A year’s worth of planning, exhaustive production efforts and a push to boost Israel’s international image all come to a head Saturday night as the country hosts the Eurovision Song Contest’s grand final in Tel Aviv.
Two semifinals have already aired, but Saturday’s main event is when the world’s eyes will well and truly turn to the Jewish state, as around 190 million viewers are expected to tune in to watch 26 countries battle it out to win the 2019 contest — and secure the right to host the show next year.
The Israeli production has promised a dazzling night, with singing stints by past Eurovision stars — both Israeli and otherwise — and a much-hyped appearance by the Queen of Pop herself, Madonna, who will perform two songs on stage.
Netta Barzilai, who secured Israel’s hosting rights in Portugal last year with her hit “Toy,” will, of course, be on hand. But Israelis are now looking to this year’s contestant, Kobi Marimi and his entry “Home,” to make them proud.
The song choice was criticized by many Israelis when it first debuted, with many complaining that it was not interesting, or catchy enough. And with the operatic track trailing with bookies, few expect him to pull off a win.
Still, the singer himself has proven popular with the public, and audiences are hoping his unique style and emotional commitment to his craft will land him in a respectable spot with viewers and judging panels.
Interviewed by Channel 12 news on Friday night, Marimi said he felt “Home” was “My song. I sing it. I love it.”
The 27-year-old said he was “so excited to be performing this song on this stage.”
He said he’d never had the confidence in the past to say he was a singer. “I was shy about it. I didn’t think it was serious or that anyone would take me seriously,” he recounted.
But now “I think I’ve come to a point at age 27 where I know who I am as a person, as an artist.”
Marimi added that with public expectations and criticism he had been forced to take Barzilai’s advice and grow thick skin ahead of the contest. And he said he was grateful for Israel’s Eurovision team for its selection. “They were really good about picking a song that fit me, my story and my character,” he said.
The evening will kick off at 10 p.m. (1900 GMT) with a song by Barzilai championing female emancipation and will span across some three and a half hours. Israel’s Marimi will be the 14th act to sing.
Leading the pack
The Netherlands, Sweden and Australia are the bookmakers’ favorites going into the finals.
The Dutch artist Duncan Laurence hopes to end a 44-year drought for Holland in the long-running spectacle when he sits at the piano to sing his power ballad “Arcade.”
He came out as bisexual in 2016 and has called for tolerance and understanding, saying his love of music provided a refuge during a difficult upbringing as a “mini-Harry Potter lookalike.”
“My youth wasn’t always easy,” he has said. “I used to get bullied a lot because I was ‘fat,’ ‘ugly,’ ‘gay,’ ‘wearing stupid clothes and glasses.'”
John Lundvik’s submission “Too Late for Love” has given Sweden a chance to maintain what is a stunning record of victories in the finals.
Lundvik, a former athlete, melds a catchy song backed by gospel choirs.
And despite only coming into the competition in the last few years, Australia is ranked as the second strongest contender by the bookies.
Dressed in an extravagant white dress, Kate Miller-Heidke’s version of “Zero Gravity” appears likely to propel her to stardom far beyond her country’s own borders.
Another fan favorite is the athletic Luca Hänni, whose clubby strobe-lit performance of “She Got Me” earned Switzerland its first grand final slot in years.
The ostensibly non-political pop extravaganza has tried to avoid the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and has so far succeeded despite swirling threats of controversy. Calls for performers to boycott the show over Israel’s treatment of Palestinians have failed to yield tangible results.
The choice of Tel Aviv as host has stoked months of controversy geopolitically, and consternation among pop stars sympathetic to the rival Israeli and Palestinian causes.
Palestinians are planning a simultaneous alternative event dubbed “Globalvision.”
Parties are set to take place in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Haifa in northern Israel — home to a significant Arab population — and London and Dublin.
How far those rival initiatives — and the vociferous clamor of Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters and British singer Peter Gabriel against Israel playing host — will steal the limelight from the contest is open to debate.
On Tuesday, the semifinal show’s webcast was hacked and briefly disrupted with images of bombings in Tel Aviv, according to Israel’s national broadcaster Kan.
Kan’s spokeswoman, Sharon Ben-David, said the hack lasted only a few minutes and that “the erroneous messages have not been seen by many people,” given that the more popular television broadcast was not affected. But the cyber-attack fueled fears of further disruption.
Israeli performances well received
Wherever Marimi’s performance falls on the approval scale, Israel has already impressed with a showstopping show-starting performance by Barzilai at the first semifinal, and an acclaimed performance in the second semi of “A Million Dreams” by The Shalva Band, a group of musicians with various disabilities.
The group almost became Israel’s candidate for the contest but was forced to bow out of the running due to members’ religious limitations, that would prevent them from participating in Shabbat rehearsals for the finals.
(Note: This official Eurovision video may not play in the US)
Many viewers said the performance brought them to tears. Host Bar Refaeli seemed similarly emotional after the song aired.
The video had racked up nearly 400,000 views by Saturday, and Shalva’s artistic director said they had received numerous invitations to play shows abroad in the wake of Thursday’s performance.
On Friday night, the 26 finalists ran through their three minutes each of music and staging without a hitch during final’s dress rehearsal.
Local fans were most excited when Marimi arrived onstage about midway through the show to sing “Home.” Flags waving, they sang along and roared their approval.
Marimi told Channel 12: “It’s a joy that I’ve been given the opportunity to represent the country, here, this year. I’m only concerned with that, I’m going up there and I’m singing and whatever will be, will be.”