B'way producers try to figure out how to sell shows via the Internet

On Sept. 12, the Web site for the upcoming Broadway tuner “The Pirate Queen” produced a live webcast that kicked off the show’s “castcom” — three-to-four-minute episodes that chronicle the musical’s backstage progress, edited into ongoing story arcs, a la reality TV. As the show moves toward its Broadway bow in March, Webheads can track how rehearsals are moving along and what elements are changing along the way.

Updated daily and occasionally punctuated by live webcasts, the castcom is one of the most ambitious online marketing initiatives ever undertaken by a Broadway production, and will no doubt be devoured by diehard tuner fans who already have tickets to the first preview perf. (The tryout starts Oct. 3 in Chicago.)

But will anyone else watch it — much less buy a ticket because of it?

This “Pirate’s” ploy is just the latest attempt by legit producers to exploit the marketing power of the Internet — even if no one’s yet nailed down the best methods of putting the new technology to use.

“The huge problem with the Internet space as a whole is that no one really understands the potential,” says Damian Bazadona, head of the online-centric Situation Marketing, and go-to guy for many Broadway shows looking to beef up their Web profile.

“Everyone’s trying to figure it out,” he says. “Right now, every show we take on is a case study.”

The majority of all Broadway tickets are purchased through ticket agency Telecharge, with most of those (about 60%) bought online through Telecharge.com. Bazadona estimates that a Web site can generate up to $150,000 a week.

“Most producers at first just think, ‘Oh, I gotta have a Web site,’ ” says Scott Sanders, producer of “The Color Purple.” “But then you get past that, and you realize this can really be a very effective sales tool.”

Provided you hit on an innovation that works. Sanders and Bazadona have drummed up biz for “Purple” through the “for tourists” section of its site, through which potential theatergoers can assemble an entire travel package for a trip to New York — flights, hotels and, of course, tickets to “The Color Purple.”

“I really wanted to make the whole experience of researching the show, and researching a trip to New York, move immediately and seamlessly into a transaction,” Sanders says.

The “Purple” site also gives customers access to a kind of do-it-yourself group sales program, using Evite.com technology — a site that allows users to create and email their own invitations — to help homemade groups such as family reunions and church orgs buy blocks of tickets.

“Purple’s” trip packaging joins a group of Internet marketing tools for Broadway that includes banner ads, the ever-popular email blast and search marketing (advertising on search engine pages when certain terms are entered). For “The Drowsy Chaperone,” producers got bloggers in to the see the show early, and their positive posts helped build buzz for the tuner that went on to win five Tonys.

As for whether a presence on YouTube and MySpace is beneficial, the jury’s still out. Bazadona, for one, is skeptical that a viral explosion can be engineered. “A lot of that is organic,” he says. “You can’t just make it happen.”

The Web site for the upcoming revival of “A Chorus Line” hopes to capitalize on interest in behind-the-scenes goings-on with a regular blog from cast members.

As for the castcom of “Pirate Queen” — from the “Les Miz” team of Boublil & Schonberg — “the appeal of reality TV, the addictive nature of it, was part of the thinking,” says John McColgan, co-producer with Moya Doherty of the show.

The first castcom was a gushy getting-to-know-you seg, which featured McColgan planting the seeds of (possibly staged) drama by announcing that the production was way behind schedule.

McColgan and Doherty, the team behind “Riverdance,” have a background in television. “So the concept of putting together a reality TV diary was not daunting. It’s very easy language for us,” Doherty says. “The big test is whether we can attract viewers outside the average range of theatergoers.”

“A Q&A with a chorus member would attract the same Broadway fans we always talk to,” Bazadona says. “For the castcom, we’re trying to capitalize on the general appeal of Broadway.”

If the castcom works, it’s something McColgan and Doherty hope to see used by future shows.

“We wanted to be sure it could be fit into a Broadway budget,” McColgan says of the initiative, which requires a segment producer to put together the mostly single-camera episodes.

“It’s a learning process for us all,” Doherty admits. “But if it works, you stand a chance of gaining a lot, without risking too much.”

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