Sometimes a new Broadway musical makes a social media push with Twitter and Facebook and Instagram — and sometimes it does it with a real-world, hand-delivered bottle of poison.
Well, faux poison, a.k.a. green Kool Aid, in vials (pictured, above) sent to every Tony nominee from fellow Tony competitor “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.” In keeping with the comedy’s gleefully homicidal tone, the attached tag, decorated with a skull and crossbones that wore the show’s signature top hap, read, “A toast to your success. Bottoms up!”
An extension of a “Gentleman’s Guide” digital campaign that had been running since the musical opened in the fall, the unusual foray into the real world marks just one way that Broadway producers and marketers try to think outside of the box in harnessing the power of social engagement and digital marketing without coming off like they’re, y’know, selling something.
Another notable social-media initiative launching this spring comes from “If/Then,” the Idina Menzel topliner that began performances in March. Billed as the first time a Broadway show had partnered with a digital publisher, “If/Then” has teamed with Mashable for a four-week campaign, “‘If/Then’ Stories” (pictured below) that solicits fan submissions based on the musical’s central conceit of a single, seemingly small moment that shapes a life forever. When it’s over, Kitt and Yorkey will write a song inspired by one or more of the submissions.
It’s the second time “If/Then” creators Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey and producer David Stone have gotten involved in an unusually ambitious social media strategy, following a 2009 Twitter campaign for the trio’s prior collaboration, the Pulitzer-winning “Next to Normal.” For that campaign, the show’s characters tweeted their thoughts in a moment-by-moment retelling of the events of the musical.
Book writer-lyricist Yorkey, who penned those “Next to Normal” tweets, likes the idea that audience members might be prodded by “‘If/Then’ Stories” to get on board with the musical’s central conceit even before they come into the show.
“This might sound like bullshit, but I really do believe it: Social media is more than a marketing tool because it’s a two-way street,” he says. “We’re not marketing to people, we’re engaging them. And I think that’s exactly what theater is, this living exchange between the artists and the audience. It’s two ways.”
“If/Then” benefitted from an usually high digital profile thanks for Menzel’s fervent fan base and the recent boosts it got from the success of “Frozen” and the performer’s Oscar appearance. Fellow spring opener “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” had a similar head start in cultivating a digital presence, thanks to the Twitterverse popularity of star Neil Patrick Harris and to the musical’s cult of fans, called Hedheads.
Eric Schnall, who is a producer on “Hedwig” as well as its marketing director, says his mandate is to let the show’s fans serve as the true driver of the production’s digital presence. According to him, the show is most active on Facebook with a page that operates as an extension of the old-school digital message board where fans of the original 1998 production of “Hedwig” first congregated.
“The Facebook page became the new version of the message board,” Schnall says. “‘Hedwig’ is scrappy and rock ’n’ roll, so the Facebook shouldn’t have a glossy, commercial sheen.”
“Hedwig” marketers learned early on that fans of the show didn’t want to be told what the production means to them. When the show posted an Entertainment Weekly pullquote hailing the show as a groundbreaker with an important pro-LGBT message, Schnall says some fans pushed back, arguing that the power of the show, for them, is its embrace of a life that can’t be labeled.
Instead the goal is to give fans the tools to do their own promotion of the show. The exterior of the Belasco Theater, for instance, is plastered with a giant photo of Harris’ eyes (shown above), an image that was tailor-made for selfies that can be tweeted, posted and shared.
The next step in the digital push for the Roundabout Theater Company’s revival of “Cabaret,” meanwhile, is an invisible one: The show’s theater, Studio 54, will soon get wifi to enable audience interaction before and after the show and during intermission. (The connection will be turned off during the show itself.)
Few Broadway theaters offer wifi to audiences, but more and more will as they endeavor to enhance the usual digital marketing tactics such as the series of backstage videos posted by “Aladdin” and by “Rocky.” Those glimpses behind the scenes are meant to offer compelling context to the musical itself, while the online presence of Carole King musical “Beautiful” includes an interactive map (seen below) cataloguing all the familiar songs King had a hand in writing.
For “Gentleman’s Guide,” the bottles of poison grew out of a social media campaign that tweeted slyly macabre opening-night cards to every Broadway show. Each specially designed image comes with a winking homicidal undertone that aims to match the tone of the musical.
“ ‘Gentleman’s Guide’ has a quick wit, and it’s charming and debonair and maybe a little bit depraved,” said Kyle Young, the veep of digital strategy at “Gentleman’s Guide” ad agency SpotCo.
The insidery opening-night cards repped an attempt to catch the eye of musical theater avids, the demo most likely to respond first to the irreverently old-fashioned production. Aiming a little broader is the YouTube video of the “Gentleman’s Guide” cast dancing and lipsyncing to Pharrell earworm “Happy.”
Like the poisoned Tony congratulations, all these efforts try to turn ticketbuyers’ heads by capturing what’s most compelling about a show’s voice.
“We can’t just say the show is funny,” said Young. “We have to be funny.”
An abbreviated version of this story appeared in the May 27, 2014 issue of Variety.