Can you successfully sell a Broadway musical as a cause?
The many producers of “Caroline, or Change” are about to find out.
The show’s direct-mail campaign eschews those oft-used words “critically acclaimed.” Instead, the pitch begins, “Following this show’s industry-shaking (and sold-out) premiere at The Public Theater, an unprecedented alliance of producers has rallied to bring ‘Caroline, or Change’ to the wider audience of Broadway.”
One producer not associated with the musical says that rally cry constitutes a first. “I’ve never seen a Broadway show use its large number of producers as a selling point,” he says. “It connotes risk.”
The show’s advertising guru also calls the direct-mail copy “a first,” but offers an upbeat take. “We’ve never said it before, but this is an unusual situation,” says Nancy Coyne. Among other precedents, HBO is producing with Clear Channel. “We found it a positive reflection on the (theater) business.”
Broadway producers get it coming both ways. Either they’re accused of staging nothing but fluff — or chided for being foolish risk-takers.
Written by Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori, “Caroline, or Change” is the story of a black housekeeper in 1963 Louisiana. It got mixed reviews, but no one accused it of being cotton candy.
“This is riskier than ‘Angels in America,’ ” admits Rocco Landesman, whose Jujamcyn Theaters was lead producer on Kushner’s earlier work. Jujamcyn is one of 20 producers to pony up for Kushner’s latest.
Landesman points to the $6 million capitalization for “Caroline,” against the $2 million for “Angels.” More significant, he adds, “You also don’t have the situation with ‘Angels,’ which got critical accolades. ‘Caroline’ has already gotten a lukewarm review from the chief drama critic of the New York Times.”
Ben Brantley’s downbeat opinion wasn’t the only one expressed in print. After opening at the Public last fall, “Caroline” received nearly unanimous tepid notices from Gotham’s daily reviewers (not to mention a belated swipe from the Times’ second-string critic, Margo Jefferson).
The “Caroline” transfer to Broadway looked DOA. Then Frank Rich came out of legit retirement to offer his very different assessment in the Sunday New York Times. Together with the New Yorker’s John Lahr and the Observer’s John Heilpern, he wrote about “Caroline” as not just a great musical but a theatrical landmark.
“It was very important,” Freddy DeMann says of the Rich essay. He and Carole Shorenstein Hays already had $1 million in enhancement money riding on the Public Theater production. Most people would cut their losses and fold.
“But Broadway is quite different from other entertainment (media),” says DeMann, who is currently producing the Geoffrey Rush/Charlize Theron starrer, “The Life and Death of Peter Sellers.” (He has also managed Madonna, Lionel Richie and Christina Aguilera, in addition to running Maverick Records.)
“Broadway people step right up, even if they don’t think it is a great commercial show. I think ‘Caroline’ is,” he quickly adds.
Today, Kushner inspires the kind of producer loyalty that Stephen Sondheim once enjoyed, despite much red ink. Jujamcyn, Margo Lion and Frederick Zollo produced “Angels in America.” They’re back with “Caroline.”
“We’re not just getting other people to invest; we’re all writing checks,” Zollo says. “We really believe in it.”
Most significant newcomer is HBO, which broadcast “Angels in America.” Heretofore, the network’s legit activity has been limited to solo shows on Broadway. “We don’t have any major plans to extend ourselves as (legit) producers beyond this piece,” says HBO Colin Callender.
The network also has not committed to broadcasting the musical.
Love it, hate it
“Caroline, or Change” goes into previews this week, with its opening skedded for May 2. That window rests between the Pulitzer Prize, which snubbed the tuner, and the Tony noms on May 10.
But even if the show triumphs at the Tonys, it will first have to hurdle another round of reviews from the daily critics. Brantley will be back to review the Broadway production.
“I understand they’ve changed (the show) quite a bit,” he says. He mentions cast changes as a reason not to simply reprint his first review.
And while other daily papers will also revisit it, the weekly reviewers who championed it will likely not be re-reviewing.
Meanwhile, the believers put up the good fight.
“Like ‘Avenue Q,’ ‘Caroline’ is a hard show to explain,” says the Marketing Group’s Carol Chiavetta, who handles both shows. “You need to get people to see it early on in previews and generate word of mouth.”
To that effect, “Caroline” student discounts are more than half off. Six hundred clergymen have been invited to spread the word. “Usually we do dribs and drabs with the clergy; this is en masse,” Chiavetta says.
The show’s advertising budget is average for a musical. Chiavetta remarks, “You have to look at it more as a play than a musical.”
Those words certainly reflect Paul Davis’ poster, which depicts a sullen leading lady, Tonya Pinkins, seated in her white maid’s uniform, smoking a cigarette.
Nancy Coyne loves the cigarette. “Today, smoking is unacceptable. It sets the period as 1963.” If some skeptics read the poster as too glum for a musical, Coyne does not.
“This is not false advertising. It deserves a legendary-performance treatment,” she explains. “It says theater that makes a difference, not theater that diverts you. ‘Caroline’ is not a diversion for two hours.”