Musical expands its outreach by thinking small

If there’s a color barrier on Broadway, “The Color Purple” has broken it.

According to producers, black theatergoers make up an average of 50%-65% of “Purple” auds — a jaw-dropping jump from the overall Rialto average, which stands at less than 5%.

Church groups have always represented a significant portion of its audience, but over the show’s two-year run another group has emerged to help bolster sales. Recently, the show’s producing team began to discover that smaller groups not large enough for group sales minimums but still more than a basic pair brought in a large chunk of biz.

“We were finding lots of people were buying seven or eight tickets to the show, making their own groups,” says Scott Sanders, the leader producer of “The Color Purple.”

In keeping with the tearful reunion of the tuner’s finale, many of these smaller groups are family gatherings, with a group of relatives traveling to New York to see “Purple” with loved ones.

To facilitate the ticket-buying process for such groups, the show’s online marketer, Situation Marketing, cannily constructed a Web page geared toward their needs, including travel packages, easy PayPal payment options and an electronic invitation component that allows group organizers to send out electronic invitations to the potential members of their group.

Outreach to those groups also lays out such Gotham-native knowledge as where to grab a precurtain dinner or a postshow drink.

“You have to remind yourself how much you assume everybody knows about how to get tickets to a Broadway show,” says Drew Hodges, CEO of Rialto ad agency SpotCo, which handles “Purple.” “We’re using the Web to get information to people who haven’t been to the theater before.”

In addition to the usual (that is, mostly white) theatergoing crowd, the tuner continues to augment its appeal to African-American auds through a mix of its strong property, outreach efforts to families and church groups, and a string of buzz-attracting replacement stars.

Celeb thesps have previously brought out black auds (Sean Combs in “A Raisin in the Sun,” Denzel Washington in “Julius Caesar”), but “Purple” initially raised interest through the choice of much-loved material. “The story engenders a tremendous amount of pride in the African-American community,” says Sanders.

Sadly, the legit community failed to build on the extraordinary number of black-themed shows that populated Broadway in the mid- to late-1970s, shows like “The Wiz,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Bubbling Brown Sugar,” “Colored Girls,” “Sophisticated Ladies” and “Eubie!”

Which has meant that the people behind “Purple” have always had to rely on a national promotional strategy to pump up awareness beyond the tri-state area.

“Purple” buys ads on sites such as AOL Black Voices and Essence.com. Last spring’s Gotham TV campaign tied to Black History Month will be repeated in 2008.

“In addition to the usual group sales efforts, we needed to look beyond those Rolodexes, whether that was a church or the alumni council of Spellman College,” Sanders says.

Despite its often dark themes and frank treatment of homosexuality, the life-affirming uplift of “Purple” continues to be a big favorite with church groups.

“We reach out to the larger churches, both in the New York area and nationwide,” says Apel Inc.’s Cherine Anderson, the “Purple” marketing director. And one phone call is often not enough. “We’re reaching back out to the various groups that have seen the show once, twice or even three times.”

According to the promoters of the Alice Walker tuner, the next challenge is to produce another show that brings them back as well.

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