Tony Nominee Tony Shalhoub on the Unlikely Success of 'The Band's Visit' and His Terror of Doing a Musical

The Band's Visit Production Still 2 - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Matthew Murphy

The best actor in a musical nominee discusses the critically adored Tony frontrunner and performing onstage while shooting his Amazon series 'The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.'

It hardly seemed a recipe for Broadway success. A quiet, subtle musical based on a relatively obscure 2007 Israeli film about the members of the Egyptian "Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra" becoming stranded overnight in a backwater Israeli town. And yet The Band's Visit has become an unlikely box-office hit, adored by critics and audiences alike.

The musical, featuring a book by Itamar Moses (The Fortress of Solitude), score by David Yazbek (The Full Monty, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) and direction by David Cromer (Our Town), premiered in 2016 at off-Broadway's Atlantic Theater Company and transferred to Broadway last October. It garnered 11 Tony nominations including best musical, book, score, director and best actor in a musical for longtime theater regular Tony Shalhoub, who plays Tewfiq, the stiffly formal orchestra leader with a tragic past. His castmates Katrina Lenk and Ari'el Stachel also received nominations.

The modestly scaled production has grossed a healthy $32 million since it began performances at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, most weeks playing to near-capacity houses.

Reviewing the show for The Hollywood Reporter, chief theater critic David Rooney wrote: "Shalhoub has possibly never been better, his every tiny gesture and brief glance revealing something of Tewfiq's broken pride, his self-censure and his deep sadness and regret, all of which he reluctantly lays out for [Lenk's character] Dina, while never abandoning his careful composure."

THR recently spoke with Shalhoub, a three-time Emmy winner for his role in the hit series Monk, about his thoughts on the musical and juggling stage work with his duties on the critically acclaimed Amazon TV series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, currently in production on season two.

You're the son of first- and second-generation Lebanese immigrants. Do you think The Band's Visit particularly resonates now because of its depiction of tolerance and bridging ethnic divides?

I guess that's a part of it. But I have a feeling that this piece would work at any time. When the movie it's based on came out, there was a bit of a period of calm. But I think this show would resonate whether tensions were high, moderate or low.

Were you familiar with the source material?

I had seen the movie when it first came out, 10 or 11 years ago. I remember liking it a lot. When I originally heard that it was going to be adapted for the stage I assumed they were talking about a play. Although I have to say, just for my own sanity and to comfort myself, that I prefer to think of it as a play with music. Because I'm not used to doing musicals.

You have a solo number in the show. Did you find the prospect intimidating?

It was beyond intimidating. It was terrifying. And I sort of fought it tooth and nail. But I got so much support and help. I worked with a vocal coach as much as I could. And I finally got to a point where I could, you know, tolerate myself. Especially singing in Arabic, a cappella. It was rough on an off-Broadway stage, but it was really, really daunting on a Broadway stage.

That you don't have a soaring, operatic voice works perfectly in this context, though.

Yes, the character is locked down, and tentative, and even admits in the scene prior to the song that he hasn't done it for a long time. So I guess there's a kind of built-in apology there.

Did you think the creators of this show were crazy for attempting it? A musical with only Arab and Israeli characters must have seemed an unlikely prospect for commercial success.

I didn't think they were crazy for doing it. I thought they were crazy for coming to me. But it was artful, and unusual for the fact that it's a quieter musical. It's not a big splashy vehicle. I didn't really think it was commercially viable. But that's obviously not always a reason to do something. It was a leap of faith.

You've played Italians, Jews, Russians, Cubans, Arabs, even an alien, and I don't mean an undocumented one. Do you think your ethnicity has helped your career?

It definitely has, yes. I get the opportunity to play all different ethnicities and not get stereotyped or locked into one. It's been a tremendous advantage, I think. Now, I'm not going to play a Swedish tennis player….

You're playing an emotionally repressed, guarded character, one who even has to be coaxed into removing his hat. Is it an acting challenge to make that sort of figure interesting?

The bigger challenge for me was how to make this buttoned-up character different from, let's say, Monk. People sometimes identify me with that character and I had to find things about this one that wouldn't be a direct parallel to that.

TV reboots are all the rage these days. Can we expect Monk to return at some point?

If only it were up to me (laughs). That's really a question for the network. A lot of years have passed since we wrapped that up. Maybe it's best to leave it where it is, to leave people wanting more.

You've been juggling your duties on the show with playing a major role in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Has that been difficult?

It's a little tricky, but it was really only for the month of May that I had to do both at the same time. I had to leave the play at the end of February to start shooting in Paris, which of course made it impossible to do both. Then I came back into the play in May while still shooting Maisel. So it's possible, but not sustainable for too long a period. Sunday [May 27] was my last performance in the show because I have to go full-time into the series now. I'm hoping at some point to circle back into the musical. 

Good luck at the Tonys. You're facing some pretty tough competition.

It seems unlikely that I would be in this category. But here I am.