The Band’s Visit has the rare honor of becoming a phenomenal success twice, first as a film and later as a musical. Both times, this beloved tale transcended its modest origins to capture the hearts and minds of audiences everywhere. 

Written and directed by Israeli filmmaker Eran Kolirin in his directorial film debut, The Band’s Visit movie tells the story of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra who mistakenly travel to the wrong Israeli town. Intending to go to an Arab cultural center in Petah Tikva, the sixth largest city in Israel at the time, the Orchestra ends up on a bus to the fictional town of Bet Hatikva in southern Israel’s Negev Desert. Kolirin cast several famous actors in his film, including the Baghdad-born Israeli actor Sasson Gabai, the Israeli actress Ronit Elkabetz, and the Palestinian actor Saleh Bakri. 

Selected for the 2007 Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard (“At a Glance”) category, which highlights films made by newer directors or ones with non-traditional stories and innovative filmmaking techniques, The Band’s Visit charmed audiences at the festival, winning a Special Jury Award (Coup de cœur du jury). Released in Israel later that year, the film would go on to win seven Ophir Awards from the Israeli Academy of Film and Television, including Best Film, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Screenplay and Music. Submitted by Israel for consideration in the Foreign Language Film category of the Oscars, the film was disqualified because the majority of the dialogue is spoken in English, not Hebrew or Arabic. 

Although the plot is wholly original, the film’s embrace of Egyptian cinema and Middle Eastern music was influenced by experiences from Kolirin’s childhood. “When I was a kid, my family and I used to watch Egyptian movies,” he shared in 2007. “This was a fairly common Israeli family practice, circa the early 1980’s. In the late afternoon on Fridays, we’d watch with bated breaths the convoluted plots, the impossible loves and the heart-breaking pain of Omar Sharif, Pathen Hamama, I’del Imam, and the rest of that crew on the one and only TV channel that the country had. This was kind of weird, actually, for a country that spent half of its existence in a state of war with Egypt, and the other half in a sort of cold, correct peace with its neighbor to the south. Sometimes, after the Arab movie, they’d broadcast a performance of the Israel Broadcasting Authority’s orchestra.” Established in 1948, the IBA’s Arabic Orchestra, whose members were mostly Jewish immigrants from Iraq and Egypt, made it their mission to uplift and celebrate Arabic music in Israel and beyond. 

When The Band’s Visit was screened in New York at the Other Israel Film Festival, which is dedicated to the work of both Israeli and Palestinian filmmakers, it caught the eye of theatre producer Orin Wolf. “I immediately hungered to put the story onstage,” he said in a 2018 interview with Dramatics. “For me, the filmmaker Eran Kolirin made what felt like a piece of theatre about people being stuck. That’s something that always interests me theatrically: people being stuck in one place. The story dealt with language barriers, people struggling to find the right words, and it was about musicians. It felt to me like it was a natural fit for the stage.” After several conversations, Wolf convinced Kolirin to grant him the stage rights to the story. At which point the producer, who had recently found success as part of the Broadway producing team for the film-to-musical Once, pondered whether to pursue the story as a play or a musical. 

Legendary Broadway producer Hal Prince, who was mentoring Wolf, connected him with playwright Itamar Moses (whose Bach at Lepzig played at Writers Theatre in 2007) and composer David Yazbeck (The Full Monty, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Women of the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) in 2013. Moses, whose parents are Israeli, and Yazbek, whose mother is Jewish and father Lebanese, both connected strongly with the material and saw its potential. Moses remembered, “I felt the intimacy of the story, how much it depended on small connections between individuals, which theatre excels at. How still it was. And there was a very organic reason for there to be music in it. First, there’s this band. And second, music is one of the zones of connection between the people, a language that the characters use to communicate. I thought, ‘OK, that justifies it being a musical.’” 

The team soon added its final member, director David Cromer, who hails from Skokie and has directed at WT many times over the years, most recently with Next to Normal in 2019. Atlantic Theatre Company in New York produced the world premiere of the musical in late 2016, where it ran for two months. Reviews and response for the Off-Broadway production were strong, with the show winning several Drama Desk and Obie Awards. Could the musical successfully transfer to Broadway and find a broader audience for its quieter tale of human connection? Would it survive in a season that also included far more familiar titles, such as the original musicals Frozen, SpongeBob SquarePants, and Mean Girls as well as splashy revivals of beloved classics My Fair Lady, Carousel and Once on This Island? 

The answer was a resounding yes. The musical opened to rave reviews in November 2017, with The New York Times calling it “a Broadway rarity seldom found these days outside of the canon of Stephen Sondheim: an honest-to-God musical for grown-ups.” The production would end up running for over a year and a half. At the 2018 Tony Awards, the show went home with ten awards, including Best Musical, Book, Score, Actor, Actress and Director, making it only the fourth musical to win the unofficial “Big Six” awards. The cast recording would also win a 2019 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theatre Album. 

Writers Theatre and TheatreSquared’s co-production of The Band’s Visit marks the musical’s regional premiere, the first original production in America since the Broadway national tour.