Behind the Scenes with James Rana from The Band’s Visit
Lisa Condit spoke with James Rana from The Band’s Visit about the state of Broadway post-COVID, the history of the show and more! Read on for highlights from the interview, or listen to the full interview below. Tune in to Talk of the Commonwealth with Hank Stolz on WCRN 830AM Fridays at 9 AM and Saturdays at 1 PM for more behind-the-scenes interviews.
Lisa: Thank you all for listening to Behind the Scenes at The Hanover Theatre. I am thrilled to be here today with James Rana and he is a big part of The Band’s Visit. James, your resume is very impressive! I see that you’re returning to the national tour of the Tony® Award-winning musical The Band’s Visit, you’re nominated in the Best Actor category for Broadway World New Jersey for your portrayal of Ambrose Bierce in Nothing Matters and you’ve had some really great roles. Tell us what this has been like for you, and welcome to Behind the Scenes at The Hanover Theatre!
James: Thank you, Lisa. It’s a real pleasure to be interviewed by you and to be on this program. It’s very exciting to finally be bringing the show to Massachusetts.
Lisa: For sure! We were so excited for it to come a year ago and then in the fall. COVID has played a tricky part in everybody’s future these last couple years. At the same time, sometimes it feels like COVID is still swarming around us, so we take safety measures really seriously. Tell us a little bit about some of the things that you and the cast have been able to do to stay safe.
James: It has been very, very nerve wracking and very concerning for everyone. It’s been less than a year since we’ve returned and we went back into rehearsals in September. Our union, Actors Equity, has been extremely vigilant, especially working with the Broadway League on keeping actors and stage management safe. All shows have a COVID safety manager; we have a COVID safety warrior and her name is Toni. I don’t know what we would do without her. She is in charge of keeping eyes on all the testings, keeping track of everything, being in constant communication and constantly reminding us to be vigilant because one little thing could affect everyone around us. Knock on wood, we haven’t had to cancel a single performance. We also have fantastic understudies who are ready and the understudies have saved all life including performing arts, Broadway, Off-Broadway and regional national tours. This has been the year of the understudy.
Lisa: Which is an amazing opportunity when you think about it. COVID has brought many things to light for us such as ways that we can be more efficient, more vigilant about our health and protecting others. I’m thrilled that you’ll be coming to The Hanover Theatre June 16 – 19. I was doing some digging about The Band’s Visit because it’s got to be great if it won 10 Tony® Awards, right? I knew that this was based on a film but the film, The Band’s Visit, scored a Grammy® for Best Musical Theater album in 2019. That is so recent and that is why I think some people aren’t sure what The Band’s Visit is all about. Tell us a little bit about that and what you think makes the touring production of The Band’s Visit so fantastic?
James: Yes, I was part of the Broadway company. I’m the longest running member of The Band’s Visit, so I was there at the Tony® Awards ceremony and watched it all. The original Broadway company also won an Emmy® for their live performance on “The Today Show.” It is such a beautiful story and some people are excited because they’ve been long-time fans of the movie. Then there’s people who are like, “I’ve been hearing about this, I love Middle Eastern music and I’ve never seen the movie,” and they also get to have a great experience. The film is from 2007, written and directed by Eran Kolirin. The star of the film is Sasson Gabai, who went on to take over the part of Tewfiq on Broadway, the role he created, and he’s back with us on the national tour.
Lisa: That’s amazing!
James: Yes! It’s a testament that when there’s something that means so much to an actor like Sasson, who’s an international star and very busy, he said, “I am not ready to say goodbye to the story.” I get to travel the country with Sasson, with a wonderful company of extraordinary actors, crew and management.
Telling this beautiful story about people from different cultures who come together helps us realize that in the midst of all differences, we have human connections and things that bring us together.James Rana
James: It’s beautiful. I talked to audience members who were overjoyed. I talked to members in the audience who had moments that really touched them, and I’ve spoken to people who cried. It’s not always a bad thing to cry!
Lisa: No, it’s a great thing. What are some of those experiences that people have shared with you that have moved them in The Band’s Visit?
James: The greatest experience was actually on Broadway. Pre-COVID I used to be able to really talk to the audiences at the stage door. I spoke to a woman who was there by herself, and she spoke to me about how much the show meant to her. She used to see it Off-Broadway a lot with her mother. Her mother passed away, and she showed me her necklace that had her mother’s wedding ring on it. I asked her, “How are you dealing with this grief?” She said, “I’m seeing a lot of theatre.”
Lisa: That’s very powerful, isn’t it?
James: It truly is. I’m so honored that she chose to see our show and that it meant something to her.
Lisa: As I confessed before, I haven’t actually seen the show which is one of the reasons I’m so excited to see it. I think one of the most fun parts about this is that you end up in the wrong place because you mispronounce the name of the place you’re going by one letter. What is the name of the town you’re mispronouncing, and what’s the correct way to say it?
James: We want to go to Petah Tikva. Unfortunately in the Egyptian language, the letter “P” is rather difficult and it sounds more like “B.” So, we say “Beit Hatikva” and we go to the wrong town.
Lisa: Not just the wrong town, but you go to the middle of the desert instead. We’re from Worcester, Massachusetts, so we know all about mispronouncing town names.
James: I lived in Providence, Rhode Island for three years, so we know all about Worcester! I’m very excited to go back to Worcester.
Lisa: Yes! Let’s go over some of the 10 Tony® Awards: Best Musical, Direction, Orchestration, Sound Design, Book and Score, Lighting and Featured Actor. That’s quite the list of accomplishments. You were talking about bringing it from Broadway to tour, so what are some of those special moments on tour for people like me who haven’t seen the show before? What’s going to blow us away when we see it?
James: I want to add that we also won Best Actress and Actor in a musical. The only nomination that we did not win was for Best Set Design. The brilliant Scott Pask was also nominated that year! He did the set design for Mean Girls, which is a completely different show than The Band’s Visit.
Lisa: We actually have Mean Girls on our Broadway season next year! That’ll be an interesting comparison for our subscribers to see the difference there.
James: There’s moments, especially the opening, where people in the audience are like, “What exactly is happening?” Unlike most musicals, we start with silence which is anti-musical. We don’t have these big dance numbers; we start with silence and the audience slowly gets in. We have a whole scene in a roller rink! I’m so excited to be coming to The Hanover Theatre and I’ve always wanted to go to The Hanover Theatre. I’ve seen photos of your production of A Christmas Carol every year and it excites me, I’ve always wanted to be in it.
Lisa: I’ll let Troy know!
James: In most shows, the musicians are in the pit, but we have most of them on stage performing live in-costume with some of them playing Middle Eastern instruments. Some people will be looking or listening to Middle Eastern music for the first time, such as the oud, which is the Middle Eastern form of the guitar and the darbuka, which is the drum. It is extraordinary.
Lisa: That’s incredible. Tell us a little bit about your character!
James: I play the character of Simon. He’s one of the longest running members of the band, which is the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra. He is a clarinetist and he’s technically second-in-command to Tewfiq Zakaria. He has two dreams; he wants to conduct the band. He’s always like, “Maybe I could do a little conducting,” but he keeps on getting knocked over. His other dream involves his clarinet with a concerto, but he’s never really done anything with it. I remember talking with our director, David Cromer, years ago in an understudy rehearsal on Broadway. I said, “David, these are like people who have been working on their novel for 15 years,” and he said, “Yes, and they don’t want to read it to anyone!”
Lisa: They’re so attached to it and they don’t want to hear anything criticizing their baby. What happens with the clarinet and this piece of music that he’s working on?
James: Something beautiful happens because the band gets stuck there in the town. They have to spend the night and he ends up staying in the apartment of a young married couple with an infant, named Itzik and Iris. It’s not the best time for them to have a guest; it’s her birthday, they’re going through marital issues, there’s a lot of tension and out of nowhere, there’s someone staying in their apartment. It’s not his fault, but it’s not the time to have a guest. There’s a moment people come together and I’m happy to say that the music brings them together.
Lisa: That’s a common theme for this show, isn’t it? That music is what can bring people together. Even when they don’t share language, they share that language of music.
James: Yeah! I learned the clarinet part from my phone. I learned the track for the show and I’ve really studied music. What’s extraordinary about musicians is when there’s a bunch of them in a room together, even if they’ve never met each other, they’ll start jamming and creating some beautiful stuff.
Music is this language that surpasses all spoken languages and it’s beautiful and inspiring.James Rana
Lisa: Do you and the other band members sometimes jam when you’re on the road and on tour?
James: I don’t think I’m good enough to, but I love listening. They have actually started their own side group called The Visitors. If it works out with the schedule and there’s a venue or festival, they have a whole line-up of music to play. It’s been great to be there and I’ve opened for them. It’s great.
Lisa: James, it has been so fantastic talking to you. I’m looking forward to The Band’s Visit coming to The Hanover Theatre June 16 – 19. We want to thank our presenting sponsor The Club at Rockland Trust for making this possible for us here at The Hanover Theatre. Is there anything else you want to tell people before we have to part ways?
James: I want people that are listening and thinking about seeing the show to remember that this may be your last chance to see The Band’s Visit. Please don’t hesitate! It is 100 minutes and it’s going to be a wonderful 100 minutes. It’s beautiful, and I wouldn’t have been with the show for over 1,100 performances if I didn’t still feel this emotion and so moved by it. I want the audience to experience that as well. Please come, you’re going to have a fantastic time!
Lisa: Absolutely. Tickets are available at TheHanoverTheatre.org where we have some great seats available for our Sunday evening performance. James, thank you so much for your time today and I’m looking forward to seeing you here in Worcester! We’re looking forward to seeing the whole cast of The Band’s Visit. This is the only Massachusetts play of this 10 Tony® Award-winning musical, and we’re so proud to be hosting you here.