A Broadway chameleon finds his true form
Four years later, in 2004, fans of his next musical, the Riviera con-artist caper "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," might have pictured a suave Broadway type, tossing off French pastiche, a comic rap showstopper and a satire of "Oklahoma!" in one boffo score.
"Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown," in 2010, jumbled the image further. His witty songs, with their strong Latin flavor and Almod varian edge, evoked the narcissistic torments of a quartet of melodramatic Madrile as.
So by the time it was announced that he would write the score for a stage adaptation of a quiet 2007 Israeli film called "The Band's Visit," Yazbek was an anomaly: a Broadway mainstay, already in his 50s, without a clear profile. As with Frank Loesser many years earlier, what you thought of him depended largely on which of his shows you knew.
The director David Cromer knew Yazbek's work largely from "Women on the Verge" and its "incredibly heartbreaking, `Man That Got Away' songs." He therefore expected Yazbek to be "this really sensitive, heartbroken little gay man." Instead, when the two met to discuss working together on "The Band's Visit," Cromer thought he'd discovered a "songwriter straight out of the 1930s": "grumpy and cigar-chomping," often in a porkpie hat.
That, too, was wrong. Yazbek doesn't smoke.
It's a musical chameleon's curse, and maybe his protection, that people don't have any idea, sonically or otherwise, who he really is. Those familiar with Yazbek as Broadway's go-to songwriter for comedy film adaptations probably haven't heard his solo work as frontman for a series of rock bands with names like Coke Machine, Moon Pudding, Barn and His Warmest Regards.
And vice versa: Those who groove to his sulfurous, often cheerfully pessimistic albums, with songs like "Monkey Baby Hanging on a Chicken Wire" and "Ultrasad," would probably be surprised by brassy show tunes like "Here I Am" and unironic ballads like "Breeze Off the River."
Which is why it's understandable that the talk around Broadway about Yazbek and "The Band's Visit," which opened Thuirsday at the Ethel Barrymore Theater in a production directed by Cromer, is so wrong.
This thoroughly gorgeous musical, first seen last winter at the Atlantic Theater Company, does not represent, as some say, Yazbek's unlikeliest disguise to date. Quite the opposite. "The Band's Visit" is the truest version of him Broadway has yet heard, or is ever likely to.
"All my life I've written songs, right?" he half-asks, half-demands, lying like an analysand on a couch in the studio he built a few yards from his house in Rockland County, New York. Unlike most people in analysis, though, he noodles gently on a bass as he speaks.
"I've made five albums that have nothing to do with musical theater," he continues. "And, like most singer-songwriters, my motive for writing them was to tell people what I was thinking and feeling. That usually has to do with human connection and death, in a good way: How life is ennobled by the fact of death, and is deeper than what we run around frittering about all day."
He pauses and plinks. "But unlike my other shows, in which I had a real but superficial connection to the characters' issues, almost every song in `The Band's Visit' gives me the feeling that I've expressed something I feel deeply about."
If that's a tall order for a musical, "The Band's Visit" is unusually ambitious, its many comic moments woven like countermelodies into a story of "human beings crying from the heart in joy or pain," as Yazbek puts it.
With a book by Itamar Moses, based on the screenplay by Eran Kolirin, it concerns a ragtag Egyptian police orchestra that gets stranded in the wrong Israeli town en route to a gig at an Arab cultural center.
The theme is miscommunication, including the romantic kind: the terrible gap between what we feel and what we say. In "The Band's Visit," the only cure is music, and yet it isn't enough.
The Egyptians and the Israelis reach out to one another on waves of melody, from ethereal Arab song to thumping klezmer. Two in particular — the band's leader, Tewfiq (Tony Shalhoub), and Dina, who houses him (Katrina Lenk) — nearly find a common language. But even they eventually have to acknowledge the emptiness, if perhaps a slightly less empty emptiness, that seeps back when melody passes.
This theme and setting made "The Band's Visit" a natural playground for Yazbek, who grew up on Manhattan's Upper West Side with a Maronite Arab father and a half Jewish, half Italian mother. For a song about the Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum, he could call on his own memory of her voice on the radio in a cab while visiting his grandfather in Lebanon. To shape the score's swirling contours, he did not have to study Middle Eastern scales or Egyptian instrumentation; he was already handy on darbouka (a goblet-shaped drum) and oud (a short-necked lyre). He was also in a good position to translate what he calls "the sound of Israeli sarcasm."
But he had a surfeit of other sounds as well. Growing up surrounded by every kind of music — "Kiss Me, Kate" and Miles Davis on the stereo, the polyrhythms of congas in Central Park — he developed an early and eclectic ear. He started his first band when he was 12; played gigs for a thousand students at college block parties; landed a solo recording contract at 28.
Another lifetime later, at 57, though married (to Elizabeth Doberneck, a meditation teacher) and with a son, Omar, in college, Yazbek retains the slightly hassled aura of a man who has almost made peace with his work — or, maybe more accurately, a man who remakes that peace every day. (He, too, meditates.)
This is a vast improvement over the person who seemed to be jumping out of his skin when I first encountered him in the "Full Monty" era. Back then, he seemed embarrassed that, of all the roads open to him, he'd found his biggest success on the one that led to Broadway, with its corny philosophies and unprovoked belting.
Among the roads less taken was comedy. Directly out of Brown, he wrote for David Letterman, part of a "Late Show" team that won an Emmy Award in 1984. And his career as a solo musical artist never took off the way he had planned — though that was, he says, his own fault.
"I made my own bed when I decided not to tour all the time," he explains. "There were guys like Ben Folds and Dave Matthews who started off at the same time, doing what I should have done: get in a van with a baby grand, go up and down the East Coast circuit and make a subsistence living while developing a fan base. But if I doomed myself by staying home, it turns out it was a great doom. Now all those guys are sick of touring and want to write musicals."
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