How a slow-going musical could save the old soul of Broadway, scene of ‘Frozen’ and ‘Mean Girls’
Posted by Steven Zeitchik on 14th November 2017
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This post was originally published on THE WASHINGTON POST

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By Steven Zeitchik,

NEW YORK — Halfway through the new Broadway musical “The Band’s Visit,” a restaurateur in a remote Israeli town sings an aching ballad.

“Every day you stare to the west, to the south. You can see for miles, but things never change,” intones the cafe owner about a group of Egyptian musicians that have showed up at her doorstep. “Then honey in your ears, spice in your mouth — nothing’s as surprising as the taste of something strange.”

The lyrics refer to the leader of the band, a weathered soul played by Tony Shalhoub. But they also could describe the show — a lean, almost minimalist production that opened Thursday — as its own form of honeyed strangeness. 

In a time of lavish franchise productions on Broadway — think “Frozen” or “Mean Girls” — “Band’s Visit” stands apart. Based on an obscure Israeli film of the same name from 2007, it has no brand recognition or major studio backer — just an unknown title, an unfamiliar setting and an unfashionably slow pace.

In other words, it comes with not a lot of overt commercial potential.

But what’s at stake as the show plays the 1,100-seat Ethel Barrymore theater is no less than the soul of one of America’s most cherished cultural industries. As Broadway tilts between originals by independent producers and polished entertainment by deep-pocketed financiers, “The Band’s Visit” could become its great savior or signal its changing tide.

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“I feel very exposed right now, very vulnerable. We don’t have the muscle of the other shows,” said Orin Wolf, “Band’s” rookie lead producer, as he fidgeted in the Barrymore basement a few days before opening night. “But I believe in a world where ‘The Band’s Visit” could be successful.

“At least,” he added, “that’s the world I want to live in.”

Musical Broadway was long a boutique business. Independent producers conceived ideas, honed them out on the road, then ideally rode a wave of good reviews to profitability back in Manhattan.

That can still happen. But the sector in recent years has seen a growing parade of brand names — blockbuster movies and TV shows retrofitted for the stage. Warner Bros., Fox and Paramount have joined behemoth Disney in mining their libraries, then dipping into piles of cash to produce and market their shows.

The coming months will augur new musicals such as “SpongeBob SquarePants,” “Frozen” and “Mean Girls,” which will join splash-fests like “Aladdin” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” in the land Helen Hayes once ruled.

Then there are the celebrity-driven productions, like “Springsteen on Broadway,” whose official ticket prices average more than $500 each.

Those forces — and of course “Hamilton,” an industry unto itself — have sent Broadway into the stratosphere of big business. Musicals accounted for a record $1.3 billion in ticket sales last year, up 36 percent from just four years earlier.

“The Band’s Visit” wants to prove you can grab a share of that with nothing more than quiet emoting and exotic Arabic instruments. 

Wolf got the ball rolling about eight years ago when he watched Eran Kolirin’s film,about struggling Egyptian musicians who on a cultural exchange to Israel accidentally end up in a backwater town. Beloved mostly by cinephiles, its main claim to fame was a disqualification from the Academy Awards foreign-language race because it violated an arcane rule requiring a uniformity of language. But Wolf, who lives in Silver Spring, saw in it something deeper: a kind of musicality of the soul.

He spent a year persuading Kolirin to sell the stage rights, then began putting together an eclectic team. He hired Itamar Moses, a Yale-educated playwright of intimate dramas, to write the show’s book. David Yazbek, who had penned the music and lyrics for “The Full Monty” on Broadway, would do the same here. And David Cromer, a wunderkind director known for his unconventional take on the American classic “Our Town,” was brought on as director.

“It seemed like if we were going to go for it,” Moses said dryly, “we should really go for it.”

The show debuted a year ago at New York’s Atlantic Theater Company off-Broadway. It offered startlingly long pauses and halting dialogue, like a slow-food demonstration at McDonalds. Critics and hard-core theater fans were enchanted.

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Most shows like “The Band’s Visit’s” would simply end there. But the reviews were so strong, and the counter-programming potential so great, Wolf pressed on. He gathered 22 independent investors to finance a move to Broadway, which cost a fraction of a big-budget branded musical.

How to sell a show of careful language to audiences accustomed to big rhymes and bold spectacle is a challenge. Without a large marketing budget, producers have used other means: digital shorts about the characters, a spare poster that spotlights a doleful Lenk on a windswept desert. (The veteran Broadway marketer Allan Williams, who has worked on many branded shows, is leading the “Band’s” campaign as general manager; he declined to comment on the record for this story.)

But mainly producers hope that the sheer differences between this and everything else, including the media landscape itself, becomes a selling point.

“I think it might be a commercial thing for us — with all the noise, with all the ways words don’t really mean anything on social media, we can be a respite for you for ninety minutes,” Wolf said.

Noted Moses: “It cuts both ways — we don’t have the name recognition of a super-famous movie and we don’t have Hugh Jackman’s presence selling tickets.” But then again, he added, “the history of hit musicals is a history of unicorns.”

Producers unaffiliated with the show say they’re heartened by its run. 

“The movie studios are stepping up their efforts. But I think what ‘The Band’s Visit’ shows is that independent theater is alive and well,” said Ken Davenport, a veteran Broadway producer and prominent theater commentator. “It shows that the right creative impulse can run circles around branded content. It shows we need more of that.”

The modern template for modest conceits is “Once,” which in 2012 saw its handcrafted musicianship carry it all the way to the Tony Award for best musical and smash hit status. Earlier this year, Tony darlings “Come from Away” and “Dear Evan Hansen” became hits despite humble non-branded roots. 

But those are at heart uplifting affairs in familiar musical genres.

“Many of these other shows are designed to make us feel something, to manipulate us,” said David Cote, a veteran theater journalist and author. “ ‘The Band’s Visit’ is genuinely weird.” That, he noted, made it a commercial wild card.

So far the sales totals are cautiously encouraging for producers — ticket receipts for the first week of November came in at $860,000, according to the Broadway League, a solid number for a new musical without a major star.

But the coming weeks will tell a fuller story. Buzz from a well-reviewed off-Broadway transfer can carry it through opening weeks, but once the curiosity wanes, so can the ticket sales. 

“There are many shows that open strong and then cap out. It’s too early to say whether it will be a long-running hit or play six months,” said Cote, citing other apparent sensations that ended prematurely, like the coming-of-age musical “Spring Awakening.”

Even strong reviews are no guarantee of success. In 2013, the musical “Hands on a Hardbody” — also an offbeat story adapted from an independent film — received strong reviews and looked positioned to become a word-of-mouth hit. It closed several weeks after opening.

One of that show’s co-producers? Wolf.

“Maybe I’m naive and going to lose every penny,” he said, as he explained why he felt heartened by “The Band’s Visit.” “But there’s a vibe on Broadway now which is loud. You sit back and it’s all delivered to your eardrums. We think people want the chance to lean in.”