The delightfully offbeat and heartwarming The Band’s Visit launches its National Tour at the Providence Performing Arts Center on June 25th. Winner of ten 2018 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, as well as grabbing the 2019 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album (Brown University alum David Yazbek gets credit for a blend of jazz and Middle Eastern music), The Band’s Visit is lucky to have retained its original star, Sasson Gabay, for the tour. Gabay, who originated the lead role of Tewfiq for the film that spawned the Broadway show, took over the role again onstage in New York (after Tony Shalhoub’s turn for which he credited Gabay for his inspiration) and now brings it to Providence and the rest of the country.
Gabay, one of Israel’s biggest film and television stars, has a long list of impressive credits (and can be seen in Rambo III, for the less theatrically inclined) that also encompasses a love of the stage. Born in Baghdad in 1947, his family immigrated to Israel when he was three and settled in Haifa. After his mandatory military service, Gabay chose to study theater and psychology at Tel Aviv University and went on to an acting career that spans all mediums and continues to dazzle audiences across the globe. He has been the leading actor of the Beit Lessin Theatre company in Tel Aviv, starring in their productions of Uncle Vanya, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Rain Man, Cyrano de Bergerac and many other Israeli plays. His film credits (aside from his creation of the role of Tewfiq in 2007’s The Band’s Visit) include Restoration, Rambo III (appearing alongside Sly Stallone), When Pigs Have Wings, Hunting Elephants and Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem. The latter role earned him an Ophir Award for Best Supporting Actor.
The Band’s Visit originated as an Israeli film, centering around the quiet Colonel Tewfiq Zakaria and his Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra. Due to a pronunciation mixup, the band winds up in an isolated desert town instead of their actual tour destination and, in their own way, shakes up the lives of the local residents. The subsequent Broadway production retained the charm of the film and Gabay’s return to the role of Tewfiq maintains a continuity across the mediums.
Motif was able to chat with Mr. Gabay recently as he rehearses in Providence for the launch of the national tour and our first question was to do a little housecleaning and clear up the mystery surrounding the spelling of his last name, which often appears as “Gabai.”
MOTIF: Depending on what source we read, the spelling of your surname is seen as either “Gabai” or “Gabay.” There is even an argument on a YouTube video comments section regarding this. What is the actual spelling?
Sasson Gabay: There was a time I used it as “ai,” but I regretted that and went back to my original spelling of “ay;” so it is spelled “Gabay.”
MOTIF: What got you interested in theater after your military service? Was it something you decided to take up, or was it a continuation of something you had always been interested in pursuing?
Gabay: I have always been interested, since childhood, let’s say 11 or 12 years old. It started from I was used to listening to radio plays. At the time they were showing radio plays of all kinds, some classical European, and Israeli, and as a child I listened to this and got caught up by this. One day I was at school and I got some small stage part and started to be more and more interested in theater and then, before long, I was dreaming and fantasizing about becoming an actor. In Israel you can be involved in these entertainment groups. Unfortunately, I was not accepted to this and during my army service, I went many times to Tel Aviv University as an outsider and to watch and listen to acting classes, etc. But I wasn’t sure I belonged to this profession as I had no feedback from anyone. So, I also studied psychology, as an alternate, something that I lived with, and dealing with emotions. So, I studied in parallel. Very soon I knew that I belonged to this profession and got feedback. But I always wanted it. I was a shy boy and a quiet boy and some little plays we produced as kids… all of a sudden it felt very good. Since then I’m caught and wanted to repeat this feeling of freedom. I soon found myself confident and I started doing it.
MOTIF: You have a storied career so far, with a wealth of experience in theater, film and television. Which medium do you prefer?
Gabay: I like them all very much, the feel of them. To shift from one medium to another and use techniques you don’t use in the others, I like that. But I am first and foremost a theater actor. I was in theater all my life. While doing films and tv I was doing also theater. I’ve never abandoned theater. First of all, as a theater actor, I like the live audience. I feel good in it, physical, emotionally and mentally it gives me the most satisfaction. Although I love film and tv, which I can manifest other qualities.
MOTIF: Turning now to The Band’s Visit. Between the film, which you starred in, and then the Broadway version, which Tony Shalhoub made famous before you took it over from him, and now the tour, how do you feel about your originating and carrying this iconic role? Do you feel a responsibility to audiences when they come to see you perform this part?
Gabay: I feel a responsibility and a satisfaction and I do… I feel responsible for it. Because I created the role in the film in 2007. And since then, this part and the movie never left me. It kept with me. Orin Wolf, who produced the show, as a matter of fact approached me in 2010 and asked if I would be interested in doing it on stage. Then it took some years to produce it and eventually he started Off-Broadway and used Tony Shalhoub. I saw him at a certain point when they moved to Broadway, and Tony had to go to his other obligations, and Orin approached me again and I responded positively. I took some months to release from commitments in Tel Aviv and other commitments in Israel.
MOTIF: Did you ever see Tony Shalhoub’s performance?
Gabay: I saw Tony do the role and he was wonderful and he gave me a great compliment that I was his inspiration. This part never left me.
MOTIF: With such a long career, do you have any fun theater stories?
Gabay: I was fortunate to have a long career and many things have happened to me….hmm, here’s one. I was nominated as Best Actor for EFA (European Film Awards) in 2007, and as one of the nominees, I was sitting in the ceremony and usually they say, “and the nominees are,” but they started with, and they said, “the winner is..” and then they said Sasson Gabay. I thought they would then continue. But they said it a second and third time and I was hesitant, but I look at my wife and colleague and we think, they probably mean I have to go onstage. Well, while I was going to the stage, all of a sudden, they say “and the other nominees” … and I was onstage already, so I felt so embarrassed. And they lean in to me and say “don’t worry it’s a mistake, it’s you.” So, I went back to my table, and they were so embarrassed for me. After I hear my name again, I went back onstage for the award, and I say, “I’m always better on the second take!”
Motif: A great story! So, you’re here in Rhode Island now, about to launch the tour. Is this your first time in Providence or in Rhode Island?
Gabay: This is my first time here. I’ve been to Boston, but I know that’s not the same. I am really impressed by the place! On a day off, I have a good friend who lives here and he took me and my son, Adam, took us to Newport and all the nice places and we spent a wonderful day in Providence. We discovered such things…the sea and the places, the coffees. I’ve had a wonderful time in Rhode Island. With a big tour, you usually spend the whole day in the theater, but I managed to see Providence.
What is wonderful for me, is my son is 21, and he is one of the parts in the play. He came to visit me on Broadway, and they were taking auditions for the Israeli parts, and he has been acting since childhood and is doing an HBO series, which airs this summer in Israel. They were looking for Israeli actors and one of the actors says to Orin (Wolf, the producer), why won’t Adam audition? Sure enough, he auditions and they are so thrilled and they were so happy with him, they offered him the job, one of the kids embarrassed with girls. It’s like a fairytale and now we are going to tour together which is a gift, a dream. I didn’t initiate it. To spend a year with my kid doing a very good play…it doesn’t seem realistic, it’s not nepotism, they were just looking for Israeli characters!
Motif: Thank you very much for spending time with us today and we look forward to opening night at PPAC for The Band’s Visit.
Gabay: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure to speak with you and maybe we see you there!
The North American Tour of THE BAND’S VISIT will open at the Providence Performing Arts Center (PPAC) June 25 – 30. Tickets are on sale now at the PPAC Box Office (located at 220 Weybosset St in downtown Providence), online at ppacri.org and by phone at 401-421-ARTS (2787). Box Office Hours are Monday through Friday, 10A to 5P, Saturday, 10A to 2P and two hours prior to curtain time(s) on performance days.