Buzz propels small '[title]' to risky bigtime run

With legiters spending a lot of time trying to crack the code of viral Internet marketing, a small-scale meta-tuner, “[title of show]” (yes, that really is the title), has parlayed its online presence into a real-world Rialto run.

“[show],” which opened on Broadway July 17, is one of the first to seal a Broadway deal partly by cultivating an Internet fanbase.

Those fans, kept up-to-date on the show’s journey to the Lyceum Theater through a series of YouTube segments created over the last year called “The [title of show] Show,” became a helpful tool for attracting support in the industry.

“I don’t think our online stuff convinced our producers to do the show, but it armed them to go to new investors and to theater owners,” says co-creator Hunter Bell.

Tuner “[title of show],” written by Bell and Jeff Bowen, follows two young legit creatives named Hunter and Jeff as they bang out a musical for the New York Musical Theater Fest and then, with cohorts Heidi and Susan (played by Heidi Blickenstaff and Susan Blackwell), struggle to hold on to their dreams and their friendships as they take the show on a winding journey to Broadway.

The musical bowed at NYMF in 2004, then played Off Broadway’s Vineyard in 2006 (first as a well-reviewed subscription offering and then in an eight-week commercial engagement that summer), with the tuner’s content shifting in its various incarnations to reflect the musical’s real-life journey.

With four actors, no name stars and no well-known brand — not to mention an orchestra of just one lone piano player — “[show]” isn’t the likeliest candidate for Broadway. Kevin McCollum, who co-produces with “In the Heights” and “Rent” partner Jeffrey Seller, says he had difficulty securing a theater during the spring months, when venue owners hope for splashy, high-profile productions to attract award attention and summertime B.O.

As they did with “Avenue Q,” also from McCollum and Seller, the producers decided to open in the less cutthroat month of July. So far the production has started slow, with its first full week of previews hitting $163,916 and playing to 42% of capacity.

“We have a very low break-even, so we can afford to take our time to build like we did with ‘Avenue Q,’ ” McCollum says of the musical, capitalized at around $2 million. “We’re going the path of word of mouth.”

Crucial to that strategy is expanding the awareness that’s already taken root online. “If you’re trying to get everybody else to talk about a musical, you need the Internet. And the cost threshold is nothing,” McCollum says.

The “[show]” crew began posting “The [title of show] Show” on YouTube in August 2007, creating a string of short episodes with legit-world guest stars including Nathan Lane and David Hyde Pierce. Peppered with inside-baseball wisecracks and a recurring discussion of theater availability, the “[show] Show” segs presented pre-production logistics as comedy.

That YouTube component helped draw theatergoers to the show’s early perfs on Broadway. “Kids from Kansas come to see the show, and I’m like, ‘Why are you here?’ ” Bell says. “And the mom’s like, ‘He fell in love with “The [title of show] Show” on YouTube.’ ”

Both Bell and Bowen also diligently keep up with Facebook and MySpace.

“Really, there’s no reason people should know about this show,” Bell says. “It speaks to how viral marketing can be effective.”

“The [title of show] Show” is referenced in the Broadway incarnation of “[show],” and Bell says after opening the creatives plan to make further episodes. Those online snippets could keep “[show]” the tuner part of an ongoing conversation that raises its profile.

“The first job is still to make the show good,” McCollum says. “But because it doesn’t have a brand, I need people to talk about it, and the Internet is a very important tool now for that.”

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