Marc Ginsburg was fresh out of Penn State’s musical theater program the last time the Bensalem native performed in Philadelphia. It was early 2004; Ginsburg had landed a place in the national tour of Cameron Mackintosh’s “Oliver.”
“Either the Kimmel Center had just gone up or it was being constructed,” Ginsburg recalled. “It was another lifetime ago.”
This week, Ginsburg returns.
He’ll be playing Sammy in “The Band’s Visit,” a story about an Egyptian policemen’s band that’s been invited to play the opening of an Arab cultural center in Petah Tikvah, Israel. Things get interesting when the band shows up in Bet Hatikva, a desolate, outwardly depressing desert town, ready to play. A true fish out of water story with a multicultural twist, the acclaimed Broadway musical won 10 Tony awards, including best musical; the North American tour is now in residence at the Academy of Music through Jan. 19.
“The Band’s Visit” male lead Tewfiq is played by Sasson Gabay, a star of Israeli stage and screen who originated the role in the 2007 film version. The female lead, Dina, is played by Janet Dacal, an “In the Heights” alum.
For Ginsburg, whose “Sammy” is one of the principal Israeli characters, the chance to be a part of another national tour was too good to pass up. The tough part would be leaving his wife and young son in Los Angeles, where the family lives permanently, for a year. The Ginsburgs’ solution was to eliminate the tough part.
“We said, ‘Let’s pack up the car and take a look at the country together,’” said Ginsburg of his young family’s decision to join him on tour.
If they were ever going to do something like this, now was the perfect time, he said. Ginsburg’s son is 3½ and not yet in preschool, and his wife Liza, an actor herself, is able to do voice-over work from the road.
“We drive everywhere. Most often the company flies, but we drive; we get to see the country, and I get to see my family every single day.”
The Ginsburgs will hit more than 30 cities in the United States and Canada before they’re done. They’ve played everywhere from the Kennedy Center to the Kentucky Center (Louisville); they spent New Year’s in Schenectady, New York, and mid-December in Minneapolis, where Ginsburg joked it was a “balmy” 15 degrees below zero.
Like Johnny Cash, this young family’s been (almost) everywhere. But, for Ginsburg, there’s still something special about coming home.
“I’m incredibly lucky because so many friends and family and people I haven’t seen in years have been reaching out and saying ‘We’re coming to see the show, and we can’t wait,’” Ginsburg said. “It’s nice to know that even though you haven’t seen or spoken to people in a while, they remember who you are and are willing to come out and support you.”
Coming home for Ginsburg means more excitement and fewer butterflies than when he last played the Academy of Music as a professional, as a wide-eyed 23-year-old.
“As far as performing in Philly, I’ve been doing this for a long time now, and I usually don’t get nervous or anxious,” he said.
“There are moments, certain roles or certain demands in a show that give you butterflies. Luckily, I’ve found a routine to get past most of that, but there’s no denying that when you have people in the audience who haven’t seen you perform in a really long time, there’s going to be some anxiousness. But the second you step on stage, you’re ready to go.”
Being “ready to go” isn’t just an empty performance cliché in this context; it really is a requirement for dealing with the unpredictable nature of live theater. This was confirmed for Ginsburg recently.
The tour was in Cleveland; Ginsburg, in addition to playing Sammy, was the emergency understudy for the role of Simon, the Egyptian clarinetist. He’d only go on as Simon if all hell broke loose. It did. The regular Simon had a previously scheduled engagement. Then, suddenly, the understudy had a family emergency.
“They said, ‘We need you. Can you learn everything in three days?’ I said, ‘Yeah, sure. No problem.’ What other choice did I have?” asked Ginsburg, laughing.
In addition to playing his regular part, he learned the lines, the blocking, the dancing and a little Egyptian dialect. He recruited a pit musician to teach him how to hold the clarinet.
“Luckily we got to do a couple runs of the show before I went on because we were rehearsing a new leading lady,” Ginsburg said. “The entire creative team came in to make sure she was in a good place, and while they were there they gave me incredibly helpful notes. Normally that doesn’t happen. I got incredibly lucky.”
While Ginsburg says that particular scenario is rare, he assures the grind of auditions and classes and day jobs is real.
“But if you can’t see yourself doing anything else, you got to go get it.”