Interview with “Unorthodox’s” Alexa Karolinski and Antonio Gambale

Film Music Institute > Film Music Magazine (Current) > Scoring Sessions > Interview with “Unorthodox’s” Alexa Karolinski and Antonio Gambale

Creating a show, and score that where music breaks free the soul

By Daniel Schweiger

“Unorthodox” Co-writer and producer Alexa Karolinski

Composer Antonio Gambale

It’s more than likely that even the most liberated among the faithful are feeling imprisoned right now, desperate to take a step into the light without feeling that wrathful forces will be immediately on their backs. Now try imagining that kind of cloistered dread one has known for their entire life and hear the building will to finally escape and assert one’s identity. Then you’ll understand the emotional power, and sense of deliverance that’s given Netflix’s “Unorthodox” an especially ironic power that’s drawing flocks of viewers, Jewish and gentile alike, to watch this four-part, exceptionally binge-able series. 

Partially based on the true story of author Deborah Feldman’s flight from the ultra-religious, and decidedly un-feminist Satmar sect that she detailed in her book “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hassidic Roots, this German production begins in Williamsburg, Brooklyn where the fragile Esther (exceptionally captured by Israeli actress Shira Haas) draws on her love of classical music to make a break for Berlin, where her ostracized mother Leah (Alex Reid) has moved. Hot on her trail is her hopelessly naïve husband Yankov (Amit Rahav) and the far more maliciously world-wise Moische (Jeff Wilbusch), their pursuit to bring Esther back into the repressive fold made all the more intense by her pregnancy. 

Though driven by the suspense of what will happen when these pursuers finally catch up with Esther, “Unorthodox” is very much a story of self-awakening and liberation as the series cuts between her obedient, unsatisfying marriage in the past and the character’s ever-so tenuous, if determined steps to find her own voice in an infinitely less restrictive, if no less emotionally perilous future. That poignant, empathetic tone is found in the breakthrough score by the Paris-based composer Antonio Gambale. With a background as a programmer and additional composer on far more revenge-minded work on Nathaniel Méchaly’s music for the “Taken” franchise and the “Transporter” television series, as well as abetting gentler works like Philippe Rombi’s “War of the Buttons” and Pierre Adenot’s “Beauty and the Beast,” Gambale made a mark with  the quirky American killer wasp movie “Stung” (co-written with David Menke).

But it’s “Unorthodox” that really lets Gambale play both his alternative background with a keen sense of character. Given a diminutive, yet forceful woman who finds passion in piano and voice Gambale’s enveloping score gradually moves Esther to finally act upon her voice as she finds a new home, and romantic potential as a Berlin conservatory. Bringing together a Holocaust-haunted chamber approach with vibrant, alternative rhythms that both open up modern society and capture the repressive hunters on her trail, Gambale’s score beautifully expresses “Esty” in all of her emotional shades with a soundtrack that traverses two cultures and countries, one regressing further into a cloistered past, and the other singing with the possibilities of youth.A key to power of “Unorthodox” is the compassionate, culturally accurate portrayal that series producer and co-writer Alexa Karolinski has ensued for the show (as made by “Aimee & Jaguar” actress-turned-director Maria Schrader). As the documentary filmmaker of the Jewish-themed “Oma & Bella” and “Signs of Life,” Karolinski has made a similarly impressive segue to partially fictionalizing Feldman’s story in gripping fashion that seeks the truth throughout. As an aesthetic collaborator in Gambale’s musical approach and the classical / club fabric that makes up the series’ soundscape, producer and composer now describe the liberating and poignant journey of “Unorthodox.”   

How did you both get started in your respective careers?

Alexa: I started in Media about 15 years ago working as a culture reporter for Arte and increasingly felt I wanted to make my own work. I decided to go back to school and did an MFA in Social Documentary Filmmaking at SVA in NY where I made “Oma & Bella,” my thesis and my first feature. The rest is history, as they say.

Antonio: I was one of those kids who started classical music studies very young, exams and musical theory, the whole shebang. But by around 16 years of age I couldn’t stand the sound of the metronome anymore and threw it against the wall smashing it, in one of those teenage mini rebellions we all had. Not much later, I got into music again because friends had synthesizers, drum machines and samplers – it definitely renewed my interest in making music again. I was always far more drawn to improvisation and creation anyway, even if today there’s a tinge of regret at my younger self’s lack of discipline to learn more repertoire when I had the chance. 

By the time I was at university, my brother was working as an audio engineer at a production house, and I just fell into becoming one of their in-house part time composers doing local productions and TV commercials. By the time I finished studying, I’d collected enough of my own gear and found that I had a job already.

As it goes in the industry, one thing leads to another. I ended up scoring a lot of short films, more advertising, more documentaries. Whatever I was offered, really. I was lucky to win some prizes early on, so that also helped open the doors to be admitted to AFTRS (Australian Film Television and Radio School) in the first year they offered a screen composition course. During that same time I was also getting involved in making electronic music and was surrounded by a pool of very talented producers and DJs working in quite a variety of styles. There was definitely a heady zeitgeist in the air those days of the late 90s / early 2000s. These artists were all making impressive stuff and have gone on to do great things, I learned a lot in those days, from collaborations and also just through osmosis.

I also learned some valuable specific lessons from this electronic music incubator environment which came back with me into film work – lessons I think have also seeped into film and TV music in general in recent decades, and for the better. It’s not always just about music as dots on paper. Production, sound sculpture, texture, experimentation and aesthetics –  these can all be just as important a part of expression in music to picture as harmony, melody and orchestration ever were. One doesn’t have to exclude the other, either. Indeed, the more levers we have to pull, the more we have to work with.

I really enjoyed the foray, but music to motion picture still remained my first love. As a kid of the 80s and 90s – some of the greatest eras of film music in my opinion – it was always the shining light on the horizon I was looking towards.

We all know it’s not an industry you choose for an easy ride, so I was lucky to have very supportive family – music and the arts were always a thing of value in our family. Our houses are full of paintings by my father, music of all kinds was played all the time. 

But in addition to that, I was really fortunate that we already had a trailblazer in the music world in the family. My cousin Frank Gambale took off to LA when I was not yet a teen, and quickly worked his way to becoming a world-famous guitarist and recording artist. His musical world is pretty different to mine. But as a kid growing up in a place that at the time felt like nowhere, it was inspirational to see him get to the top of his game. To see that it was even possible. Over the years he’s never stopped reminding me that plenty of people have talent, and never to forget that only hard work and tenacity are what can make the difference.

Alexa, can you tell us how “Unorthodox” came about from Deborah Feldman’s memoire? And why was it important for you to make Esther’s time in Berlin original as such when compared to the fact-based look at Deborah’s background in Williamsburg? 

Anna Winger (an executive producer and co-writer) and I were already in talks about a different project and Deborah’s “Unorthodox” kind of just crept its way into our conversations more and more until we decided to make it. We decided we wanted to change some core aspect, mainly because Deborah is young and her story of transitioning out this part of her life is still an active part of her present. It didn’t seem right to stick to her story in a literal way at this juncture. Additionally we wanted to make something in Berlin and Deborah only moved there a couple of years after leaving. We thought it an interesting challenge to think about what would have happened if she had come to Berlin immediately.

What made you think Antonio was the ideal composer to score “Unorthodox?”

Alexa: We sent out three descriptions of scenes to many composers. They had two weeks to send us sketches that interpreted the scenes. Toni’s were by far the best. In fact, Esty’s theme was one of the pieces he sent.

TV is a producer’s medium as such. Could you talk about being the “point person” in determining the underscore’s tone with Antonio?

This entire production and post-production happened in an extremely fast and condensed way. Toni was composing while we were editing. Toni and I would be discussing sketches for scenes, while finishing other pieces. Most importantly, we had to make some big conceptual decisions. I feel like one of the big ideas we pursued was using Esty’s theme in all four episodes, but have it change and build, depending what she is going through. 

Shira Haas as Esther

There’s very little score music here that you could consider “Jewish” as such. Was it important in getting across the idea of Esther as being a representation of any woman fleeing a repressive environment to find herself?

Alexa: The driving reason was that Hasidic traditions and prayer were already an integral part of the show. We felt the score had to function independently and drive the story forward in all parts of the story. Something that could weave the narratives together act as overarching.

Antonio: This was definitely a conscious decision right from the start. Being aware of Esty’s story as wider than just about one girl in one specific set of circumstances was a part of it. But it wasn’t the only reason why we avoided lacing the score with any Jewish references in particular.

As soon as I came on board on the production I could see that at every level, they were doing backbends to avoid any kind of clichés or lazy stereotypes in how the Williamsburg Satmar community was represented. Actually this went beyond just that community, it was a fundamental principle for the whole show.

In terms of how this applied to music, our music supervisor Sabine Steyer-Violet worked with Anna Winger and Alexa Karolinski to put together a Bible (for want of a better term) for what tone the score should set. They had pretty clear ideas on how score should exist as a voice within the show. 

The story is set today, but it takes place in the radically different worlds of the community in Williamsburg and also in contemporary Berlin. We were always going to be using a lot of painstakingly chosen authentic source music for the different worlds – Williamsburg, the music school, the night club in Berlin. So, there was no need for score to try to address these features as well. It had to occupy a different space. In a sense this was very liberating. The singular and central focus of score was always to be about emotion. But the way this was found in terms of stylistic approach was entirely left to me. The only parameters were to not be too traditional, but also not too electronic – because neither of these aesthetics should overstate the balance between contemporary Berlin and the world Esty comes from. 

There was a desire to work with themes, many of which I wrote from script stage and during the shoot which stayed with the production to final print. If anything, I did allow myself very occasional musical elements that evoke something of a spiritual sense. The music in the Mikveh scene has some of this. But I always questioned Alexa and the team on these choices, and everyone really thought about them to make sure they felt right. If they conveyed a sense of reverence that anyone could connect with, we were OK with it. But there was never an attempt to paint any overt “Jewish” colors into the score. Not just because Esty’s story is broader than that, but because the story in its entirety is too.

Yanky (Amit Rahav) and Esther

Could you talk about the instrumentation of your score? Do you think her fragility gave a natural, “chamber” approach to the music?

There is absolutely a study of fragility throughout the score as a whole. But there’s also strength and dignity in it too, which is very much a part of what many of the characters are trying to live up to ultimately. Even if their goals or their world views are very different, a search for strength and dignity while also being exposed to their own fragility is a central theme for many characters.

I think the instrumentation I went for, which often stays in a more natural and “chamber” space as you put it, is in part a response to this aspect of the story. But It was also based on instincts for tone and dimension that I think all composers rely on when they sink themselves into a project. You get a feel for the size and scope of things – visually and also in terms of storytelling. You get a sense for the dialogue, the tone of the performances and many other cues which tend to point you in the right direction. Or at least in “a” right direction. Many of the decisions about instrumentation actually came from before I’d even read the whole script. When I was first approached about the show, I wrote some themes and sketches based on certain scenes I was given to read. One of these was the scene in the first episode where Esty walks into the water at Wannsee fully clothed and takes off her wig. From the background I was given about the story, and from reading this scene, I wrote what ended up being Esty’s theme, used throughout the show in various forms.

While working on this, I knew I wanted to use some instruments from the orchestra, because classical music is such an important part of the story. But the intimacy of the story also suggested it might be more powerful to stay with solo instruments more than ensembles. I also explored (and ended up using) a lot of non-standard playing techniques for the instruments I used. I made textures using aggressive – almost violent – scratching of cello strings, above and below the bridge. I used wild scraping tremolos which sound distorted and create resonant harmonics. I wanted these things to pepper the music with feelings of something pent-up, some kind of inner rage that needed to be let out. But I found that the gentler ones I made also created a beautiful effect of fragility in scenes that needed this touch.

I also created a repertory of electronic sounds to use, but I wanted them to be organic and flawed too. A recording artist friend once coined the term “beautiful noise” for this kind of thing, which I love. I created pads and ebow guitar-like textures, but instead of trying to disguise any hiss from old synths or artefacts from digital processes, you embrace them instead. Sometimes I’ll even dial right in on the noise and imperfections even more with pretty excessive use of EQ – you can find so much character and personality hidden in sounds when you do this. I wanted the musical sound of this world to be a little bit broken, a little bit imperfect, a little detuned and wonky at times. All of this helped create a toolkit, or even a language for the music to draw on for heightening fragility and raw emotion, when the story asked for it.

How did you hear the character of Esther? And what do you think that Shira Haas’ performance brought to the music? 

Alexa: Esty’s journey in this show is one of transformation. And the music had to reflect that, while at the same time be guided by her and not the other way around. Shira’s face and her capability of speaking volumes through her expressions were of course part of the careful balance of not letting the music be too overpowering. The placement of the music was as crucial as the music itself.

Antonio: A lot of the choices on instrumentation and style really flow from this. Shira’s performance is so strong, it really was a beacon for my work to follow, the other lead performances too. One thing I know all composers hope for, is when there’s a payoff to the experimentation with sounds and textures you do in the early exploratory stages of the work. If something you developed really fits, and even finds other ways to really make sense in the story you didn’t anticipate, a lot of your work is already done. This happened a few times on Unorthodox, but I’ll give you one very clear example.

To play the melody of Esty’s main theme, I used a combination of homespun sampled solo viola, violin and cello, played non-vibrato with almost no expression whatsoever and pitched to a different range to darken the color. I found that the sound of bowing an open string on a cello for example – there’s something powerful in the way it resonates. To me it evoked a feeling of an unleashing of energy. But when I started working to picture, I found that the emotionally blank-faced aspect of that sound with no expressive vibrato at all, it did something else too. It matched the steely expression of determination on Esty’s face and all the weight you can see she’s carrying, in so many scenes. It hits you in the chest but it’s still just a small solo instrument, which also matches Esty in dimension as well. Once I saw how this effect played up against her Shira’s presence on screen, I knew I’d found the sound to express her inner strength and determination.

There was also a happy accident that came with that same sound. Despite it being built from solo string instruments, it also somehow happened to have a voice-like character. You hear this effect especially when her theme is played in the opening titles music. But it also brings a haunting vocal quality in other scenes where this theme is used. I loved the subtle foreshadowing that one day, Esty was going to let it all out with her own voice on stage.

Another important thing also stayed in my mind while working on scenes with Shira. Something I learned from observation since moving to Paris, during another period of learning similar to the time I spent in that electronic music producer bubble from years earlier. I worked for around 10 years with friend and colleague composer Nathaniel Méchaly (“Taken”) on many of his films, and one of the many things I learned is that Nath always pays close attention to the quality, tone and frequency range of the lead actors’ voices in all the films he works on. On a simple, practical level this makes complete sense, purely due to finding a complementary register to write the score in. Choosing your key signatures and writing ranges based on the tonal quality of the lead actors’ voices makes a huge difference to whether your music cocoons around the performances or competes with them. I listened carefully to the tonal range of Shira’s spoken dialogue, and also to Amit, Jeff and the others. Even if much of your score happens around dialogue, not during it, this still is a useful reminder to never forget the importance of changing up key signatures and ranges across character themes and different story aspects of a film. Different types of scenes have different tonal characteristics, so it’s a great technique to employ, to help your score meld with the sonic picture of a film and also to distinguish the different characters and story elements.

How did you want to music to show Esther coming out of her shell? And was it important to reflect a sense of determination through her sadness and trepidation? 

Alexa: Esty’s journey is driven by determination. Even in her lowest moments she is strong. She is a character is never defined just by one thing and so the music had to support her in that. It had to drive the story forward, while never superseding where she was internally.

Antonio: For me this journey plays out already in the script and in Shira’s performance of it. All we had to do was track it with careful spotting, so we could happily leave scenes alone that didn’t have anything to gain from the addition of score. Then, from this roadmap, it was a simple matter of developing and expanding on Esty’s theme as the story developed and expanded too.

Incidentally, this was one of the key areas where it was invaluable to work with Alexa and the team. Sometimes as composers we can get tired of our themes just from working on them for too long. The fear of over-repetition can lead us astray and sometimes tricks us into overdoing it with development and variation. In the end it was very good to be kept on track on this by Alexa and the creative heads, to make sure all the threads including Esty’s arc, were subtly shadowed by the music – just enough and never too much.

Given that Esther’s new life in Berlin sees her pursue her musical dreams, did that make the score all the more important? And did you want it to reflect the backdrop of the conservatory?

Alexa: Similar to the point of not making the music too Jewish, we didn’t want it to sound too similar to the classical music the students play in the orchestra. Only once in the entire show – the scene where her watching the orchestra leads into her meeting Yanky for the first time – do we have the two weave into each other. The score had to weave all the world together and drive them apart when necessary.

Antonio: It certainly was one of the contributing factors to which way I wanted to go in terms of instrumentation and also contributed to the stylistic approach. But also, given how much “Unorthodox” explores notions of extreme adherence to traditions versus breaking away from them entirely, I wanted to parallel this in the score as well. 

A lot of what I did with making textures and strange sounds from traditional instruments was informed by thinking about musique concrète. The techniques that came from that school were in themselves a forceful breaking of tradition. Sure, I didn’t reinvent any wheels here in how I used those techniques, but I felt that referencing them as part of the mix of “classical influence” in the score was appropriate. I didn’t want it to just be a tip of the hat though – those sounds contributed in meaningful ways to the language of the score. The music school and the world that comes with it also suggested that we needed a touch of sophistication in some cues too. 

There isn’t much score in this show that is big in an orchestral sense – we already have that to great effect in the live performance of the school orchestra itself. But it was clear to me that part of making the score really belong in this story required some poetry and dexterity in the writing too. So alongside the more single-minded cues like Esty’s theme, I also made others with delicate harmony in them, such as the segue out of the heartbreaking phone call Esty makes to her grandmother.

The show creators also had a great idea to do a transition out of the scene where the music school students perform Dvořák. We go from the live music of the actors actually performing the piece, and then transition to a heightened, more dream-like score version which takes over like a baton pass into a flashback scene. It’s subtle, but it’s another factor which keeps the lines a little blurry and helps the perception of score in this series feel natural.

“Unorthodox” director Maria Schrader

Could you talk about your collaboration with the show’s director Maria Schrader. How do you think her background as an actress added to her handling of the show?

Alexa: Maria’s acting background allowed her to connect with our actors in a beautiful way and resulted in a tremendous amount of intimacy on set

Antonio: Not long after I had sent in some of my first sketches for the show, Maria gave me a call while on a train. She told me that in what I’d sent, she had found Esty’s theme. She was listening to it on repeat while working on her notes from the script, and she could no longer imagine this show without this theme. This was a good place to start.

I’ve always felt that experienced actor-directors make strong directors of actors. They go to great lengths drawing everything out of the script and getting the best performances the actors can give. Maria is no exception to this rule. In any production, be it a film or a series, it all starts from the script. If the basic root elements of making a story true and engaging are missing, it’s all uphill from there. This is a problem we didn’t have. 

The next crucial transition phase is getting that truth out of the actors and bringing it to the screen. If this isn’t handled well, then the composer’s work can be even more of an uphill job, having to step in to help bolster weak scenes. It’s to the credit of our show creators, director and editors that we had the luxury of using score only when the story really wanted it, and not anywhere else.

Tell us about the main title of “Unorthodox,” and how important it is to right off establish an identity for the show, especially given such a short time to do it in?

Alexa: For the title music it was imperative to bring forward the thriller element of the story telling. The show is structured to have a teaser before the titles that end on a hook. We wanted it to really grab people. It also related to the theme of the eruv, the wire that spans around Williamsburg that breaks on Shabbat when Esty fleas. Eruv wires circle many different parts of NY and other cities that have large Jewish communities. We the symbolism to think of the credit sequence. A wire than encloses an area which has other rules than its outside.

Antonio: This is an interesting one, because what ended up being the main titles music of the show is a reworking of one of the very first sketches I did. At that stage, I was just playing with the ideas of something electronic, something nervous and tense, something acoustic, organic but broken – trying to bring all of these things together. I also knew that the show started with a long scene of an escape, so I was experimenting with ways to create music with pace and pulse. But since I also knew this was not an action/thriller in any conventional sense, I was looking for musical aesthetics that were gentler and more introspective than standard action styles. 

The electronic arpeggios and pulses in that music also evoked for me a sense of the modern world – maybe a little foreshadowing to the music we associate with a place like Berlin. So in a way it plays like a sound which is summoning Esty to leave. Like when you hear something interesting and new in the distance and you want to go and find out what it is 

It’s no secret that title sequences in shows are getting shorter these days, so there’s also definitely an element of having to convey a lot of identity in a short time. I’m not necessarily against this, in fact I quite like how a show can really put its cards on the table in such a moment of brevity.

Could you talk about the “thriller” aspect to the score, especially given that Moische is packing a gun in his pursuit of Esther? 

Alexa: Why does she leave, and will they find her are the two questions that thread through the show. It was a lot of fun to work with Antonio in thinking about how the score under Moishe and Yanky’s scenes would counteract Esty’s.

Antonio: This was another interesting fine line we had to walk. As I said before, this show was never going be a thriller in a simple sense. The story is so layered, with meaning from the personal level of the characters, right up to very big picture things about how communities feel about their place in the world, and the weight of history itself. There was also the core DNA of our show to be nuanced and fair, with no black and white depictions of morality.

The score was obviously also a part of this picture. Moishe had a gun and was a threat, but not because he was supposed to be representative of how a whole community behaves. It’s because of who his character is as a person, the complex layers to his own life. So in this light, we were measured our dosage of menace in the music surrounding Moishe with care. Of course, there has to be some darkness in the music if there is darkness in a scene or a character. But Alexa really kept an eye on this from a wide-angle viewpoint and made sure the music supported Moishe’s actions and motivations, without ever crossing the line into caricatures of a one-dimensional villain.

The Holocaust is an unseen, but greatly motivating force in just how cloistered these ultra-Orthodox are. How did you want the music to capture the ghosts that haunt Berlin, and Williamsburg?

Alexa: The ghosts are emotional. They load a place, a moment or a feeling with added meaning. They are also subjective and greatly depend on the viewer’s projection. It was important to let that happen musically. In a way it meant not overpowering the show with score so that we can really give the music it’s time to shine when appropriate. The scene at the lake in Episode one is an example. The music only sets in when she starts walking towards the lake, not before. It’s the balance of thinking and feeling.

Antonio: For me in the score, this mostly came out in the montage scene where Moishe takes Yanky to see the cemetery in Berlin, intercut with Esty having her ultrasound and seeing the baby’s heart beating. I felt quite humbled when Alexa and Anna explained the many layers of meaning in these interwoven scenes to me. From the literal story-level reading, right down to a deeper sense at the core of Jewish identity about unspeakable loss, and the sense of duty many Jews feel to rebuild and keep the community alive – it’s quite staggering how much is packed in here. And quite daunting too, from a composer’s perspective. It’s the textbook example of a scene that is not only pivotal in terms of the characters’ story arcs, but also reaches all the way from history and loss, right up to the level of birth and renewal and who we are as communities at all.

Alexa and I talked about this scene a lot. We knew quite early on that the music here needed to be something different. Viewers needed to feel the shifting ground of hearing a new theme that had not appeared anywhere in the show till that moment. When writing the music for this scene, the breakthrough moment for me was when I thought about how to handle the moment when Esty hears the heartbeat of her baby for the very first time. I decided to use the same cello theme we use several times for scenes with Esty and her cherished grandmother – such as when she is pouring her heart out to her on the phone, lost in Berlin. Or when Babby consoles Esty by asking to see the wedding dress. It felt perfect to thread this moment onto the same chain with the same musical theme. It gave a sense of tying together a whole story of family history, a lifetime of love – but also expectations – from a grandmother to a daughter. It felt right that Esty should feel these same emotions just at the moment when the realization sank in that this baby was real, that carrying the baton for her family and her cultural history was now hers.

I wrote the rest of that scene backwards from there, and I felt pretty confident about the mood it conveyed while Moishe is trying to get Yanky to stop just thinking about his own loss for a moment and embrace an understanding of a much bigger one. When Sabine our music supervisor came to my studio in Berlin to watch this scene and was in tears, I knew it was on the right track.

The other important music scene in terms of ghosts of the past was the last main scene of the last episode. Esty has made the only decision she could make, leaves Yanky at the hotel and walks all the way through the Brandenburg Gate. This act carries a huge weight of historical significance because it’s also the walk where Hitler lead the march of the Nazi party after their first political victory. Alexa explained to me how important this was to her and Anna when they wrote the story – an allegory for Esty reclaiming more than just her own freedom. She was in her own way reclaiming a part of history too. There were a few suggestions for music for this scene along the way, including source music. But while they may have worked on the level of Esty being freed as a young woman, none of them were broad enough to carry enough scope to encompass the broader sense of this scene. So in the end, it had to be a version of Esty’s theme here.

Alexa, could you talk about the Jewish “source” music of the show.

The Jewish source music was established in collaboration with our Yiddish translator and consultant Eli Rosen. Of course the music is praying. The melodies are prayers, so a lot of it is true to the actual prayers and melodies of the Satmar community. We took license in choosing the song for her addition.

Alexa and Shira

Alexa, the biggest musical moment of “Unorthodox” is when Esther decides to sing as opposed to playing piano. Could you talk about this sequence, especially given the impromptu song she then sings when asked by the judges to change her repertoire? 

Just like Yael tells Esty, we knew it was unrealistic for Esty to be a good enough pianist to be accepted in a classical orchestra. But we learned through consultants and research that in fact singing can be learned if one has the talent, even later in life. But we had to be realistic as to what music Esty would know with only a couple of days out of Williamsburg. Schubert’s “An die Musik” was the piece we wanted her to sing because this was what she heard with her grandmother. And we wanted it to be this song, because Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, a woman, sang the beautiful version we hear in the show. The second song she sings is “Mi Bon Shiach.” It is the wedding march song we hear in episode 2 when she walks to the chuppah. It is a meaningful song full of pain and hope for Esty.

Are you both surprised by the reaction that “Unorthodox” has gotten on Netflix?

Alexa: YES. Who would have known!

Antonio: Definitely! But obviously in a good way. We knew we were making a solid show with a strong and honest story. Everyone working on it cared – a lot – about what they were doing and how their contribution should be. I think like everyone, I just hoped our show would find its audience, and perhaps the work we did would get noticed in a few good reviews here and there. The story is full of primary archetypes that can definitely connect with people regardless of culture or creed. But you never really know if something is going to resonate with people or not. We’re all very glad to see that it is finding a bigger audience, and I think much of this credit comes down to Shira and the show writer/creators.

Do you think it’s ironic that we’re now all homebound, watching a character who’s cloistered until she breaks free?  

Alexa: Yes. And maybe that’s perfect.

Antonio: Interesting! I read a great article in the Italian press which talked about just that – seeing “Unorthodox” as an allegory for how it feels to have to put your life on hold until you find a way out of what’s holding you back. They took our show as a very hopeful thing to watch in these times. I shared the article with my family and friends in Italy and it definitely struck a chord with them. But I think that’s one of the great things about good literature, good cinema or good television. When there are deep and broad enough themes in a story, you can find parallels to reflect upon, in all kinds of situations. 

Can we expect an “Unorthodox” soundtrack?

Antonio: Yes! We have something in the works for a release, we’re discussing it with Netflix right now.

Do you hope that similarly, religiously imprisoned women are somehow able to watch the show and devise their own ideas on how to escape and assert themselves?

Alexa: Yes and I know they are. We receive messages every day by people (not just women) of all religions that in one way or another yearn for a different life. And it is truly an honor to have created a show that gives people hope.

Antonio: I definitely don’t feel anywhere near qualified to give a meaningful answer on this question. But I do think that if any art or storytelling helps people to think about their lives or question the status quo, then that’s a good thing.

When a degree of normalcy returns to our world, what’s next for you both? 

Alexa: It’s hard to think of normal, when the world is in this state. Thinking of other projects is a beautiful escape. It’s a true privileged to be able to tell stories for work. I’d like to tell more.

Antonio: For the time being since I’m able to do work a lot from home, it’s business as usual right now on another film project. Then I guess we’ll see what happens as the situation unfolds. We all have to wait and see what might be delayed or even cancelled, depending on how things go. Hopefully our industry can weather this storm. It’s no secret that many people working in our business are much more exposed than others when the economy takes a hit, so I really hope we aren’t forgotten. When people think back on how much having good films and series to watch and talk about when they were stuck at home helped them hang on to their sanity and keep their souls fed, I hope they spare a thought for the value of the arts in general.

Watch “Unorthodox” on Netflix now.

Visit Antonio Gambale’s web site at