the most “show tune-y” of any of the songs in “The Band’s Visit.” In approaching it, Yazbek drew on his first conversation with book writer Itamar Moses, in which they agreed, “If we write this with an eye toward making a Broadway hit, we’re going to fail. But if we write with an eye toward making the best version of this musical, it will be unique and we will go to Broadway.”
Yazbek built that technique right into the circular breathing the singers use in “Answer Me,” knowing that a breath can range from quick and stressful to that song’s long exhalation of relief.
“What happens in the song is that it grows and grows, adding more voices, and then, for a very short time, you have everyone in the cast singing beautifully at full volume. It’s the first and last time that happens in the show, so it’s almost like this massive catharsis, I hope,” said Yazbek, who’s no stranger to Minnesota. He has taught several master classes at Minnesota State University, Mankato, including a course that culminated in a production of “The Full Monty.”
Another thing that makes “The Band’s Visit” unusual, particularly for a touring show that is playing here in a 2,600-capacity venue, is its modest scale. It has only about a dozen characters, members of the band and residents of the town who interact in little, revealing scenes such as one in which a discontented mother sings to the band’s leader, remembering when she was a girl and she watched “Omar Sharif” act on screen.
Early on, Yazbek says, some people questioned whether his and Moses’ work was too poetic or ethereal, but the first reading — of an abbreviated version of the script, with just one song, “Answer Me” — convinced everyone they were going in the right direction.
“There’s so much going on, with so few words, that the script was only, like, 25 pages but we did this reading and everyone was very moved at the end. Crying. Even without the songs. And I thought, ‘We’re on to something,’ ” said Yazbek, who acknowledges that setbacks did occur, as they do on any show.
“Oh, I wrote four or five songs we didn’t use because they were wrong or they were for a character who didn’t deserve a song in that moment. But, whenever I go wrong — and you can’t avoid it — I’ll question incessantly, having conversations on the phone with the book writer or director [Tony winner David Cromer] until they’re frustrated by all of my questions. Eventually, something will shake loose and then I’ll feel like I have that pickle out of the jar.”
It may be that the gentleness of “The Band’s Visit” suits its composer more than any of his other scores, since he says it’s the one show he hasn’t felt like tinkering with after it opened. In fact, Yazbek said seeing the quiet little musical with audiences has been a rewarding experience for him because he doesn’t get pleasure from standing ovations or thunderous applause.
“I distrust those things,” Yazbek said. “But what I don’t distrust is when I’m sitting in a row and the whole row is barely breathing because they don’t want to miss something. I get a sense of community and satisfaction from that.”
He’ll be hoping to be similarly satisfied with his next movie-to-musical project, a version of “The Princess Bride” that is being workshopped. Yazbek said he’s taking his cues from “master of tone” William Goldman, who wrote the beloved movie. It should be a change of pace from “The Band’s Visit,” since anyone who has seen that movie knows: Plenty of screaming.