Do you know Chet Baker? Among its other achievements, Broadway’s acclaimed musical The Band’s Visit has handed the theater community its best pick-up line in ages. Repeated with faux-debonnaire panache and minor variations to great comic effect by actor Ari’el Stachel in the supporting role of Haled, the self-styled ladies man and trumpet player in the tale’s Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, the show’s unplanned catchphrase – equal parts earnestness and desperation – neatly encapsulates the soulful mash-up of cultures that gives The Band’s Visit, written by David Yabek and Itamar Moses and directed by David Cromer, so much of its appeal.
That message of cultural understanding isn’t lost on Stachel, who talks in this Q&A about his years of hiding his Middle Eastern heritage from even his closest friends and schoolmates. The 26-year-old actor, who’d done a couple small roles on CBS’ Blue Bloods and Netflix/Marvel’s Jessica Jones after graduating from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts in 2013, originated the role of Haled in 2016 when The Band’s Visit debuted Off Broadway, earning the young actor nominations for Lucille Lortel and Drama Desk awards. Much of the acclaim no doubt comes from his Baker-esque crooning of “My Funny Valentine” and, more significantly, his big number set at an Israeli nightclub where Haled tried to share his wisdom (or so he imagines) of all things romantic to his new chum, the lovesick Israeli boy Papi (played by Stachel’s real-life friend Etai Benson), who gets so nervous around women he can hear nothing but the sound of the ocean in his head.
I begin by asking how he perfected Baker’s whispery, breathy style.
The interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Ari’el Stachel: I didn’t know who he was when I originally got the audition, but then I spent a lot of time with him on YouTube and Apple Music, just sort of listening to his stuff over and over again. And it’s so, so, so counter-intuitive to how you’re typically asked to sing in a musical theater context, which is more forte. It was a really long process that took months to get right.
Deadline: It’s not that you sound exactly like him, but you capture something of him…
Stachel: I auditioned for the role many, many times and before my final audition, before my seventh audition, I got a note from David Cromer, the director, and he said We really like you, you seem really warm, but you’re singing too well. Too big. We really want you to sound like a jazz singer and not like a trained [theater] singer.
Deadline: How did The Band’s Visit come into your life?
Stachel: One of my best friends is Etai Benson, who I play sort of opposite of in the show, and he had seen that this musical was coming to the Atlantic Theater. We decided as soon as we obtained the breakdown that we were going to play these two roles, the roles that we ended up playing together on Broadway, because it is so rare that there’s an opportunity for Middle Eastern actors to stretch themselves in this way on Broadway in a musical.
I felt like this is a role that I needed to play and I think that led to a lot of self-inflicted pressure. Initially there was a different director – it was [to be] directed by Harold Prince – and I, I just remember almost passing out before my first audition. I wanted it so badly, I literally remember almost passing out.
Nine months and seven auditions later I got the role. And I think that even though there’s sort of a cultural appropriateness in my case, there’s still the work that needs to be done, and I think that my extreme desire and how much I cared about it just sort of got in the way.
Deadline: You were trying too hard?
Stachel: I think I may have been trying too hard but the amount of opportunities that feel actually appropriate for me, that I actually felt competitive for at the time, were very few and far between.
Deadline: Your father is from Yemen?
Stachel: My grandparents were born in Yemen. They were part of a small Jewish community in Yemen and ended up immigrating to Israel in the late ‘40s, and my mother’s a New York-born Ashkenazi Jew, so that’s my background. My father ended up like my character Haled leaving the kibbutz in Israel, chasing a woman and ended up meeting my mom. I was born and raised in the Bay Area, really with no friends or people who shared my background other than my family.
Part of what has been so special about playing this role is that, growing up without anybody who I could culturally align with, I pretended for many years that I was not Middle Eastern.
For many, many years. For eight years of my life. So by the time I got to high school, I’d shortened my name from Ari’el to Ari. I took my mom’s last name, which is Stachel. My father’s last name is Yeshayahu actually.
I spent high school pretending to be a multitude of other races and if somebody asked me if I was Middle Eastern, I’d really get hot and sweaty and very uncomfortable.
So this role has really, really, really empowered me personally as a human. I think to make a character feel fully living and breathing, you’ve got to have a piece of your own skin in the game, and as I grew with this character of Haled, I realized, Wait, I can use who I really am, as it just so happens that this character is Middle Eastern. I started to grow a lot, my own personal self-acceptance. This role has really allowed me to proudly proclaim that I’m Middle Eastern, which is something that I shied away from for years and years of my life.
Deadline: Why did you shy away from it? Can you put it into words?
Stachel: I can. Two things: I was in fifth grade on 9/11. So automatically when you look Middle Eastern from that point forward, it’s somewhat of a stigma. But I think the more sort of nitty-gritty part of it is that you want to feel like you have social permission to do things, right? So, if I go on a basketball court or if I want to sing or if I want to act, you want to feel like you have social permission from your peers to do so and I felt like being a kid of Yemeni descent, I didn’t feel like I could be those things as a Yemeni kid. I felt constrained by my background. And so for some years, one of the ethnicities I pretended to be was African American.
Deadline: That must have been incredibly difficult – you couldn’t even bring friends home to meet your family?
Stachel: That’s exactly right. It was really stressful and socially isolating. The truth is I didn’t bring friends home, and so the friendships I had were very, very limited from carrying the weight of that burden.
I even kept this up for two years into NYU. It was in my third year at NYU that we had an assignment, which was to reveal the high points of our lives, whether negative or positive. I decided at that moment that I was going to come clean about my background. As you can imagine a huge, huge weight was lifted.
Deadline: In New York, at NYU, in the theater community, were you able to find some sort of acceptance? Some sort of community?
Stachel: To be honest, not as somebody celebrating my own background. This is really what’s so transformative about what’s happening now in the theater and in entertainment, the way a sort of inclusivity is starting to become prominent.
So no, I never felt like I could really celebrate my own background even while I was at NYU. This feels really new. One of my friends is Indian and she’s playing one of the leads in Hamilton, and now for the first time there’s a Middle Eastern musical happening on Broadway. I mean, I guess you could say Aladdin.
Some of the conversations I’m having with kids on Instagram and Twitter who are direct-messaging me and sort of thanking me for sort of paving a way for them… I mean, I’m getting loads and loads of messages from kids even from the Middle East, and the Middle Eastern American kids who are saying, “I’m so inspired, thank you, this means so much to me.” I can’t believe it. Hopefully when they end up getting into an NYU drama program they’ll feel like they’re safe to celebrate and showcase their own heritage, their own truth.