How Ari’el Stachel Is Expanding Middle Eastern Visibility on Broadway (Exclusive)
By Leigh Scheps
The stage door opens and, just as Ari’el Stachel is about to leave the Ethel Barrymore Theatre for the night, a young girl throws her arms around him for a hug to say ‘Thank you.’ “I feel like myself, but then realize I’m having this seismic impact on [her life], and it’s tremendous,” the 26-year-old tells ET of the response from audiences for his Broadway debut as Haled, one of the Egyptian police band members who gets stranded in a remote Israeli town in The Band’s Visit.
A year and half ago, Stachel, who’s had small roles on Blue Bloods and Jessica Jones, was on his couch waiting for the phone to ring with any acting job offer. After seven rounds of auditions within nine months, he landed the part in The Band’s Visit, which first premiered Off-Broadway at the Atlantic Theatre in November 2016 before transferring to Broadway this fall. The musical, based on the 2007 Israeli film of the same name, features a standout cast led by Tony Shalhoub and Katrina Lenk (Indecent). Directed by David Cromer, the show features music and lyrics by three-time Tony Award nominee David Yazbek with a book by Itamar Moses.
Stachel was the second-to-last actor to be cast in the show, two months before rehearsals began. “Fate sort of has a say in this,” he reflects. “I was so close to so many jobs. For this to be my Broadway debut really means something other than my own control led to this being the role I was supposed to play.”
At the beginning of The Band’s Visit, Haled is seen as a Chet Baker-loving “ladies’ man” -- very flirtatious and a bit arrogant. But he ends up helping Papi (Etai Benson) -- one of the Israeli townspeople he encounters -- pick up a woman he admires. “I think people really like being able to see the confident guy crack open and be vulnerable,” Stachel says of his character, who enjoys a standout moment with the number “Haled’s Song About Love.” “That’s what is resonating. We don’t get to see someone like that be selfless, empathic and caring.”
To prepare for the role, Stachel was one of many in the show who traveled to Israel for a deeper understanding of the fictional desolate town where the characters find themselves lost. “You look out and all you see is desert. Now, when I look out [at the audience], I have a very specific image of what the desert looks, feels, tastes and smells like, and I think that’s extremely helpful to make nuances in my performance stand out a little more.”
Baker is also of significant importance for Haled, who plays the trumpet in the band. Admittedly, Stachel didn’t know anything about the late jazz legend before taking the part, but now he can’t stop listening to Baker’s music. While running at the gym or before the show starts, Stachel puts on one of his records, which is what he believes Haled would have done on his plane ride to Israel. “I am finding things that are making it feel authentic and true as opposed to informative,” he says of embodying Haled eight shows a week.
Stachel, whose father is Yemenite Israeli and mother is Ashkenazi, got into acting never thinking that he could play a Middle Eastern character on Broadway “because there weren’t roles [like that] in musical theater,” he says. But watching Lin-Manuel Miranda during a performance of In the Heights at 17 years old at least gave him a connection to a world that didn’t necessarily reflect him onstage. “I thought this is what I relate to because hip-hop is sort of the language of my generation growing up.”
But now that The Band’s Visit is a hit on Broadway, Stachel has a “pinch me” attitude with his head held tall and proud. “This very moment might be one of the one of the great highlights of my life, but the personal and cultural moments are more significant, and I don’t know if I’ll ever get that experience again,” he says, revealing he used to be afraid of his identity, growing up in a post-9/11 world. “Middle Eastern people were being increasingly stigmatized and so I carried a lot of shame. This role has allowed me to fully embrace myself as a Middle Eastern American person.”
Appreciative of this opportunity for visibility, Stachel hopes “this starts the conversation of Middle Eastern Americans to really be specific and prideful about their unique backgrounds” as he continues to get more messages of support and inspiration on social media and meet fans. “Kids from the Middle East are saying, ‘I now see this new outlet for me,’” he says.
While admittedly shocked (and honored) by all the attention and praise, the actor has learned one major thing about himself and this career-making moment: “It certainly reinforces for me the idea working from a place of authenticity and truth is the way to go,” Stachel says.