The Playgoer: Does Sex Still Sell on B'way?

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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Does Sex Still Sell on B'way?

It's very tempting to just chuck "fair use" concerns and just copy & paste Michael Riedel's entire "Spring Awakening" column today because it's so damn funny. And actually quite revealing of just how irretrievably "old" Broadway has become.

One would think after the mega reviews, the Spring Awakening team would just be bathing in it, no? In short, no.

What do you get when 35 producers start brainstorming about how to sell their critically acclaimed new musical? In the case of "Spring Awakening," you get some marketing ideas that are either downright bizarre or just plain idiotic.

Here are some of the proposals that have been kicked around at "Spring Awakening" production meetings:

* Because the show features a lot of teenage sex, let's work out a sponsorship deal with a condom maker. We'll slap a "Spring Awakening" logo on the condoms and pass them out for free at the theater....

But one production source, inspired by the level of marketing know-how on "Spring Awakening," privately suggests that all the producers run around Times Square wearing sandwich boards that read: "I'm one of the 35 producers of 'Spring Awakening.' Please come see my show!"

But note also the desperate cluelessness in this--quite literally--producing-by-committee approach over just how to make contact with this alien youth demographic:

* Let's give a bunch of free tickets to the staff at Ruby Foo's in Times Square. A lot of young people hang out there, and the waiters will talk up the show.

* Since the show appeals to audiences in their 20s and 30s, let's not quote old fogey critics from the big newspapers. Let's only quote student critics from college newspapers.

Never mind that Charles Isherwood in The Times wrote, "Broadway may never be the same!" Or that The Post's Clive Barnes cheered: "A must-see, groundbreaking jolt of genius!" Far more influential is John Labera, of the Hofstra Chronicle, who wrote: "It is difficult to stop talking about 'Spring Awakening.' One minute you'll be crying your eyes out. The next minute you'll be rolling in the aisles."

And don't forget Connecticut College's daily, which proclaimed the show, "The best musical of the 21st century!" (Hey, there are only 94 more years to go).

College newspapers? Who reads those??? Of course, there's an obvious youth-oriented 21st century alternative. But that would involve using the "internets."

No wind of "bloggers nights" or any such outreach on this one so far. For their sake, I at least hope they have a MySpace page.

But back to the sex. One would have thought the provocative "feeling up" poster image (viewable here) would be enticing this target audience. And maybe it is. But apparently that doesn't matter.

The new ad features cast members jumping up and down. The idea is to project the show's "kinetic energy and excitement," a source says. Previous ads emphasized the musical's sexual themes. But the producers have decided that sex turns off older theatergoers, who must be lured to "Spring Awakening" if the show's going to have a shot.

"Look, we'd love to get the 'Rent' audience right away," says a production insider. "But it takes time. For now, we're surviving on the traditional audience."

I guess that "traditional audience" did start coming out after the reviews. The Playbill box office firgures report a surge (sort of) from 40% capacity to 60% in the week after opening. (The O'Neill Theatre is a 1,000-seat house, by the way.) But, obviously, that's still not enough to see them through to profit. And if they're hanging on for Tonys (six months from now) that means a long hard slog, financially.

Again, these are not at all meant to impugn the integrity of "Spring Awakening" as a show. On the contrary, the data supports an argument that it's, if anything, too good (i.e. original, relevant) for Broadway and that the Broadway industry has become so ossified in its "traditional audience" ways that it seems like economic suicide for an artitiscally ambitious show to play there.

Without a major movie star, at least.


Anonymous said...

Jeez. If that elusive demographic wants hot dancing and pumping music, they can get plenty of it from MTV and its ilk. Shouldn't Even Bway marketers should know that they should be trumpeting what theater UNIQUELY offers? Why unplug from your own TV/computer/iPod and go to the theater? The reason better be something other than: so you can see something like you can get on your TV/computer/iPod.

Anonymous said...

Until very very recently I worked at one of the big b'way ad agencies. It never ceases to be hilarious when a producer tries to figure out how to get a hip audience. I'm not claiming I know how to do that...if I did, I'd be a zillionaire. All I'm saying have to realize that Broadway isn't hip. I'm not saying a young hipster won't come to Broadway ever, but it has to be a word of mouth thing. Doesn't matter what photo is in the ad, because they're not going to see it in the NY Times.

Geg said...

I don't think the the ads really have a whole lot to do with it. I am sure they do sell some shows to a degree. But Broadway audiences are now made up of tourists. And a lot are from out of the country. (Some are STILL coming in and wanting to see "CATS" and "Miss Saigon") I think, and this is just my opinion, that Broadway audiences have been groomed to want spectacle. Phantom, CATS, Miss Saigon and even near the end of the big spectacle period, Sunset Blvd. made theatre goers want and expect a big show. One that you went to see for the sets and special effects more than the music and the story. And you did not so much find out about these shows through print ads or clever marketing. These shows were being touted everywhere everywhere. Songs from the shows were being recorded by major recording stars When that got a bit old, in came Disney. Theatregoers were then groomed to go see shows with stories and music that they were familiar with. And I am sure Disney touted these shows on their Disney channels so they had the kids hooked. You also had people like Rosie O'Donnell praising the Disney shows (especially The Lion King) and the word was out. These shows have had very long and healthy runs. Tarzan is not hanging by the vine but will probably be around for a while and Mary Poppins is doing fine business (It plays to not only the younger generation but to middle age and older audiences as it is a classic) So good shows like, in my opinion, the masterpiece "Caroline or Change" don't do well. No special effects, a storyline that you have to follow and think about but some of the best music on Broadway, don't last. Even with word of mouth. I feel that "Spring Awakening" has a good chance with word of mouth as has "The Drowst Chaperone". Why? The music for one. And two, it should appeal to teenagers and hopefully adults will want to see the show that has gotten the best across the board reviews this year or will end up having to take their kids to see it. Both "Caroline or Change" and "Spring Awakening" were extended sellouts Off_Broadway. It would be ashame that good shows like these couldn't tranfer uptown and have a healthy run. But one has to wonder why this happens? Maybe because avid theatergoers are tired of the tourist crowd going to Broadway shows that don't know theatre etiquette (Cell phones, talking, cameras and noisey snacks) and would rather see a show Off-Broadway where they know they don't have to deal with these people. And as far as a star selling a show.....Julia Roberts sold out 3 Days of Rain, but after the bad reviews, Brokers and scalpers could not give tickets away to the show! Again...Just my opinion!!

Anonymous said...

Duncan Sheik ..the one who wrote this musical, is another wanna to be. He has no real musicial. He comes from serious money.
This show stinks in terms of music and tsate. New York City is a cultural sess pool.

Anonymous said...

Duncan has no musical talent, you meant to say. I agree.