Musician and lyricist David Yazbek views his artistry in a different way than most.
"I had a flavor for it. I tend to often equate the minutia of music with spices. I don't know exactly why. Sometimes colors, but very often flavors," said Yazbek in an interview with GBH's Executive Arts Editor and The Culture Show host Jared Bowen. "But, when I think of 'classical Arabic music'... I think of sumac. When I think of the microtones that are used in some of the scales ... I just think of that flavor that makes the music very very interesting and tangy to me."
"The Band's Visit," the Tony-winning musical based on a 2007 film about an Egyptian band finding themselves stranded in an Israeli desert village, is on stage at The Huntington Theatre until December 17. Yazbek, the musical's lyricist and composer, wished to give the adaptation the weight that it deserved.
"When they came to me, I initially wondered, it sort of seems like it might be obvious because it is about a band, about the aesthetic of the movie, which is quiet and somehow shattering. Even though it's quiet and funny, sort of mildly fun, you know, it's just this beautiful, beautiful aesthetic," said Yazbek. "My real question was, 'Can I somehow honor and bring this aesthetic to a musical theatre piece?' I've never seen it done. This particular, anti-'jazz hands,' you know, there's a depth to it, like listening to a wonderful piece of music... That was what drew me into it, was the challenge of that."
The themes of cultural melding and unity present in the play may seem particularly topical, given the current crisis in the Middle East. However, Yazbek, who is of Arabic and Jewish descent, sees his work in the same light as he did when he initially wrote it.
"There's always... something eventful and violent going on in the world," said Yazbek. " There's always something going on that's based on religion or something that happened thousands of years ago, these clashes. This just happens to be something that's of massive import for many reasons, including the rise of antisemitism in this country, which is shocking and distressing."
Yazbek prefers a more universal reading of his work.
"This isn't about specific conflict between two specific tribes. It could be families with a blood feud. It could be two other nationalities, two other religions. It's just about the commonality that exists... not too far below the surface of the labels and aggression and the things you react to with your lizard brain and the things you react to viscerally," said Yazbek. "We are in the worst time to see the gray areas and to see stuff that's a level down because social media and cable news reward the algorithms, reward the black and white as opposed to the gray."
That sense of unity is reflected in the inherently communal activity of going out to the theatre and seeing a performance.
"When you're sitting in the audience, you are having a common experience with everyone else in that audience and the people on stage. A lot of what they're playing is improvised within the songs, and you're seeing performances that are taking place in real-time," said Yazbek. "And you in the audience, obviously, are there having this live experience, and all of that is connective. All of that... results in an experience that should be similar to the experience of having a meal with people who you might have thought were your enemies or singing a song that you all know... in that way, I'm very proud of the show."
You can listen to the full conversation above.
"The Band's Visit," presented by The Huntington and SpeakEasy Stage Company is on stage at The Huntington Theatre until Dec. 17. For tickets and more information about the play, click here.