Longshot ‘Cafe’ Keeps Cookin’

When producer Richard Frankel talks about “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” he inevitably talks about surviving the reviews and priming the pump.

“We survived the reviews in Chicago, and primed the pump, and by the end of the run, we were selling out,” Frankel said during a recent conversation in his office 16 stories over Broadway. “Same thing in Los Angeles and, of course, in New York. In general, the more distinguished the paper, the less they liked us.”

Nevertheless, a combination of great word of mouth and a platoon of marketing and promotion strategists have turned this feel-good, free-form concert of rock ‘n’ roll songs by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller from last season’s also-ran into one of Broadway’s most reliable performers, consistently filling more than 90% of the seats at the Virginia Theater and looking like a keeper. With cast members showing up at everything from Knicks games at Madison Square Garden to the latest opening at the suburban mall, and ubiquitous billboards and bus posters, the small show has built a remarkably high profile for itself.

Actually, the reviews weren’t that awful, and Time magazine allotted the Broadway opening of “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” last March a rare, two-page rave. In general, however, the notices weren’t what you’d call money reviews, and several critics questioned whether this kind of show even belonged in a Broadway theater.

In the minds of the producers, however, there was never any question at all. Like those radio commercials featuring taxi drivers lip-synching “My Girl,” “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” offers a high-tech, guilt-free nostalgia trip to theatergoers who know every lyric the inexhaustible ensemble was pitching them.

“I felt in the marrow of my bones that audiences were loving this show,” said Rocco Landesman, president of Jujamcyn Theaters and a co-producer of “Smokey Joe’s.” “I said, Whatever it takes, we’re going to back this show to the end.’ And if the critics don’t like it, fuck’ em.” That promise would cost Landesman $1.1 million – priming the pump in a big way.

“Smokey Joe” opened in Chicago in July 1994, under a different name (“Baby, That’s Rock ‘n’ Roll: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller”) and with a different director-choreographer (Otis Sallid, who was later replaced by Broadway veteran Jerry Zaks and young choreographer Joey McNeely). Behind the show was a consortium of producers who had worked together before: Frankel and his partners, Thomas Viertel and Steven Baruch; Jujamcyn (whose creative director, Jack Viertel, conceived the show with Stephen Helper and Sallid, and is Tom Viertel’s brother); and the Cincinnati-based partnership of Rick Steiner and Fred Mayerson. (Gordon Davidson/Center Theater Group signed on with the L.A. run.)

Their enthusiasm was hard-won.

“We were in real trouble before the Chicago opening,” Frankel admitted, describing a show whose staging mechanics still had not been worked out as the opening loomed. Director Susan Schulman spent about 10 days doctoring the show there before Zaks took over. While much of the staging can still be traced to the original work – Sallid retains billing for his contributions – “you do feel you know the performers better by the end of the show, and that’s all Jerry,” Frankel added.

The show was brought into New York for about $4 million – an extremely modest figure for a musical these days, though this one had no stars, no book, a simple set and a small orchestra. The day after the Broadway opening, Frankel hit up Landesman for that pump-priming loan to the production of $1.1 million, knowing he needed to buy time to keep the show going.

“Many people didn’t expect the show to last five minutes,” recalled Michael McCabe, a theater marketing specialist who has been working with the producers and their advertising team at Serino Coyne. If it was going to survive, “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” had to reach beyond traditional theatergoers faster than most Broadway shows. For plays and the more serious musicals, producers can usually depend on a hardcore local audience to get a show through the critical first weeks. And producers know that after the first few months, factors other than the reviews will determine a show’s longevity: word of mouth, positive promotion, awards – and the ability to tap into extended domestic and foreign audiences.

“We shifted quite quickly to the out-of-town and suburban audience,” said Frankel. “Faster than, say, ‘ Master Class.’ Thank heavens we didn’t have to be dependent on the regular theatergoer, because there are only 12 of them.”

“It’s a show I personally feel that marketing has made,” said McCabe, who has been instrumental in making domestic and international travel agents aware of the show. “It had to overcome a great deal of apathy. But it’s the perfect show for tourist audiences.”

Since opening, the show’s producing and marketing teams meet weekly. In addition to traditional radio and TV spots, the show has a promotional tie-in with WCBS-FM, a golden oldies station, and has been buying time in less traditional venues such as Fox’s TV flagship, WNYW. The show’s pink-neon-on-purple logo has become familiar on billboards and buses, and patrons are encouraged to fill out “wish you were here”-type postcards left in the lobby, which are being reproduced in print ads. (The producers swear they’re from real people.)

“The weekly marketing meetings are like a military maneuver,” McCabe said. “It’s hard to come up with a new idea every week. But they’re a very forward-thinking group of producers – we’re promoting the show through 1997 – and the idea is to keep the show in front of everybody all the time.”

The kicker has probably been the personal touch of a fervid cast, whose members have been deployed both around the city – at Knicks games, for example – to the outlying suburbs, making personal apparances at malls, movie theaters, store openings, on radio and TV shows – wherever potential ticketbuyers can be found. The producers have also made extensive use of mailing lists for a direct marketing campaign – “Throwing more wood on the fire,” Frankel calls it, adding that he has no idea if any one tactic is more effective than another.

So far, the aggressive strategy has paid off – even if the show hasn’t. Despite its relatively low cost, Frankel doesn’t expect to recoup before the summer, more than a year after the opening (though the loan from Jujamcyn has been repaid, and about 50% of the capitalization has been returned to the investors). “Smokey Joe” operates on a far smaller scale than “Show Boat,” say, or “Victor/Victoria,” which gross twice as much but also cost twice as much to run.

“Smokey Joe” costs about $270,000 per week to run, exclusive of television time, which can bump the weekly nut up another $20,000. Typically, the show grosses between $400,000 and $500,000 per week and wraps about the same amount, though that figure is almost sure to fall off during the post-holiday slump. Meanwhile, a touring version of the show is slated to go out next August, and a London opening is planned for January 1997.

The audience for “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” has, perhaps predict ably, skewed to baby boomers who grew up with the Leiber and Stoller catalog, from “Hound Dog” to “On Broadway,” “Love Potion # 9,” “Spanish Harlem,” “Yakety Yak” and the rest. Everyone associated with the show acknowledged that the songs – familiar as breathing to a generation of rock ‘n’ rollers – have made it easy to sell. What they have discovered in marketing the show, however, is that different songs resonate with different crowds.

“A song like ‘I (Who Have Nothing)’ is hugely known in Europe, where it was a big hit for Shirley Bassey,” said McCabe. That has led to an unlikely mirror image of the American way of selling “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” particularly given those cranky reviews.

“For Europe, we play down the rock ‘n’ roll,” said McCabe, “and sell it as a Broadway show.”

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