Tonys: How 'The Band's Visit' Awards Sweep Stands to Extend Its Commercial Reach
The Hollywood Reporter spoke with lead producer Orin Wolf the day after the ceremony to discuss how taking home 10 Tonys changes the show's outlook.
When it was first announced that The Band's Visit would transfer to Broadway following its acclaimed downtown premiere at the Atlantic Theater Company in December 2016, many industry pundits seemed skeptical. Despite its ecstatic reviews and tidy haul of awards off-Broadway, how would the subtlety and nuance of this achingly delicate musical drama play in a New York theatrical primetime dominated by spectacle and star power?
The answer has been somewhat apparent since the production reopened to a second round of rave reviews last November at Broadway's Ethel Barrymore Theatre, playing to steady business ever since and rarely slipping below 90 percent capacity. Grosses to date stand at $33.3 million, a robust total for a venue seating just over 1,000.
But the definitive response came Sunday night at the 72nd Annual Tony Awards, when The Band's Visit walked away with the honors in 10 of its 11 nominated categories. That included best musical, original score (David Yazbek), book (Itamar Moses), director (David Cromer), lead actor (Tony Shalhoub), lead actress (Katrina Lenk) and featured actor (Ari'el Stachel). The gamble could hardly have paid off more handsomely.
"Even our most optimistic projections going into the awards show last night, I think we've blown them away," lead producer Orin Wolf tells The Hollywood Reporter. "People are just floored by the amount of interest and how that's translating into ticket sales — even starting before the broadcast last night, just going into the week. It's been overwhelming."
Unlike its rivals for top musical honors — Tina Fey's Mean Girls, Nickelodeon's SpongeBob SquarePants and Disney's Frozen, all of which are based on established film or TV properties with massive brand recognition — The Band's Visit was adapted from a relatively obscure Israeli arthouse hit of the same name.
Released in 2008 in the U.S., the movie was a niche success, grossing $3 million, but it nonetheless was seen by a tiny fraction of the audiences that know and love the source material for the season's other new musicals. The story unfolds over the course of a single night in a backwater town in the Israeli desert, where the lost musicians of an Egyptian police band get stranded on their way to the opening of an Arab cultural center.
While on the surface it seems unlikely fodder for Broadway musical treatment, the show's themes of human connection transcending racial, cultural and political barriers make it actually a perfect fit. What is theater if not a celebration of the power of the arts to bridge divides and bring people together?
"What's been so amazing about this community is how clearly there's been a wave of down-the-line support for us," says Wolf. "But still, we never expected this, last night was astonishing."
Many theater insiders are pointing to the Tonys success of The Band's Visit, along with that of surprise musical revival winner Once on This Island, as a direct message to producers who are steering away from the risks of unproven properties and sticking with adaptations of mainstream movie hits, jukebox bio-musicals assembled out of the chart-topping back catalogs of popular music artists, or classic musicals with decades of pop-cultural penetration. Many feel that Broadway needs less recycling, more imagination.
The Tony for best musical traditionally is considered the only award to have a significant impact at the box office. That's even truer with an intimate miniaturist musical like The Band's Visit, which has nothing like the sui generis blockbuster factor of a Hamilton or the social media-friendly adolescent emo angle of a Dear Evan Hansen, to name two recent best musical winners that continue to sell out every performance.
"What I've already experienced is that the Tonys has become this loudspeaker that allows me now to reach so much further than we ever have," Wolf explains. "Recently, when we got our nominations, we did a Today Show segment; that was the first national TV we'd ever had, and yesterday on the Tonys was our second national television moment. So already what it's done is it's completely extended my ability to reach an audience that's not just the low-hanging fruit."
"Because in addition to not having a brand, which makes it harder to advertise, we also have a very limited ad budget," he says. "We're in a small theater and I try to operate this thing almost like a play financially, I mean I really have to be careful."
While the initial capitalization for The Band's Visit has been reported at $8.75 million, Wolf declines to confirm that figure, stating only that the show in on par with other recent modestly scaled productions under $10 million, like Once and Fun Home. Both those shows also won Tonys for best musical, which arguably extended their life on Broadway by a year or more. Wolf agrees that it's fair to use the yardstick of those musicals as a commercial comparison.
Both those productions were profitable, if on a modest scale in the case of Fun Home, which ran for a year and a half, grossing $41.5 million. However, Once, based on the Fox Searchlight release with music by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, played for just under three years on Broadway, going on to gross a very respectable $110 million.
"I was involved with Once from the sidelines as a co-producer, and I would be thrilled if The Band's Visit had that kind of reach," says Wolf. "But even though it wasn't a big-brand show, Once did have the film and an Academy Award-winning song, so even that had a way of accessing a little bit wider circle. If we can come close to the success of Once I'd be overjoyed."
Beyond the Broadway impact, the Tonys bounty stands to reap considerable rewards on the road, enhancing prospects for the show's national tour, which has been announced to kick off in June next year in Providence, Rhode Island.
"I think the impact on the tour will be fantastic," Wolf says. "Some of the tour presenters, who are my partners and have been my supporters for years, were there last night. They were all totally engaged before the Tonys, but when a show like this wins those awards, what it allows presenters to then do in their markets with advertising is incredible."
"When you go to Des Moines, or you go to Cleveland or you go to Buffalo, in some ways you have to start all over," he continues. "This gives us that immediate calling card to say, 'Here are 10 reasons why you should come see the show.' We're not a title that people see and recognize so the Tonys allows us an immediate, very distilled message that connects to ticket buyers and doesn't need much explanation. That's one of the advantages — the Tonys give us a sound bite."
While Shalhoub — who seemed more surprised than anyone to win his first Tony for a musical, after three previous nominations for plays — has now left the role of Egyptian bandleader Tewfiq to complete filming on season two of Amazon's The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, the actor has hinted in interviews that he hopes to circle back into the stage musical at some point. "We'd love for that to happen, but when I don't know," says Wolf.
In the meantime, the production on Monday announced the unusual casting step of bringing in veteran Israeli stage and screen actor Sasson Gabay, who originated the role of Tewfiq in the movie, to reprise the part in this new incarnation. He steps into the production starting June 26, making his Broadway debut.
"Sasson is in rehearsal now and is going into the show at the end of this month," says Wolf. "Right now, that to me is the most exciting part of our future. As confident as I was about doing this adaptation from the beginning, I'm as confident about what Sasson is going to bring to the show. I think it's going to be extraordinary."
As for international plans, Wolf admits it's early days but that discussions definitely are taking place.
"We've had some conversations about Israel, of course, and I'm very interested in looking at some of the Middle Eastern markets," he says. "We've also had some initial thoughts about London. But this is all new to me, so I'm trying not to get ahead of myself."
"It's such a delicate show," adds Wolf. "I've described it like a piece of Kleenex that gets wet, so one pebble too many and it breaks. I just have to figure out the most delicate way to go into those other markets and if there's a compelling reason to do it. If there is, I'll be eager to roll up my sleeves and make it happen."