The many voices of Arab-American actor Tony Shalhoub
It’s always a little startling to hear Tony Shalhoub talk in his regular voice. After all, he spends so much time onstage and on-screen trying on other peoples’ accents.
The Emmy winner has played Germans, Greeks, Hispanics and Russians and even a space alien in the “Men in Black” films.
On Broadway in “Act One,” he actually played three characters – one with a Cockney accent, one with just a hint of a British accent and one who was an urbane Northeasterner.
He’s often gravitated toward Italian parts, playing immigrants from that country in the film “Big Night” and “Golden Boy” onstage and a Fiat 500 in “Cars.” And for eight seasons, he adopted a weird Maine-Italian dialect on “Wings” that even he’s not sure about. “Let’s just say it was a bit of a hybrid,” he says.
So it’s no wonder that Shalhoub re-emerges on Broadway on Thursday in “The Band’s Visit ” with a military uniform, a moustache – and a luxurious Egyptian accent. How his character sounds is one of the first things he works on.
“It’s something that, for me, really helps to find the inner life of the character, the more I work on that sound,” he says. “And it helps me get to the core of the person.”
Shalhoub plays the stiff leader of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, which is booked to play a concert at the Israeli city of Petah Tikvah but accidentally ends up in the drowsy town of Bet Hatikva. Over the next few hours, the townspeople and the musicians learn about each other and themselves.
The musical is based on a 2007 Israeli film of the same name, and has terrific songs by David Yazbek and a touching, sardonic story by Itamar Moses. It’s a hazy, adult and beautiful show. The creators said it’s the closest a Broadway audience can get to a lovely mirage.
“There’s not a lot of flash and dash and screaming and people throwing things. It’s not your typical Broadway musical because it doesn’t have that sort of size and extravaganza of noise and colour,” says Shalhoub, perhaps best known for his role as an obsessive-compulsive detective on television’s “Monk.”
“But it’s one of those things that just kind of sneaks up on you – the music is haunting, the characters are kind of mysterious, and sometimes funny. There’s sparseness to it but it’s completely engaging. It has all of these elements working for it and, for an actor, it’s sort of irresistible.”
Though the musical has Egyptian Muslim characters entering an Israeli settlement, there’s no mention of the Arab-Israeli crisis or global politics. Shalhoub says that’s quite energising.
“It really does try to steer clear of politics and that’s so refreshing nowadays since we’re bombarded and assaulted by politics at every turn,” he says. “This, I believe, becomes a welcome break from that and a glimpse at what our lives might look like if we’re not consumed by all of the divisiveness and backbiting and sniping and one-upping that occurs today.”
Shalhoub, who is Lebanese-American, grew up in a multicultural community ripe with accents in Green Bay, Wisconsin, hence his knack with dialects. He recalls imitating the sounds of Poles, Germans and Scandinavians as a kid.
“There was a wide array of accents. And then of course I was in the Midwest, which is full of all kinds of bizarre and interesting accents, even from town to town,” he says. “It was a true melting pot and so there was a collision of many, many sounds and voices coming at me. And somehow all that stuff stuck.”
Shalhoub, 64, might be employing his accent skills once again on Broadway but he’s also entering new territory since it’s his first musical – and he even delivers a tune entirely in Arabic.
Yazbek, who was stunned by Shalhoub in “Big Night,” said the actor was the first person he thought of when the musical was still a draft. “There was a shortlist. He was at the top of it for me,” Yazbek says. “There’s a reason why he does these disparate roles: They’re all challenges. And he knows he rises to a challenge.”
Shalhoub worked with Yazbek at a piano for about 45 minutes and the composer came away confident their leading man could swing it. “There are people who are musical and they don’t know it. It was very clear to me that he was one of those,” Yazbek says.
Shalhoub, who next will star in the series “The Marvelous Mrs Maisel” on Amazon, said he thinks it’s healthy for an actor to go into scary or unfamiliar areas.
“I discovered in doing so that I really don’t have a comfort zone. So that was a little bit of a revelation,” he said. “They speak a language I don’t understand.’ But I’m learning slowly and – I’m not sure ‘fun’ is the right word – it’s an adventure.”