Alex Farha never thought he would be in a Broadway musical. The musician, who moved from Miami to Chicago in 2010, recently joined the national tour of “The Band’s Visit.”
Based on the 2007 Israeli movie of the same name, the Broadway musical “The Band’s Visit” follows the story of a group of Egyptian musicians who mistakenly wind up in a small, off-the-path town in the-middle-of-nowhere Israel. With no place to stay, the band must take refuge in the homes of the townspeople.
In a clash of cultures and belief systems, the musical ensues as a number of the Israeli townspeople and the Egyptian musicians spend a night getting to know one another.
“The Band’s Visit” is the 2018 winner of 10 Tony Awards, including best musical. The show is currently in Chicago for its national tour and will be playing at the Cadillac Palace Theatre (151 W. Randolph St.) through Sept. 15.
Farha chatted with The Phoenix about the show’s universal themes, the excitement of touring and the appreciation he feels for the production.
As a swing, Farha doesn’t perform every night, but he often steps in when needed for the role of a musician, much like an understudy. In most musicals, the actors stay onstage while the orchestra remains in the pit, but “The Band’s Visit” is unique in that the musicians go back and forth between the stage and the pit throughout the show.
A graduate of Florida International University where he studied music, Farha said he had very little experience with musical theatre prior to his involvement with “The Band’s Visit.” The 40-year-old musician said he was pulled into the show due to his knowledge of Arabic and Middle Eastern music, which he started studying at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music when he moved here in 2010.
“This sort of aligned with the music I’ve been studying for almost ten years now,” Farha said. “It just so happened they were looking for someone who could play oud and darbuka and riq and they reached out to me and it worked out. So this is my first experience touring and being part of such a big musical theater production.”
Farha’s expertise in the oud, darbuka and riq — Middle Eastern instruments comparable to guitar, drum and tambourine, respectively — were what made him an exceptional fit for a string and percussion swing in the show.
“A lot of times, big musicals will hire locals and that makes sense for some pretty common instruments,” Farha said. “But this show had a unique challenge in that it needed somebody to cover a lot of bases, and the oud is not the most common instrument in the U.S.”
The show is full of mystifying, romantic songs, such as the soothing, lullaby-esque “Omar Sharif.” Farha said it’s his favorite song in the show, and he loves strumming along with his nylon-string guitar.
Farha also said he resonated with the show’s themes of connections and common struggles between strangers.
“It’s the idea that no matter if you’re in a strange land, people are kind of the same everywhere,” Farha said. “I think that’s one of the appeals of the show in general, that everybody can immediately recognize your everyday sort of problems and issues that people face, which is why I think it’s such a successful show.”
The national tour of “The Band’s Visit” began with rehearsals in New York City but opened in Providence, Rhode Island. The tour has since made stops in Washington, D.C., Charlotte, North Carolina and played in Greenville, South Carolina through Sept. 1. Farha said touring has its challenges, but he’s still in the honeymoon phase of it all.
“On this tour they really take care of you,” Farha said. “We’re all excited and the casting is really great.”
According to Farha, his fellow cast member — Ronnie Malley, who plays Camal — helped him land the position. The pair knew each other from the Old Town School of Folk Music, where Malley taught Farha to play the oud. As a swing, Farha now steps in for his former teacher on occasion, but he said he hasn’t forgotten what it’s like to be a student.
“Keep practicing and working on your craft, always, because you never know when someone’s going to come knocking on your door asking you to do something,” Farha said. “If you would have told me a year ago I’d be on tour playing with a Broadway percussion, I’d have been like, ‘No. That’s crazy.’”
“The Band’s Visit” is playing at the Cadillac Palace Theatre through Sept. 15. Tickets start at $39 and are available for sale at the box office or online.