Katrina Lenk is quickly cementing herself as one of Broadway’s premier leading ladies.
Directly following her scene-stealing role in last year’s critically acclaimed play, Indecent, Lenk is back on Broadway this season with The Band’s Visit. Based on the 2007 Israeli film of the same, the musical is composed by David Yazbek (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) and features a book by Itamar Moses. It tells the story of an Egyptian Police Band who, after a mix-up at the border, are sent to a remote village in the middle of the Israeli desert. As these travelers get to know the locals that they’re stranded with overnight, what results is a beautiful character study about the deeply human ways that music, longing and laughter can connect us all.
Prior to its Broadway opening last November, The Band’s Visit debuted Off-Broadway. That production was decorated in accolades. Highlights included winning the 2017 Obie Award for Musical Theatre, the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Musical, the Outer Critics Circle Awards for Outstanding New Off-Broadway Musical, the Drama Desk Awards for Outstanding Director, Outstanding Lyrics and Outstanding Music, and the Lucille Lortel Awards for Outstanding Musical and Outstanding Lead Actress in a Musical (for Lenk). Now, as this year’s Tony Awards season is gearing up, there is a lot of buzz for both the Broadway production and specifically for Lenk.
Lenk and I spoke about working onThe Band’s Visit, how traveling to Israel impacted her creative journey, the night that the Clinton family saw the show, her musical theater bucket list, and more.
ALEX NAGORSKI: How influential was the original Israeli film in your creative process? What did you take away or choose to leave behind from it while discovering your interpretation of your character, Dina?
KATRINA LENK: Eran Kolirin’s film is extraordinary. I didn’t know of it beforehand, so when the audition came in, I watched it to get an idea of tone, style, dialect, etc., and became immediately enamored with it and with Ronit Elkabetz (the actress who played Dina). I only watched it one other time (maybe during callbacks); otherwise, there’d be the great temptation of just duplicating what I loved so much. There are several points in our show where we pay homage to the film, which makes me very happy.
What other forms of Israeli and/or Egyptian pop culture did you study in preparation for taking on this role?
This is still an ongoing process, which is marvelously delightful to my nerdy self. I’ve been watching Israeli films (there are so many available on Amazon!), obsessing over Israeli TV shows like Foudaand Srugim, reading Israeli fiction (particularly Etgar Keret), listening to Israeli talk radio, Israeli singers (like Yael Naim and Idan Raichel) and learning what Hebrew I can. I also watched the Egyptian movie, River of Love, other Omar Sharif films, (again, thank you internet!), and have been learning about Oum Khulthoum and Arabic music. My brilliant castmate, George Abud, has been teaching me some Oum Khulthoum and Farid songs, and about the form and traditions of classical Arabic music. It just keeps going and going – what a pleasure!
Have you ever personally been to Israel? If so, how did this trip influence your approach to the show?
American Airlines sponsored a trip to Israel with some of the cast and creative team just before we started rehearsals, which was an incredible privilege. I was already geeking out about the place, so to get to go there, stand on the sand in the Negev desert, feel the sun, the heat, the wind, eat that food, and be among the people, hanging out, sharing music and stories with them – what a gift! It was an experience, and from experience comes deeper understanding, deeper empathy, and deeper respect. It made me fall even more in love. I hope that I have a deeper and richer well to pull from and to create from because of this trip – even though saying that makes me acutely aware that I don’t really know anything, truly. But I hope every little bit of information I gather adds to the well, somehow.
One of your solos, “Omar Sharif,” has been widely heralded as the musical’s biggest showstopper. The New York Daily Newseven recently wrote,“The greatest singer on Broadway today is Katrina Lenk, and the greatest song written for the stage in decades is ‘Omar Sharif’”. What do you think it is about this song that has made it resonate with critics and audiences at such a grand scale?
Oh man! I don’t know that I agree with one half of that statement, but the other half—yes, indeed, I think “Omar Sharif” is an exquisite song. Yazbek. Yazbek. Yazbek. Yazbek. The song has a deceptive simplicity and such a pleasing, swirling melody. It sounds familiar somehow, but then goes some place unexpected. Even now after singing it many times, I’m still delighted and surprised by the little shifts happening in it. I’m thrilled people are responding to it. I’m thrilled I get to sing it. “Thrilled” isn’t a good enough word. I also salute our brilliant orchestrator, Jamshied Sharifi, who made these songs come alive so beautifully, using Arabic instruments like the oud and darbuka, and our soulful and ridiculously talented musicians. And Andrea Grody, our musical director, whose sensitivity and keen ear make all of this come together.
The cast recording recently became available via Ghostlight Records. What was it like translating Yazbek’s music and lyrics from the stage to the studio? And did these recording sessions impact how you perform on stage?
We are all so happy to get to share this beautiful music with people! It was quite exciting to get to record these songs, to get to hear all the music, all the parts and all the voices up close and in my ears. Witnessing everyone working together in the studio on something they all love is … well, it got me in the ol’ cockles. It was a wonderful thing to be a part of. It all happened very quickly right after we opened, and now seems so long ago. I’d say they don’t necessarily impact how I perform on stage. But every once in a while, a tiny thought will pop in my head that says, “There are people in the audience who might know this song!” And how amazing is THAT?
How have both the show and your character evolved from the Off-Broadway production to the version now playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre?
Well, it’s a bit difficult to talk about a show while you’re inside of it, but people who saw both productions have said it’s like a fully bloomed version of the small blossom that was Off-Broadway. The set has expanded and the band has expanded. We’ve tightened up and clarified things. The story and the world is both bigger and more specific.
You were also part of the original Off-Broadway and Broadway casts of the play, Indecent, which closed just three months before The Band’s Visit opened. What was it like working on these two vastly different productions back-to-back?
Getting to work was AMAZING. Getting to work again was INCREDIBLE. Getting to work on two shows in a row that you love was HEAD EXPLODING, WHAT THE HELL AM I DREAMING?!
What has been the highlight of your experience acting opposite Tony Shalhoub (who plays your love interest) in the show?
I can safely say that every moment acting opposite Tony Shalhoub is a highlight. He is generous and funny and disciplined and truthful and present and vulnerable and still is searching and wondering and playing. Plus, he drinks my whiskey. We’re friends for life.
Recently, Hillary, Bill and Chelsea Clinton came to see the show. Did you know that they would be in the audience that night? What words did you exchange to one another backstage afterwards?
I think I blacked out! Words came out of my mouth but I don’t what they were. Hillary was saying something warm and funny and then Bill was making a joke about Chet Baker, and I was smiling so hard that I couldn’t see. Thank god there are photos – otherwise, did it even happen? I don’t know.
As an independent musician, you tackle all sorts of genres as a violist, vocalist, songwriter,arranger, and producer. How would you define yourself as a solo artist?
You’ve guest-starred on numerous television shows, including Will &Grace, Elementary, The Good Fight, and recent Golden Globe-winner, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. As an actor, is the stage or the screen your preferred medium and why?
I like them each for their own qualities. Both mediums scare and challenge me. I like the process of theater, the group discovery effort of rehearsal, and the parameters and immediacy of a live performance. On screen, I relish the careful attention to detail, subtlety, reality and the kind of expansiveness that can happen. And I realize as I’m saying this that all of those qualities are also what I like about doing The Band’s Visit. It feels a lot like acting for the camera while also on stage.
On your days off, what’s something you love to do to recharge before another 8-show week?
Usually, I spend the day catching up on all the chores I haven’t done. You know – romance and glamour. I also do love going see friend’s shows when I can. It’s a great pleasure watching people I love do what they love.
Having already originated two Broadway roles in the span of just two years, what are some other items on your theatrical bucket list that you hope to check off?
Bucket list?! Oh dear. I don’t have a list. I love creating things and telling stories so I just want to create more things and tell more stories … and I guess I need a bucket!