Katrina Lenk is the Queen of Broadway, newly crowned with the 2018 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical for her deeply felt, mesmerizing performance in “The Band’s Visit” as Dina, the beautiful owner of a café in a small, isolated town in the Israeli desert.
Originally from the Midwest, Lenk was once a newcomer in New York. A parallel can be drawn between her situation then and that of the Egyptian band members in the show who are stranded in Dina’s town of Bet Hatikva. Adjustments had to be made, connections formed, communication established.
“I was, like most people, I think, overwhelmed when I first arrived in New York,” she remembers, “and thrilled, exhilarated by the constant potential of things to do and people from everywhere traveling to everywhere, all the disparate lives crisscrossing all around you. And I was sooooooo tired for the first couple months. Oh, the walking and the carrying of all your junk everywhere! But then, one day, you figure it out, suddenly the [subway] trains make sense, the logic of the city makes sense, and it becomes no big deal. I love the self-sufficiency New York requires of you, and also how it’s a city made for the people. And, yes, I think New Yorkers can indeed be as welcoming to strangers as Bet Hatikvans. With more yelling!”
Denk’s first song in “The Band’s Visit” is “Welcome to Nowhere,” in which she sings the lyric: “so much to explore,” with irony and tongue firmly in cheek. The character Dina may think that there is nothing of note to see and do in Bet Hatikva, but that’s not the case in New York, where the actress walked, as she says with emphasis, “everywhere! I walked all the way from Battery Park to Central Park, through Chinatown and the villages, geeking out at how that was even possible, not that I could walk it, but that so many interesting and beautiful things were all in one place that one COULD walk through. And EAT through. Oh, the delicious foods everywhere. And Brooklyn. I need to explore more of Brooklyn. Every time I’m there, I’m like, ‘Why don’t I come here more often.’”
Lenk admits that, when she first relocated to New York, she tried to melt in as much as possible, holding a tiny visitor’s map inconspicuously under her arm. She got lost a lot (she only had a Blackberry, and there were no Google maps), but getting lost can be a plus for a stranger in a new town. “In the getting lost, you stumble upon things you wouldn’t have if you were going the right way,” she says, recommending visitors get lost as much as possible.
Midway through the show, Lenk sings the show-stopping “Omar Sharif” by David Yazbek, whose poetic lyrics and lilting music won him the 2018 Tony for Best Score. In the song, Dina reminisces about the magic she felt when she, as a Jewish child, would listen to the Arabic music of Oum Kalthoum on the radio and experience the magnetic presence of Egyptian actor Sharif on TV. She sings of “honey in my ears, spice in my mouth.” Lenk, too, tunes in to the honey and spice New York has to offer.
“All the rich, beautiful music and entertainment here is definitely honey in the ears,” she says. “But not just the New York Philharmonic, the opera, the ballet, the jazz scene, the folk scene, the club scene, the theater, or down in the Village where there is music club after music club, featuring music from anywhere you can imagine. There is music everywhere. The sound of traffic, the rhythm of trains, heels clicking on the concrete, all the different languages are spoken around you. Sometimes, there’s a man who sits in the Times Square [subway] station and plays an erhu [traditional Chinese two-string instrument], which is a remarkable thing to hear amid all the rattling of modernity.”
Toward the end of “The Band’s Visit,” Lenk sings, “Nothing is as beautiful as something you don’t expect,” a sensation she often gets in New York: “I still hold my breath slightly when coming up out of the Fifth Avenue subway [station] and seeing Central Park. I always forget that it’s there, so it’s always a little surprise: the seeming impossibility of all that nature in the middle of all those buildings. And how grateful I am that it IS there.”
Lenk’s first Broadway experience as an audience member was the musical “Titanic,” winner of the 1997 Tony Award for Best Musical. “I was in awe,” she remembers, “and hoped I would one day get to know what it was like to be on that stage, in the wings, backstage, a part of something that big.” For Katrina Lenk, “The Band’s Visit” is “something that big.”
Lightning round of what Katrina Lenk loves about New York:
• The sun setting over the Hudson River
• The Financial District and Battery Park post-9/11: Makes one feel sorrow and pride and awe and humility and hope.
• There are so many kinds of people doing so many kinds of things: One can learn every day and is forced to think every day.
• Public transportation