by Pomme Koch
I’d like to think that each track I cover in The Band's Visit is an exclusive club comprised of only two members: the actor I cover, and myself. I say “I’d like to think” because a) each role is covered by at least two understudies and b) nobody else thinks this.
There are, however, things that can only be learned by actually stepping into a role; consequential details and surprising quirks that no amount of note-taking from the wings will prepare you for. As I’ve stumbled upon these nuances in performance and rehearsals, I’ve developed a newfound admiration for the actors who have played these characters hundreds of times. This is my tribute to the eight brilliantly talented men who haunt my actor’s nightmares.
1) Adam Kantor, “Telephone Guy”
This role involves over 30 minutes per show of standing perfectly still and staring at a light. Honestly, I get panic attacks if the subway stalls between stations for more than 30 seconds, so this one is always a bit of an uphill mental battle for me—(Note to casting directors: don’t call me in for shows where you have to be on stage the whole time unless my character gets a bathroom break or a Xanax). As of this writing, Adam has done more than 200 shows, clocking in at over 100 HOURS now of standing stock-still. I’m actually sweating as I type this. What isn’t evident from the audience is the strain this puts on one’s calves and back. The first time Adam came back to the theatre after having been gone for a two show day, I complained to him for five minutes straight about how sore I was before remembering that he has to do eight shows a week. But he doesn’t complain. Ever.
The icing on the cake of this role is that at the end of the whole thing, you have to sing one of the most difficult songs I’ve ever encountered in my life. Oh, and no pressure, but it’s the emotional apex of the piece and the moment that most audience members report as the straw that broke the camel’s back of their tear ducts. Adam nails the song every show, and once he even managed to do it at 8:00 A.M. on The Today Show while I was in bed scrolling through Instagram stories with one eye open.
2) John Cariani, “Itzik”
I was sitting in a restaurant on Ninth Avenue three years ago when I spotted a tall, lanky man outside. “Holy sh*t,” I said, “That’s John Cariani!” I had seen John a few weeks earlier in SOMETHING ROTTEN! and I was completely starstruck. John’s one of those rare actors whose voice, body, and essence meet in some magical combination that’s even greater than the sum of their parts. He’s so good he makes me want to quit.
Cut to 2017 when I learned I’d not only be in the same cast as him, but I was going to be his understudy, and there are few moments in my career when I’ve felt prouder.
Purely from an acting perspective, John’s is my most challenging and rewarding track. On the one hand, his delivery is so unique that if I simply run with the choices he’s made I’ll end up just doing a bad John Cariani impression. On the other hand, after over 200 shows the performance seems definitive.
I went on for John at the last minute back in April, and after a couple performances Itzik had become my favorite part. I learned that as long as I had the courage not to reach for every laugh John gets, and as long as I could stop being a fan of his for just 90 minutes, I would be left simply with Itamar Moses’ sparse and beautiful dialogue, generous and open for inhabitation. At the time of this writing I’m two days away from taking over the role for a week while John is on vacation, and looking after his creation will be both an honor and a joy.
3) Bill Army, “Zelger”
I hate Bill Army. Well, that’s not true. I absolutely love Bill Army. He’s my dressing roommate and has become one of my most indispensable friends in the cast. But I also hate Bill Army, and here’s why: have you seen the film version of THE BAND’S VISIT? There’s a scene in a roller rink, and the skating is pretty simple. They move their legs back and forth and go in small circles. Now, our version is a Broadway musical and naturally the team was going to capitalize on a roller disco scene, but there’s nothing that says it has to be Xanadu.
But they cast Bill Army as Zelger, and he happens to be a preternaturally gifted skater who’s spent half his life with eight wheels strapped to his feet. And the only problem there is that Mr. Army needs understudies, and I happen to be one of those understudies.
And this, ladies and gentlemen, is how the least athletic individual on Broadway—someone whose mother put him in improv classes instead of little league and whose favorite sport is badminton—ended up at a skating rink in Harlem last summer with a Russia-sized bruise on his ass, teaching himself to roller skate. I hate Bill Army.
4. Jonathan Raviv, “Sammy”
I just completed my first full week filling in for Jonathan and I walked away with a newfound respect for the character and his arc. First of all, you’ve got to scream at Katrina Lenk in front of 1,000 people. Also, you have to be screamed at by Katrina Lenk in front of 1,000 people. Did you see the Tonys? Would you want those eyes to scowl at you? As soon as she starts glaring you really just want to apologize and walk away.
This role to me epitomizes the “There’s no small roles, only small actors” axiom. Jonathan’s not in every scene, but he’s in a couple pretty damn important ones. And it wasn’t until I stepped into the role that I realized how much of a gold mine the contrast between two of his major scenes are and how much opportunity they provide. I can’t give away more than that without ruining the plot (the word “plot” used lightly when applied to our show), but it’s worth paying special attention to the different notes Jonathan gets to strike when he’s on stage.