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‘The Band’s Visit’ star Sasson Gabay says playing Tewfiq is like ‘meeting an old friend’

The Israeli actor, who starred in the 2007 film, has taken over the role on Broadway from Tony-winner Tony Shalhoub.

Sasson Gabay, left, describes playing opposite Katrina Lenk

Sasson Gabay, left, describes playing opposite Katrina Lenk in "The Band's Visit" as "a privilege." Photo Credit: Evan Zimmerman / MurphyMade

Immediately after Tony Shalhoub won the Tony Award for best actor in a musical for his performance as Tewfiq (the leader of an Egyptian police band) in “The Band’s Visit,” it was announced that 70-year-old Israeli stage and screen actor Sasson Gabay (who played Tewfiq in the 2007 film upon which the musical is based) would recreate the role on Broadway. We spoke with Gabay about his unexpected Broadway debut.

How did you get involved with the Broadway production?

Quite a long story. Orin [Wolf], the producer, approached me years ago in Tel Aviv. He had an idea to make out of this film a musical. I responded positively. But to tell you the truth, I didn’t believe it would be possible. Then years go by, and I heard that it had already been done at Atlantic [Theater Company]. Last October, Orin came with a group of people from the cast to visit Israel, and he raised the possibility that Tony Shalhoub might need to leave the production, and he asked if I would be ready to do it.

Was it a dream of yours to be on Broadway?

Everybody asks if it was my dream, and I say, it was a dream above me. I have a film career, and I went to Europe to do things, but I never thought about Broadway. For me and my family, it’s really a thrill. It’s quite rare that an actor from Israel comes to Broadway to do a musical. After a long and rich career, it came at the right time.

What does it feel like to return to the character of Tewfiq?

I feel like I know this man. I feel as if I am him. When I created him in the film, my instincts with the character were very immediate. And then “The Band’s Visit” accompanied me over the years. I’ve gotten many offers because of the film. To be Tewfiq again, it was like meeting an old friend that you haven’t met for years. It was like swimming in water that I was already familiar with.

Why do you think this story about an Egyptian police band getting lost in the Negev Desert has resonated so widely?

Usually, when something is going wrong, it’s easier to say why it’s not working. But when something is going well and is received in such an exceptional way, people can try to define exactly what made it so, but I don’t think anyone can really say … I think maybe it’s the feeling of being a stranger and being vulnerable, and this encounter between the locals and newcomers who come from another country. You share with a stranger an intimacy you don’t share with someone who lives with you, and you see that we are all the same. People from remote places and different cultures and backgrounds find themselves sharing the same pains and same happiness in life. All of the characters are passing through a process, a transition, during this night that they are staying together. Each character ends the next day different from he was when they arrived.

Has the story’s impact changed since the film premiered?

Maybe. Last year, global politics became less humanistic, more nationalist, less caring about the weaker part of society. Maybe in this respect, this play now has more of an effect because it shows the opposite, how much we are all alike, how much we need to love each other and show more compassion towards the human being. But on the whole, this play and this film, it’s not about politics. It’s a small, simple story of small, simple people.

How do you think your performance compares with the one given by Shalhoub?

I think this is more up to the audience. I haven’t seen Tony onstage. I met him in Israel and he was very kind to me. I am a little bit older than Tony and maybe I play it with a little bit more sadness.

How long do you plan to do the show for?

Till next June. That is my plan. I don’t know what will happen towards the end of the period. Maybe it will be for a longer time, but I will have to wait and see.

How does an audience on Broadway compare with one in Israel?

In Israel, you have to work hard in order to make an audience give a standing ovation and respond so warmly. They are more shy to show their appreciation and amusement of the play. But here, the audience is coming with all its heart towards the story, and it responds so warmly to each thing you are doing. To see the audience shout and stand and applaud the cast, it really is moving for me. Also, the people waiting outside the theater, the admirers, who want to take pictures or get autographs.

What’s it like to play opposite Katrina Lenk?

Katrina is a magician. She is doing so many things off the cuff so easily. You don’t see the effort. And at the same time, she is playing this character so beautifully. And she manages to be funny without trying to be funny. It’s a privilege working with her. I want to compliment each cast member. They play their characters so precisely. This is also a little bit different from what I’m used to. In Israel, there is more flexibility.

‘The Band’s Visit’ plays an open run at the Barrymore Theatre. 243 W. 47th St., thebandsvisitmusical.com.

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