Local Arts

How a UNCSA grad turned an obscure Israeli movie into a Tony Award-winning musical

UNC School of the Arts grad Orin Wolf turned an obscure Israeli film into the Tony Award-winning musical. “The Band’s Visit,” winner of 10 Tony Awards, will be at the Knight Theater Aug. 6-25 as part of the Broadway Lights series.
UNC School of the Arts grad Orin Wolf turned an obscure Israeli film into the Tony Award-winning musical. “The Band’s Visit,” winner of 10 Tony Awards, will be at the Knight Theater Aug. 6-25 as part of the Broadway Lights series.

One man’s vision, one strange decade. That’s what turned a movie hardly anybody saw into a musical hardly anybody doesn’t applaud.

“The Band’s Visit” comes to Knight Theater Aug. 6 in the Broadway Lights series, sporting 10 Tony Awards — the highest total in more than half a century, except for “The Producers” (12) and “Hamilton” (11).

Orin Wolf wasn’t alone on the podium when it won the 2018 prize for best musical: The Tony website lists him first among 32 individuals or organizations. But he was alone in 2007 when he decided an obscure Israeli film needed to reach the stage.

He saw it at the Other Israel Film Festival in Manhattan with his Israeli-born wife, Shiri. As the credits rolled, he told her he thought a play should be made from this story of an Egyptian band stranded for a night in an Israeli desert town.

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It took him 10 years, but UNC School of the Arts grad Orin Wolf turned an obscure Israeli film into the Tony Award-winning musical. “The Band’s Visit,” which won 10 Tony Awards, will be at the Knight Theater Aug. 6-25 as part of the Broadway Lights series. Ahron R. Foster

“I don’t have a lot of moments where I see things that clearly,” he says. “I did not have an innate understanding of what a play was or a musical was. But in the tradition of many plays and musicals important to me growing up, this dealt with the theme of being stuck in a place. Beckett and Ionesco and Chekhov and all the great playwrights wrestled with this idea. It’s at the heart of this film, so I knew it could be theatrical.”

Theater had been at the heart of his life since his high school years at UNC School of the Arts. He followed older brother Miky, an acting student, to Winston-Salem and was studying with Tanya Belov when he had a revelation. “She was a great acting teacher, and through her I saw great acting,” he told UNCSA’s alumni magazine. “But I remember thinking, ‘I hate acting. Why am I doing this?’ I loved the theater, but I didn’t love acting.”

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Orin Wolf (center) and the cast and crew of “The Band’s Visit” accept the award for Best Musical during the 2018 Tony Awards show. Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions

After a gap year, he collected a BFA from the Hartt School in Connecticut. He eventually ran a small booking firm that sent shows around the country. But at 29, when he saw the film, the Cleveland native had not produced a show on or off Broadway. He had exactly one Broadway credit: assistant company manager on “Bill Maher: Victory Begins at Home” in 2003. Yet he had a sharp brain and great patience.

Wolf tried to buy adaptation rights from Sony, the film’s distributor (at first unsuccessfully) and convince Eran Kolirin, the movie’s writer-director, to join the project (utterly unsuccessfully). “He said, ‘I don’t want you to take this movie and put people in cat costumes!’ “ Wolf recalls. “I think ‘Cats’ was the only musical he had ever seen.

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Chilina Kenedy and Sasson Gabay perform in “The Band’s Visit,” winner of 10 Tony Awards. The show comes to the Knight Theater with Aug. 6-25 as part of the Broadway Lights series. Matthew Murphy

“Most people told me, ‘This is a crazy idea. You’re wasting your time.’ I have found that, if I run an idea past 10 or 15 people, and more than half immediately like it, it’s a bad idea. You can’t please everyone easily. But my conviction of how I wanted this show to (go) stayed with me.”

He and a friend began by typing the screenplay and doing a cut-and-paste job to make it theatrical. Eventually, multiple writers took a crack: “I worked with one for a year. At the end of it, I said, ‘This isn’t right. I have to let you go.’ I committed to a total reset.”

For one reading at Hartford Stage, he brought in two musicians and an imam from a local mosque to sing in Arabic. He realized the play’s theme — that music connects people across personal and perhaps political divides — needed to be told through music.

Along the way, he gained producing credits, culminating in 2012 with “Once.” That quiet musical, which won eight Tonys (including Wolf’s first of two) also came from a small film about musicians stuck in a place they didn’t belong (Dublin) while flirting with romance.

By then, working on a Wolf project sounded like a good idea. Writer Itamar Moses (“Boardwalk Empire”) and composer-lyricist David Yazbek (“The Full Monty”) came aboard, So, briefly, did the greatest living producer-director of musicals.

Wolf had been one of the first students in a Columbia University program for creative producers led by Hal Prince, whom he calls a dear friend. Prince committed to the 2016 off-Broadway opening at Atlantic Theater Company, then had to withdraw when his retrospective musical “Prince of Broadway” conflicted with it.

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The North American Tour company of “The Band’s Visit” performs on stage. The Tony Award-winning Broadway show comes to the Knight Theater Aug. 6-25 as part of the Broadway Lights series. Matthew Murphy

“His involvement was substantial, because he’s a creator in the marrow of his bones,” says Wolf. “He helped shape it with Yazbek and Itamar, as we shared ideas. But his leaving led us to (director) David Cromer. When you think about all the twists these processes take, everyone should be so lucky as to find David Cromer at the end of the road. Under his delicate interpretation, this material found its beating heart.”

Yet when “Visit” went into previews at the Atlantic, it didn’t quite work.

“We were stumbling to give it the flow it needed,” Wolf admits. “There were beautiful things, but two nights before we locked the show for critics, it wasn’t doing what It needed to do. This wasn’t a question of cutting songs or characters but making a lot of nips and tucks: A piece of transition music had three notes but should have had two, with the lights coming up earlier. It was like walking a tightrope.

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The company of “The Band’s Visit” performs during the group’s North American Tour. The show, which has won 10 Tony Awards, is coming to the Knight Theater Aug. 6-25 as part of the Broadway Lights series. Matthew Murphy

“And then the performance started. I was standing behind Cromer, who was sitting in the last row, and he put his head in his hands and started crying. Whatever the alchemy was, we saw the show for the first time.”

Wolf has realized three things from this journey. First, now that he has two kids born along the way, he can’t obsess for 10 years over another project. Second, “to have followed something as long as I did and reach a lot of people instills confidence. I should lean into my instincts more.”

And third, his name carries more cachet than ever.

“The show’s success enables me to secure financing and get people to listen,” says Wolf, now 40. “That goes beyond money; I’ll have the ability to find new projects and move them along. That’s a gift I cherish, and it means I have to make good choices.”

“The Band’s Visit”

When: Aug. 6-25 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1:30 and 7 p.m. Sunday.

Where: Knight Theater, 430 S. Tryon St.

Tickets: $25-$114.50

Details: 704-372-1000 or blumenthalarts.org.

This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.

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