Modern • MusicalTheatre

Out There – Razzle Dazzle Marketing

In his weekly column, Out There, Nathaniel Bryan looks at current trends in musical theatre worldwide which are making headlines this week.


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about marketing and packaging of a musical. How much of a show’s success is based on its artistic merit, and how much is simply about how producers pique an audience’s desire to actually buy tickets? We just closed Do You Want What I Have Got? A Craigslist Cantata, which received more pre-press than any show Acting Up Stage has produced, and nearly stellar reviews across the board. But here’s a little secret: we weren’t selling out the house every night.

Treasure Island

Definitely not a winner for this gay kid

I still remember learning in third grade to not judge a book by its cover; but even then, this didn’t entirely make sense to me. After all, there’s always a blurb on the back cover which, to nine year old me, seemed the key to deciding whether I wanted to read it or not. Also, didn’t the artwork on the front capture the spirit of, say Treasure Island, thereby informing me that I was distinctly not interested in reading a story about pirates and shipwreck? (Guess what? I didn’t judge that book by its cover, and I still remember reading 50 pages or so and throwing it back in the library bin.) So what nine year old me learnt (and still continues to believe) is that oftentimes the way something appears can inform – but not dictate – whether its worth further investigation.

On my most recent trip to New York, I saw The Mystery of Edwin Drood (which I’ve already blogged about) which just couldn’t live up to my expectations. However, what I did gain was the value of a clever marketing campaign. The poster outside of Studio 54 declared the show the one thing all audience members and critics alike could agree it was: “FUN!” (Unfortunately, I can’t find an image of this ad campaign online, but suffice it to say that the poster probably declaimed the show “FUN” about 15 times through use of various reviewer’s quotes.) For a show which the critics had found mildly unsatisfactory, this kind of aggressive plugging of a promise of entertainment seemed particularly appropriate, allowing Roundabout to hype a show without the ability to call it, for instance, the “best revival of the season.”

These boots were definitely made for walkin'

These boots were definitely made for walkin’

And then there’s Kinky Boots. I never heard about Kinky Boots, I never saw Kinky Boots, I didn’t give a fuck about Kinky Boots. (I don’t even particularly like John Waters’ films.) But then I saw the Broadway poster splattered on top of Times Square. Suddenly, the inner queen in me wanted nothing more than to see this show of which – to this date – all I know about it is that there is a promise of sparkle, sex and a pair of killer legs. So I fell for the ad campaign, and I can guarantee that on my next trip down, I will be visiting the Al Hirschfield without any foreknowledge of the plot. Talk about spreading advance word of mouth!

So how much of a show’s financial success is actually about how successful a marketing campaign is? I don’t believe it can be fully based on strategic and engaging ad placement, but these do seem to play a huge part in making even the worst flops sell. I’d love to hear what your thoughts are on what propels you to buy a ticket to a musical. Can a killer ad campaign and good word of mouth alone get you to open your wallet? 

  • Kgreaves

    Absolutely!  Why would theatre be any different from any other commodity?  

    • Nathaniel

      Well, I think that’s exactly the question Ken. Just because you are inspired to spend money based solely on advertising, I’m not convinced that everyone is. But I AM becoming more and more convinced of it everyday!

  • Dhilton

    I’m the amateur, and I get stuck into chairing the St Lawrence Centre which in it’s crisis #156 mode. So looking for help, I arrange a meeting with Ed Mirvish. [David is sitting silently in the corner]. When I put my problem to him and ask for advice. I get a two part answer. The first part, and the most elaborate was that subsidized not for profit theatre producing commercial properties that he might have an interest in was a major crime and perpetrators of such a a calumny should be arrested tried and convicted. Secondly much shorter and much more adamant, cross sell and adverttise. He said that most of his shows had a budget of 25 per cent of total production cost allocated to advertising.

    David Hilton

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