‘Under the layer of skin we are all human’

Sasson Gabay talks about playing Zacharya in ‘The Band’s Visit’ on Broadway

Sasson Gabay and Katrina Lenk head the Broadway cast of “The Band’s Visit.” (Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade (2018))

Sasson Gabay played Lt. Col. Tawfiq Zacharya in the 2007 Israeli film “The Band’s Visit.” It was about the night when, as a result of major miscommunication, the Alexandria (Egypt) Ceremonial Police Band got lost and spent a night in a small Israeli town.

The film was a major international hit and a star turn for Gabay, earning him many international honors. A lot has happened to him since, but never — “not in my life,” he said — did he think that 11 years later he’d be starring in the same role in a musical version of the play on Broadway.

According to Gabay, about seven years ago the show’s lead producer, Orin Wolf, came to Israel, met with him, and “he asked me what do I think about the possibility to make a play out of this film, and if I would come to do the part. I said I would — but deep in my heart I thought it impossible.

“On top of that, he was talking about making it a musical, which sounded really impossible. It was a very delicate film, where nothing really happens. There’s no killing, no running, no chasing. And about seven years after we talked, it opened at the [off-Broadway] Atlantic Theater, and it became the wonderful, delicate, and gentle musical that the film deserved.”

“The Band’s Visit” won nearly every major off-Broadway prize, and when it moved to the Great White Way itself, the play was nominated for (among other awards) 11 Tonys and won 10 of them, including one for Tony Shalhoub, who played Col. Zacharya.

Almost a year ago, Wolf was back again, and again he asked Gabay if he’d be interested in recreating the role. Shalhoub was well entrenched in the part, but he was scheduled to leave for various TV commitments. Wolf needed a replacement. It seemed a natural fit — and a publicity bonanza.

When the offer became firm, “I responded positively,” Gabay said. It took some time. He was appearing in an Israeli production at the time, but in June he was able to come to the States.

“I didn’t dream about Broadway,” he said. “The most I figured was that I would go to the East End of London.”

For many, following a Tony Award-winning Tony (or a Bette) is off-putting. But not in this case for Gabay.

“Tony did a very good job, but, after all, I created the part, I know it more than anyone,” he said. “And I have the background. I’m Jewish, but I came to Israel from an Arab country” — Iraq — “when I was 3 years old. I have the background.”

Gabay remembers auditioning for the film’s screenwriter and director, Eran Kolirin: “I was given a synopsis of the film and seven or eight lines to read. I immediately begged him, don’t look for another actor. I know this man. There was an immediate connection.”

That connection comes through, and in fact, Gabay’s performance seems more comfortable than Shalhoub’s. “It was like meeting an old friend I hadn’t met in years.”

Still, there are differences he had to get used to. His co-star in the film, Ronit Elkabetz — he dedicates his performance to her — died of cancer two years ago. Elkabetz, Gabay insists, would love Katrina Lenk’s Dina, but, for him, it was “a new dynamic.”

Otherwise, he feels, despite changes in world politics, the play stands up well. “It says under the layer of skin we are all human. We have hearts that need love and affection. I didn’t see it as a political film, but you can’t ignore what the Israelis and Egyptians have done together. It’s been many years since the peace process. And though we are from different countries and different cultures we have found a common ground.”

If only it were so elsewhere. His family, along with the entire Jewish community of 130,000 people, was forced to flee Iraq in the early 1960s. “Their property was confiscated,” he said. “Yes, we remember the tragedy of the Palestinian refugees. But the Jews of Arab countries were also forced out. They didn’t have a choice to leave. Remember this.”

Gabay’s family spent a year in an immigrant camp, after which “we built our lives again.”

His father had a successful textile business in Iraq and tried a number of jobs in Israel, but his lack of fluency in Hebrew hurt him. He ultimately opened a grocery shop in Haifa.

Gabay recalls attending services with his father and a rooftop bar mitzvah officiated by his grandfather because the family couldn’t afford a catering hall. He studied theater at Tel Aviv University, and psychology as a backup in case acting didn’t work, but soon he realized that “I belong to this profession.” He had to be an actor.

He’s been proven correct. His long career includes both film (he was in Rambo III among others), theater, television, and now a Broadway run.

And he says, “I’m not finished yet.”

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