As he sat in the Ethel Barrymore Theater on Broadway watching a preview performance of “The Band’s Visit” a few years ago, Joe Joseph came to a quick realization.
“I thought: ‘Man, I would love to be part of this show. I’m gonna do anything and everything I can to be part of it,” Joseph, a Southfield native, says by phone. And now he is.
After a brief tenure with the Broadway cast Joseph is part of the first national touring company of the musical, which won 10 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, in 2018. The story of a band of Egyptian musicians that winds up in the wrong town in Israel — the small desert village of Bet Hatikva — and its brief adventures there, it’s a critically acclaimed fusion of pathos and joy and unexpected human connections adapted from a 2007 film by Israeli writer/director Eran Kolirin.
Its success — which also includes a Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album and a Daytime Emmy Award for the cast’s visit to NBC’s “Today” show — has been surprising, even to an avowed fan like Joseph.
“I thought it would close in a month,” Joseph, 32, who plays Haled — an adventurous and curious younger member of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra troupe — says with a laugh. His second cousin, George Abud, played the part of Camal on Broadway. “It’s too specific, too adult, too frank and earnest about emotional experiences people have. For a musical it seems kind of radical in its simplicity. But maybe all of that is why people love it so much.”
For Joseph, meanwhile, “The Band’s Visit” has been the next rung in a career he did not imagine until he was studying at the University of Michigan.
A “very introverted, shy kid” into his adolescence, Joseph grew up in a family that fused Syrian-Lebanese, northern Italian and Polish Hungarian cultures. “It was a big mix,” he notes. “My mother’s family is a big, goofy group of creative, intelligent individuals — music lovers, art lovers. I was exposed to theater, film, popular music.” His early theater experiences of him included attending live stage productions of “Les Miserables” and “Jersey Boys” along with watching MGM and Rogers and Hammerstein musicals on television with his grandmother of him.
Continuing a family tradition of attending University of Detroit Jesuit High School, Joseph made his own stage debut at Mercy High School in Farmington Hills after his sister convinced him to try out for a part in “The King and I.” “She said: ‘Do a play at Mercy, ’cause there will be girls,’ which was an exciting opportunity,” Joseph acknowledges. “When you’re that young, it’s as much about the social element as it is about the art. But you learn so much about how to be a performer, how to be a person, how to be really gracious and make that collaborative experience of really theater work…that was so valuable.”
Joseph double majored in theater, including script writing, and communications at UM, “with no idea what the hell I was going to do. I ultimately realized theater brought me the most fulfillment and challenged me the most.” Graduating in 2012, he went to work as a literary associate at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Connecticut with the intention of being a playwright. “After a period of time the thing I found most fulfilling was acting,” he recalls. “I would have to throw myself into it and give myself no other option than to really risk it.”
Joseph moved back to Detroit, taking roles at Greenfield Village and the Ringwald Theater in Ferndale. I moved to New York in 2013, with a suitcase and $1,000, and “never really looked back.” He started off in a one-act play festival there before finding roles in Off-Broadway productions of “Merrily We Roll Along,” “Loveless Texas” and “Baghdaddy.” He was invited to join the Broadway cast of “The Band’s Visit” in 2019, not long before it closed that April, but was on board for the tour, which began two months later and, of course, was taken off the road when theaters shut down during the pandemic.
But there was no question Joseph would return once touring resumed, and he remains as enthused with the musical now as he was when he first saw it from the audience — and excited at the prospect of performing it at home.
“It’s totally surreal,” says Joseph, who recorded a version of “Haled’s Song About Love” for a solo EP he’s released. “It’s been years since I’ve been there. Obviously I feel a bit of distance now from the Detroit metro, but I was there during the pandemic so in many ways I feel closer to it than ever. It’s like coming full circle, and my family has been waiting to hear when the show is coming to Detroit, so this will be special.”
“The Band’s Visit” runs Tuesday, April 19 through May 1 at the Fisher Theatre, 3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit. $35 and up. 313-872-1000 or broadwayindetroit.com.