Tuner's upset opens door to new ad strategies

The startling victory of a tribe of trash-talking puppets over a pair of wicked witches gave the 58th annual Tony Awards an unexpected jolt of drama last week. Many called it the biggest upset in recent Tony history.

Somewhere along the yellow brick road leading to the coveted best musical Tony, “Avenue Q” and its brash ad campaign sidelined the widely predicted winner, “Wicked.”

In the days following the June 6 awards ceremony, industry players were trying to analyze just how central the show’s cheeky ad campaign — with its theme of “Vote your heart” — was in securing the big prize.

The elaborate campaign, wrapped in patriotic colors and shamelessly urging voters to help the show win the coveted top Tony, was masterminded by Spotco’s Drew Hodges. It went cheerfully against the grain of the usual, more subdued but scarcely less determined Tony courting.

In fact, now that the show has won the musical prize, the rulebook for Tony-courting campaigns may have to be rewritten. The feisty, Miramax-style hard sell has arrived on Broadway, and it may be here to stay.

PR man John Barlow flatly calls the ad blitz “the best-run Tony campaign I’ve ever seen.”

“I think it’s got ramifications for the future. It’s the biggest upset I’ve seen,” he adds. He also thinks the campaign was a no-lose situation for the show.

“They took the opportunity to reinvent the show, re-expose it; they managed to inventively bring it back to people’s attention. Even if they lost, they had still done themselves an enormous service,” Barlow says.

Chris Boneau, the PR chieftain who had his own horse in the best-musical race (“Caroline, or Change”), agrees that the landscape for Tony campaigns has changed.

“One thing is true: We’ll be allowed — or forced — to rethink our ad strategies next year,” he says. “We’ve had the kid gloves on; now we can behave like the movie studios.”

“We’ll all be looking at other ways to reach voters next year,” he says. “I think you’ll see more clever ideas.”

The “Avenue Q” campaign cost the producers $300,000. Since a Tony win is considered a prime marketing tool, that turned out to be a good investment. The show wrapped $750,000 in ticket sales the day after the Tonys, and another $350,000 the following day. (However, the news that the show won’t go on the road could limit the upside. Story, page TK.)

There really are no figures to compare the spending to, since “Avenue Q” is the first show to take out ads and produce ancillary materials (buttons with slogans like “Don’t Suck — Vote Q”) specifically aimed at winning a Tony.

In the past, shows have taken out more ads ballyhooing their reviews and Tony nominations in the Tony-voting weeks, but there’s no history of full-fledged campaigning.

Virtually all observers agree such a campaign will not be easy to imitate.

“What was good about it was that it was consistent with the tone of the show,” says Jujamcyn topper Rocco Landesman. “It was feisty but fun; that appealed to people. And they didn’t go over the line.”

That’s where future shows may not have it so easy.

“We may see more of the famous Miramax campaign factor on Broadway in the future,” Landesman says. “But you have to do it in an original and winning way; otherwise it can seem unseemly, and people will react against it.”

“Would it have worked for ‘Wicked’ or ‘Caroline’?” asks Boneau.

“Avenue Q” producer Robyn Goodman doesn’t think so.

She says it wasn’t the fact of the campaign but its spirit that was most significant: “What we tried to do in the campaign was remind people of why they liked the show, to take the spirit of the show and reproduce it.”

“I don’t know how it could work for another show,” she says. “Unless someone has another idea that’s as fun and also represents the show. In fact, we wouldn’t have done this on any other show.”

There’s also the question of whether the campaign was really the key factor in securing the win. Ultimately, most seemed to think the show won the Tony, not the ad campaign.

Landesman says, “Everyone’s looking for an agenda here: ‘Wicked’ didn’t need the award; ‘Avenue Q’ could use it more. I think people just voted for the show they liked the most. There was a lot of good feeling about the show and its young creative team and its producers.”

“At the end of the day, people really liked ‘Avenue Q,’ ” concurs Boneau. “I don’t think ads win awards.”

But if voters simply chose their favorite show, why didn’t anyone see it coming?

Primarily because in past years voters have divided their affections. Landesman recalls the year when “Into the Woods” collected several Tonys before losing the big one to “The Phantom of the Opera.” Comparisons also have been made to 2002, when “Urinetown” took the score and book nods while “Thoroughly Modern Millie” won the top prize.

Does the upset signify a sea-change in voter behavior, a new maturity?

Barlow believes comparisons are complicated.

“A lot of people didn’t like ‘Urinetown'; almost everyone liked ‘Avenue Q,’ ” he says.

But he does believe some lessons can be drawn from the upset. “It eroded this age-old notion that the road block controls the Tony wins; it cut into that. And I think it’s possible that voters are taking the process more seriously now.”

Tony whacks Tonys

The excitement generated by the unexpected “Avenue Q” victory was a pleasant distraction from the grim news about the telecast ratings: With the season finale of “The Sopranos” scheduled smack in the middle of the show, few were expecting rosy ratings numbers, but the result was even worse than expected. The Tonycast hit a record low for the second year in a row.

The final audience average of 6.46 million viewers is down more than 1 million from 7.86 million last year.

The telecast can’t seem to get a break: Beaten by “Sopranos,” it also finished behind ABC’s NBA Finals game one and even NBC’s combo of “Dateline” and dramas; the death of Ronald Reagan presumably gave the newsmagazine a lift.

In the crucial demo of adults 18-49, this year’s Tonys declined a staggering 25% from last year (from a 2.0 rating/6 share to a 1.5/4), despite the usual attempts to glitz up the awards by importing random movie and TV stars who gamely confess they’re out of place (Jimmy Fallon, LL Cool J).

Ad maven Nancy Coyne finds the coin spent chasing fewer eyeballs than ever to be the big, and depressing, revelation about this year’s Tonys.

“We have focused all this energy and a good deal of money on something that does not bring in new audiences to the theater,” she says. “There were 620,000 households watching in the New York area; that’s an average direct-mail campaign. More people will see one 30-second commercial on ‘The Today Show’ than will watch the Tonys.”

Perhaps understandably given the outcome for her client “Wicked,” Coyne points out that the Tony win as a marketing tool is probably vastly overrated.

“In the last 14 years, the show that didn’t win the Tony has outlasted the winner 50% of the time,” she says, citing such winner-loser combos as “Beauty and the Beast” and “Passion,” “Smokey Joe’s Café” and “Sunset Boulevard” and “Aida” and “Contact.”

Still, most of the shows that came up with trophies at the ceremony were happy to ballyhoo their sales numbers for the days that followed.

Indeed, as if to prove Coyne’s point, “Wicked,” which put eight weeks of new tix on sale, did a powerful $1.6 million the day after the Tonys, and another $600,000 the next.

The evening’s other big winner was the Roundabout Theater’s revival of “Assassins,” which won the most Tonys of any show — five, including the musical revival trophy, an acting nod for Michael Cerveris and Joe Mantello’s second Tony in as many seasons for directing.

The day after the Tonys, “Assassins” announced an extension until Aug. 1, although backstage Roundabout chief Todd Haimes said it would run until Labor Day, and Cerveris said it would run until October.

Conspicuously missing from the Tony aftermath were the usual immediate shutterings.

In recent seasons, many struggling plays and musicals have held on through the Tonys with the quixotic hope that a miracle win (or the vaunted TV exposure) could give them a lasting boost at the B.O. Coming up empty-handed, they fold quickly.

But this season, producers were more reluctant to throw good money after bad, and shows that might have held on in other years (“Match” springs to mind) prudently called it quits before the awards. After all, for most Tony underdogs there’s no victory lap; it’s back to the doghouse.

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