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Tony Shalhoub milks Arab roots in new Broadway musical

Tony Shalhoub
NEW YORK: It is always a little startling to hear Lebanese-American Tony Shalhoub talk in his regular voice. After all, he spends so much time onstage and onscreen 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 is an urbane Northeasterner.
So, it is no wonder that Shalhoub re-emerged on Broadway on Thursday in “The Band’s Visit” in a military uniform, a mustache — 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 said. “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 in 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.
“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 color,” said Shalhoub, perhaps best known for his role as an obsessive-compulsive detective on television’s “Monk.”
Though the musical has Egyptian Muslim characters entering an Israeli settlement, there is no mention of the Arab-Israeli crisis or global politics. Shalhoub said that is quite energizing.
Shalhoub grew up in a multicultural community ripe with accents in Green Bay, Wisconsin, hence his knack with dialects.
“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 said. “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, even delivers a tune entirely in Arabic on Broadway.