by: george abud
As the old saying (with some liberties) goes: “When you can’t keep it in, you speak; when it’s too much to speak, you sing; when it’s too much to sing, you dance.” Perhaps, now, when it is too much for all that, you play?
I find myself these days walking the tightrope between two worlds. Through my current gig as the sole actor/musician in the current Broadway production of The Band’s Visit, playing the character of Camal, Violinist for the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, I shall offer my thoughts on what the show does through the use of instrumental music to advance the ways in which we storytell.
What follows is an excerpt from my larger essay: IN DEFENSE OF INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC IN THE AMERICAN THEATRE: As utilized by performers as a means to heighten, expand, and develop character and story visually and aurally onstage.
The theatre almost seems to be an art form created to try and verbalize music. Only through music can we express most purely and most directly what is incommunicable inside of us. And only through music can another receive, instantly, everything we are going through. They couldn’t possibly comprehend it all, but they can receive it. So it seems we took these musical stories and verbalized and physicalized them on the stage, so we might more readily understand them intellectually.
Let us first take for example the dinner scene in The Band’s Visit, in which Andy Polk, playing the character of Avrum, sings “The Beat of Your Heart.” He tells the two Egyptian officers in his daughter’s home that he, like them, also plays in a band. And what do you know, he’s a violin player, just like my character Camal. Through the song Avrum connects with Camal, talking about music being this pulse in his chest, this food of love. And during the song my character is moved to the point of making a statement. For Camal, a man who is guarded, suspicious, and nervous, he would not sing something back to Avrum, and he would not bust out into some sort of dance. He would not even respond verbally. No, he could do nothing else but speak through his violin. The violin then becomes an extension of the acting. And so, what better storytelling device could there be to connect these two strangers than for my character to bust out a violin and rip through an improvised solo played upon the same music that Andy’s character has created. In this case, the violin is the only means by which Camal could actually penetrate the heart and memory of the man who began the song. The use of playing the instrument in this case heightens the storytelling in several ways. It is a visceral way of bringing these two strangers together, of propelling the character of Avrum into a more vulnerable and emotional place by triggering his own memories of playing, of advancing the song, and also, for the first time, showing that music is the common language of these two differing cultures. This to me could not have been accomplished as strongly, as dramatically, if I the actor couldn’t actually play the violin, and play it live in that moment. The scene would be less without it. The musical instrument takes the storytelling to that next level. And the need for an actor/musician here is essential.
While I feel the appreciation of this form is not fully here yet, I do believe it’s coming. And I believe that The Band’s Visit will be part of the journey of bringing greater prominence, specificity, integrity and interest to musical instruments functioning in this way onstage. In a story about music, about instruments, about a culture defined by its music and poetry, it is only common sense to make sure that the instruments are a big part of the statement - but how you use them within that form is everything.
They are utilized here by me, the actor/musician, on violin, and also four extraordinary onstage musicians: Harvey Valdes on Oud & Guitar; Garo Yellin on Cello; Sam Sadigursky on Clarinet, Sax & Flute; and Ossama Farouk on Darbuka. Together, we five performers play several standalone instrumental music sections, including a full out concert at the close the piece.
Where The Band’s Visit will truly be remembered in its contribution to this form is in two ways: the use of musical improvisation through instruments as a major function of storytelling, (including the aforementioned violin solo in “Beat of Your Heart”), and also the use of three scenes entirely constructed of instrumental music. Scenes that stand on their own and are not meant as background or transition pieces. But rather, instances of whole songs being played instrumentally as a part of the show’s core scenes. And in these instrumental scenes, a story is told. A wordless story that moves the night forward, and also the action of the play. In them the players develop and change, and so does the atmosphere.
This piece is already leaving its mark in expanding the thought of what can stand alone in a production. So let’s use this show and other form expanding works as our inspiration as we continue to explore the countless possibilities in how we tell stories in the theatre.