Slow-paced mu­si­cal could re­vive the old soul of Broad­way

In a theater world in­creas­ingly ruled by fran­chises and brand­ing, one quiet show tries to turn the tide

The Washington Post - - ECONOMY & BUSINESS - 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 who have shown 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” — “The 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 un­fash­ion­able 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 The­atre 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 deep­pock­eted fi­nanciers, “The Band’s Visit” could be­come its great sav­ior or sig­nal its chang­ing tide.

“I feel very ex­posed right now, very vul­ner­a­ble. We don’t have the mus­cle of the other shows,” said Orin Wolf, the mu­si­cal’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 mu­si­cals such as “SpongeBob SquarePants,” “Frozen” and “Mean Girls,” which will join splash-fests such as “Aladdin” and “Char­lie and the Choco­late Fac­tory” in the land He­len Hayes once ruled.

Then there are the celebri­ty­driven pro­duc­tions, like “Spring­steen on Broad­way,” with of­fi­cial ticket prices av­er­ag­ing 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, ac­cord­ing to Statista.

“The Band’s Visit” wants to prove you can grab a share of that with lit­tle 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 Academy Awards for­eign-lan­guage film con­sid­er­a­tion be­cause it vi­o­lated an ar­cane rule re­quir­ing a uni­for­mity of lan­guage. But Wolf, who lives in Silver Spring, Md., 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, an in­dus­try wun­derkind, 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. Crit­ics and hard­core theater fans were en­chanted.

Most shows like “The Band’s Visit” would sim­ply end there. But Wolf pressed on. He gath­ered 22 in­de­pen­dent in­vestors — play­ers as di­verse as the in­de­pen­dent movie com­pany FilmNa­tion and the Ja­panese mu­sic firm Horipro — to fi­nance a move to Broad­way, which cost a frac­tion of a big­bud­get branded mu­si­cal.

How to sell a show of care­ful lan­guage to au­di­ences ac­cus­tomed to big rhymes and bold spec­ta­cles? With­out a large mar­ket­ing bud­get, pro­duc­ers have used other means: dig­i­tal shorts about the char­ac­ters, a poster that spot­lights star Ka­t­rina Lenk look­ing dole­ful against a windswept desert.

Mainly, pro­duc­ers hope the sheer dif­fer­ences be­tween this and ev­ery­thing else, in­clud­ing the me­dia land­scape it­self, be­come a sell­ing point.

Moses noted: “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.” Then again, he added, “the his­tory of hit mu­si­cals is a his­tory of unicorns.”

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

“I think what ‘The Band’s Visit’ shows is that in­de­pen­dent theater is alive and well,” said Ken Daven­port, a Broad­way pro­ducer and prom­i­nent theater com­men­ta­tor. “It shows that the right cre­ative im­pulse can run cir­cles around branded con­tent.”

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.

The com­ing weeks will tell a fuller story.

“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 in six months,” Cote said.

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 co­pro­duc­ers? Wolf.

“Maybe I’m naive and go­ing to lose ev­ery penny,” he said. “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.”

VIC­TOR J. BLUE/BLOOMBERG NEWS

A man walks past signs for Broad­way shows near New York’s Times Square. As the in­dus­try sees a pa­rade of block­buster movies and TV shows like “Mean Girls” and “Frozen” brought to the stage, the cre­ators of “The Band’s Visit” are try­ing a more quiet ap­proach to suc­cess.

AHRON R. FOSTER

A scene from “The Band’s Visit,” a mu­si­cal that de­buted of­fBroad­way a year ago. It is based on an Is­raeli film from 2007.

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