BWW Interview - Debut of the Month - THE BAND'S VISIT's Ari'el Stachel
Ari'el Stachel makes his Broadway debut as Haled in the new original musical THE BAND'S VISIT. The actor originated the role at the Atlantic Theatre Company's off-Broadway production, for which he received both Lucille Lortel and Drama Desk Award nominations. Featuring music & lyrics by three-time Tony Award nominee David Yazbek and a book by Drama Desk nominee Itamar Moses, THE BAND'S VISIT follows an Egyptian Police Band who is mistakenly sent to a remote village in the middle of the Israeli desert. With no bus until morning and no hotel in sight, these unlikely travelers are taken in by the locals. Under the spell of the desert sky, their lives become intertwined in the most unexpected ways.
Today Ari'el Stachel speaks with BWW about making his Broadway debut and explains why THE BAND'S VISIT has been "utterly life-changing" on a very personal level.
[NOTE: BroadwayWorld's fabulous photographer Walter McBride captures images of the Broadway stars profiled in our monthly column in a special photo shoot. Check out the pics of Ari'el Stachel throughout the feature!]
You originated the role of 'Haled' for the off-Broadway production. How has the show been adapted for the Broadway stage?
It's a good question. Obviously, on a financial level there's a larger investment, so the set is more dynamic, the details, even the windows, the shades on the windows, so small things like that have changed. The wings have given us a very different playing space, so entrances are different. And so I think in contrast to the people who were saying that the show might lose touch in a less intimate theater, I actually think it has allowed us to fully realize the potential.
And then for me on an artistic level, I think we've been able to bring the piece fully together. What we did not have was a traditional workshop, which most productions in this day and age go through, either an out-of-town tryout or a fully staged workshop. We went from the reading stage to an off-Broadway production and I think that there are so many factors which come into play when you are doing that. There will be some things that cannot take precedent and some that do. So in that case, I think artistically we've been able to fine-tune things in a way we were not able to do off-Broadway. And our director David Cromer is putting on his Midas touch. There's not a moment that his hands are not involved with. And I think that makes the story-telling extremely sharp. And because it's better, I think the actors are more confident. The story has now settled into our bones, we've had time to research, we've had time to let the new cultural elements settle into our bodies, whether that be the Arabic dialect, whether that be the Hebrew dialect. And so on two levels, on a financial level, the production value has exponentially improved, but on an artistic level I think everyone has been able to settle in and focus.
David Yazbek's score is so beautiful and unique. I believe it is the first time a Broadway score has featured a Middle-Eastern sound.
Yes, I think you're 100% right. I remember sitting in the lobby of the Manhattan Theater Club on the first week of our rehearsals off-Broadway and David Yazbek was telling us that the first thing he advises his musical theater writing students is, 'Don't listen to musical theater music for an entire year. Listen to World music. Listen to anything other than musical theater.' And he explained how that is often met with a great deal of resistance. But those who follow that advice end up reaping the benefits.
David is first and foremost, as I understand it, a musician. He has his own band, he sings, he has albums outside of the genre of musical theater, and so his interest in World music I think is what serves the piece. Now the fact that there's a darbuka and an oud on a Broadway stage is monumental for so many reasons. First, it's going to bring a wider audience to those instruments. Second of all, I think that there's an accessibility by crossing over to this genre. So if you think about HAMILTON as an example, my step-grandfather is an intellectual, he was a professor at Stanford, and yet, he has now fallen in love with rap music due to HAMILTON. So there's this sort of genre-crossing element that Broadway brings to these audiences who may not traditionally be listening to these styles of music. And my great hope is that Middle Eastern music will also become part of that dialogue. It's really enchanting, beautiful music. And I'll be frank with you, I was embarrassed that I listened to it back at home as a kid growing up. My father is of Yemeni descent and he would listen to Yemenite music growing up and that was something that around 10 or 11 years old, I'd feel, 'God, this is embarrassing that these sounds are in my house. I wish I was more normal. I wish I was like other people.' And so in contrast, having Middle Eastern music in this kind of genre and class-mixing Broadway show I think is tremendously exciting. And like I said, I just hope it becomes part of the fabric of mainstream American music to the extent that it can be.
And it's interesting - I would say the one song that is the exception to that Middle Eastern influence is your solo, "The Song About Love." Do you think the composer was intentionally trying to differentiate your character from the others?
Yes, he was. And I think it works on a number of levels. Our producer, Orin Wolf watched this movie in 2007 and turned to his wife after, and said, 'I'm making this into a Broadway musical.' So he brought on the people who were most culturally appropriate; Itamar Moses and David Yazbek. And I think when David Yazbek saw the film he said, "Oh, this guy Haled loves Chet Baker, so he's gonna sing a jazz song.' I think it was really intentional. For me it's extremely exciting because what my character is able to do in singing this song is continue to surprise the audience, right? So he doesn't conform to a stereotype. He's seen at first as a bit moody, a bit arrogant and then this extremely soulful, sort of caring and empathetic side comes out. So I think on one hand David Yazbek is being very true to the original film, and honoring the fact that yeah, this person loves jazz music. And though he's Egyptian, though he's Arab, though he may play Arabic instruments, there is this love of jazz music.
And music is what connects us all. The song 'Summertime', this Gershwin song, is what connects the Arabs and the Israelis in this story. So then why wouldn't an Egyptian character not be in love with Chet Baker? So I think it's interesting for me as an actor to sing that song and to contrast it with this very heavy, thick Egyptian dialect. It really connects the audience to this Egyptian kid, who's getting an arranged marriage, yet also has a connection to an American jazz icon.
Yes, I love that idea that people from very different cultures are able to connect through music.
And I've got to tell you - it's very real. You know, my father, as I said he's Yemeni. His grandparents were immigrants from Yemen and yet my father's favorite musician is Ray Charles. I mean this is real stuff! Music has a way of traveling and really connecting us. And here's a personal story. I had an African American girlfriend in eighth grade and my father connected with her parents via Ray Charles and watching Ray together. So this is something that's happening in the real world all the time. And I think it's extremely appropriate that we're not falling into the sterotype of, oh this is an Egyptian guy, he should be singing Arabic chants.
So you obviously were able to draw from your own experiences in creating this character.
Yes. I can relate to him on a number of levels. I auditioned for this part a total of seven times and over the course of those nine months I think I learned what the character was all about. And when I say nine months, it was nine months from the first audition to the moment when I got the offer for the off-Broadway run. I was the second to last cast member to join off-Broadway. So initially I played him as this sort of smiley guy who's, on a surface level, very similar to me. What I later learned was that Yazbek considers Haled the heartbeat, the heart and soul of the show. So I related to him on a number of levels, the feistiness, the outgoing-ness, the confidence, but also the desire to help people. The empathy. The reason why I am an actor is because I feel it's a gift, there's no part of me that I don't get to share. It allows me to share the full spectrum of who I am. And while there's a different dialect with Haled and subtle differences in mannerisms and different manifestations, he is very similar to me. And what David Cromer and David Yazbek and Itamar Moses helped me do was uncrack that and show the vulnerability without the pretense.
There is a lyric in my song that says, "Not break the ice, you melt the ice. No edge, no edge. No walls, borders." That is the lyric that David Yazbek wrote and it's a very vulnerable thing for an actor to do, especially a young actor like myself. And they kind of encouraged me to dive in head first. So I'm learning a great deal from playing this character.
As your first Broadway experience, I don't think you could have asked for more!
There is nothing more I can ask for! And what has been most important to me is what the show has done for me on a personal level. Being a Middle Eastern American person, it has been extremely challenging for me from the moment that I gained a social identity. I would say sixth grade is when I shortened my name to Ari, which I was known as, which I went by professionally until I got this role. That's when I said to myself, 'you know my name is Ari'el, I will go by Ari'el.' And so to have this opportunity to offer Middle Eastern people visibility in such a non-judgmental way, that really doesn't even focus on the fact that they're Middle Eastern. Rather, we just get to see this real slice of life experience. It's been utterly life-changing for me as a person. And I had a personal experience about two days ago where a young Palestinian woman was at the stage door and ran past the gate and into my arms, and said she had felt seen and had felt visible. I'm almost getting teary-eyed talking about it. There are young girls and boys in Israel, in the Arab world on Twitter, on Instagram who are telling me, 'Thank you, I can't believe this is happening.' And so, for me it was more significant than anything, the fact that these kids are seeing Middle Eastern people on stage. It's something that would have saved a lot of heartache for me personally growing up. So what I want to tell you is from sixth grade through my first years of college I told people I was African American. Half African American, half White. Because I was so ashamed of my Middle Eastern background. So the cultural and personal moment for me outweighs the professional moment by a mile.
I can imagine how special it must have been for you when you made your Broadway debut in THE BAND'S VISIT.
It was the most thrilling experience of my life. I would say 50% of the show was focusing on the show, 30% was looking out and saying, "Oh my goodness I'm on a Broadway stage, this is the first time I've ever seen a mezzanine from a performing side.!" It was an out-of-body experience and the best way I can describe it is I felt like a hologram. I did not feel like me. Each day, I would say the ratio of hologram to my actual self shifts a little bit. We're still in the hologram phase. It was the most thrilling experience of my life. To describe the minutiae of the emotions would just be impossible!
BWW congratulates Ari'el Stachel on his Broadway debut in THE BAND'S VISIT! The actor originated the role at the Atlantic Theatre Company's off Broadway production, for which he received Lucille Lortel and Drama Desk Award nominations. His regional credits include THE GOLEM OF HAVANA at Barrington Stage Company. His TV credits include CBS's BLUE BLOODS and Netflix's JESSICA JONES.