The Band’s Visit, the Broadway musical that swept the Tony Awards this year, is widely praised for its authentic portrayal of Israel and its cast of Middle Eastern and Israeli actors.
We had the chance to speak with Sharone Sayegh, who originated the role of Anna in the show and is now understudying Dina (Katrina Lenk’s lead role).
Sayegh, who is of Israeli-Iraqi descent, spoke about the power of representation, her grandmother seeing her perform, and finding an Israeli community on Broadway.
How did you end up in The Band’s Visit?
The breakdown for auditions came out [around] three years ago for the off-Broadway run. I saw the breakdown, and I was like, oh my god this is an Israeli musical, I have to be in this. I messaged my agent, and [said], “I need to be in this, I need to get an appointment.”
Since it was such a new show, they were still trying to figure out the piece, and trying to figure out how they wanted to cast it. I wound up going in for three of the female roles, before they settled on casting me as Anna.
Something that our director David Cromer said, which was so sweet, was, “The minute we heard you sing, and we knew you were Israeli, we were like, oh, she’s in the show for sure. It’s just a matter of which role.”
Has your own identity impacted your experience with the show?
Both sides of my family, both [my] grandparents, were born in Iraq — one side from Baghdad, one side from Basra. They all moved to Israel in 1948, because they were forced out of Iraq. But my parents were both born in Israel, and I was born in L.A. So growing up, I always felt I was Israeli [and] Iraqi — that was like my family life — and then I had this kind of American identity growing up in Los Angeles with American friends. Even the whole Iraqi-Israeli part of my life was very different than my American Jewish friends who were Ashkenazi. So it kind of just felt like a separate thing: I had my family life — Israeli/Middle Eastern/Iraqi culture, food, music, that kind of stuff — then I had my American life with school and my friends.
My decision to go into theater was also kind compartmentalized into my American side, because of American musical theater and Broadway and all that. It wasn’t until during our off-Broadway rehearsals, one of the guys in the show, Ari [Ari’el Stachel], who plays Haled, his father is Yemenite Israeli, and he said something to me in Hebrew during a break about the show. And it was this strange moment for me where I [thought], woah, my two worlds are coming together. I’m speaking Hebrew to a friend, who is also Israeli-American, but it’s about musical theater, and it’s about this piece that we’re about to present in New York City, and I got emotional. My two worlds kind of came together for the first moment. They weren’t necessarily conflicting with each other before that moment, it’s just that they were never working in harmony, like they have been with the show.
What has your family’s reaction been to your role in the musical?
When I went on for Dina, one of my grandmothers, who still lives in Israel, who is 91, was able to come.
She’s never seen a Broadway show, and she’s never seen me perform in anything, not in my other Broadway shows. She flew with one of my sisters that lives in Israel. So she saw me for the first time perform, which was very cool. [It was also] the first time she was seeing a Broadway show. But it was set in Israel, and there’s Hebrew and Arabic, which she obviously both speaks and understands. And it was just like this crazy full circle moment!
So, not only do I love this show because I think it’s a beautiful piece of theater. But it’s also been incredibly exciting for me to represent Israel and the Middle East — and also just represent Israel and the Middle East with such human characters and not stereotypes about the region.
Have you found an Israeli community on Broadway?
I definitely hadn’t before this. A year and a half before The Band’s Visit started on Broadway, I did a workshop of a new musical that what also set in Israel. That’s when I first met Ari’el Stachel and Etai Benson. And the three of us met and were like woah! There are other American Israelis in musical theater! We became instantly so close, within a matter of a day or two.
And then we all started auditions for The Band’s Visit and met some other Israeli-Americans and other Middle Eastern actors in the city. The community of Middle Eastern and Israeli actors has definitely grown for me because of The Band’s Visit.
What was it was like playing Dina and stepping into Katrina Lenk’s shoes?
Yeah, so obviously, Katrina is incredible. And she’s a wonderful person and fellow cast member. She’s just really so sweet. The minute she found out that I was going to start understudying her, her immediate reaction was, “I can’t wait to see you play Dina. You’re going to be amazing.” Which was just the most lovely thing she could’ve said!
I tried to make the character my own but still honor what she has created, because it’s so beautiful. Luckily, our director, David Cromer, has been really wonderful in allowing me to make Dina my own. Other shows — it depends on the show, and it depends on the director — will expect you do exactly what the person you’re understudying does. And they just kind of want the same show. But some shows, they let you make it your own. So I was really grateful that this was one of the shows I got to make it my own. I think I brought more of my Israeli side to it. I think I was a little harsher at some moments, you know? [Laughs] It was really cool to be able to tell this story from another character’s lens.
How did playing Dina differ from the role you currently play?
When we were off broadway, I had this conversation with the director about why my character Anna exists, and what her purpose is in the storytelling of the piece is. And he said, aside from comic relief and whatnot, she’s really there to show who Dina used to be when she was younger.
You meet Dina, she’s this woman in early 40s, life has treated her roughly. She’s alone, she’s not very happy, and all these things. And she probably was Anna when she was in her 20s, and had all these big dreams and had a boyfriend she really liked and she thought her life was going to be awesome. If you fast-forward Anna[‘s life], Anna will probably marry Zelger, the guy she’s going on a date with, and they’ll probably have kind of a shitty marriage and get divorced, and Anna will probably end up like Dina in 20 years.
And [the director David] Cromer was saying, “We see Anna, and subconsciously we realize that’s what Dina used to be, which makes us feel even more for Dina.” So it’s actually been really cool to start this piece and play Anna, and then kinda play fast forward in my mind, and then portray, almost in a way, the same character, but in a different part of her life.
What do you think is the most important takeaway from The Band’s Visit?
It’s much easier to see yourself in someone who you think is different than you than you might think. I think in our world, we so easily put people in groups, and say, oh these people are different than me. These people are not the same as me because of the way they speak, the way they look, their religion, or whatever. I think we really are more alike than we are different, and I think that’s the beautiful message of this piece.
What has the response been from fellow Israelis/Middle Eastern people?
A lot of kids who are studying theater or dance or music that are Israeli or Middle Eastern, from that part of the world, have messaged me on Instagram and Facebook and [said], “I saw the show today and I loved it, I can’t believe I’m seeing myself on stage for the first time on Broadway. I feel so represented.”
I know how much I didn’t feel that when I was watching theater growing up. I feel so grateful that I get to be one of the people that gets to represent them. And I also feel so happy and proud that this is the piece [to do it].
What’s one thing you wish people knew about you?
The representation of my culture in The Band’s Visit has been amazing and beautiful. So I’m so grateful for it. But on the flip side, I would like — within our business — to be seen more for just me and my spirit and my storytelling ability and my talent, rather than my ethnicity alone.
Things are definitely changing within the entertainment industry, on how we perceive cultures and how we represent them, but for a long time, I’ve been put in this box of “other” or “Middle Eastern.” And so the only kinds of things I could audition for on TV was like “terrorist wife #2,” real stereotypes of the region. And so it’s wonderful The Band’s Visit is not portraying stereotypes of the region that has nothing to do with politics.
But, I’d love to just be cast in something as me. Not because of my name, not the way my hair is or my skin color is. I think our business is getting there — but it’s a slow process.
On that note, what’s your dream role?
I get this question a lot and it’s a really hard question for me to answer. I don’t really have one, because most roles I don’t really have access to because of my ethnicity.
I think for a long time my dream was to originate a role in a broadway musical and I’m really luckily doing that right now. So I think my next goal would be to originate an even bigger role.
But there isn’t an iconic [role] that’s been around for a long time that I’d like to do — I’d like to continue creating new work, changing the way we portray ethnicity and also portray women in theater and in musical theater.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Header Image: The Band’s Visit on Broadway, production shots by Matthew Murphy (via sharonesayegh.com)