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Forget a brand name: ‘Drowsy’ wakes to word of mouth

Self-deprecating ad campaign creates big buzz

NEW YORK — How do you drum up word of mouth for a new Broadway tuner with little lead time and an awkward title?

One tactic: Tell people you’re trying to do just that.

“This is a word of mouth show,” reads one of the ads for “The Drowsy Chaperone,” a late addition to the Broadway season. “Your mouth has been selected.”

Instead of trumpeting the glowing quotes earned by the musical during its run last winter at the Ahmanson in Los Angeles, the “Chaperone” ad strategy has surprised legiters with a self-deprecating, not to mention wordy, campaign.

“Sometimes you can tell just by the title that a show is going to be amazing,” reads another ad. “This is not one of those shows.”

More surprising? So far the approach seems to be working. Grosses have built steadily over the first three weeks of previews, reaching $459,334 for the week ending April 23.

That’s nowhere near the $1.14 million potential in the 1,600-seat Marquis Theater, where the show swooped in to fill the vacancy after the early closing of “The Woman in White.” But for a show without the brand recognition of “The Wedding Singer” or “Tarzan,” it’s a start.

“Usually you plan for losses during a preview period,” says Kevin McCollum (“Rent,” “Avenue Q”), one of the producers of “Drowsy.” “Right now, it looks like that won’t happen.”

And the show is performing well on the group sales front, too. ” ‘Drowsy’ is becoming the surprise of our season,” says Scott Mallalieu, prexy of Group Sales Box Office.

It’s starting to nab some early award nominations, too, topping the list of Drama Desk noms with 14 nods.

The $8 million tuner, with music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, stars co-book writer Bob Martin as the show’s central character, Man in Chair. When the Man puts on a vinyl recording of his favorite 1920s musical (the forgotten, fictional “Drowsy Chaperone”), the old-fashioned song-and-dance comes alive in his cramped Gotham apartment. (Tony winner Sutton Foster plays the ingenue in the show-within-a-show.)

The meta transparency of the print campaign matches the show’s self-aware theatrics. But that’s not the only sales push for “Drowsy.”

Producers offered discounted tickets of $65 for shows through May 28. They also have done some focused “papering,” or seat-filling with nonpaying auds.

Specifically, they have targeted theatergoers with the mouths that are most likely to affect ticket buyers. “Drowsy” has hosted nights for hotel concierges (often asked for recommendations by hotel guests) as well as for the TicketMaster employees who sell tickets over the phone. McCollum has talked up the show to group sales reps.

“Drowsy” also has enlisted the Situation List, a marketing initiative that gets Gotham-focused bloggers in to see Broadway productions. Those bloggers are encouraged to write about the show if they like it (and are asked to keep pans to themselves).

Such posts can even help explain the title, pointing out that “drowsy” is a euphemism for drunk.

There were, of course, long conversations about changing the title — to, for instance, “The Oops Girl,” the sobriquet of the starlet played by Foster. “I’m talking hours, we had those conversations,” McCollum says.

But in the end, everyone — including the Ahmanson’s Michael Ritchie, who also raised red flags about the title — decided the awkward monicker suited the Man in Chair’s favorite forgotten tuner. (If it had had a better title, maybe it wouldn’t have been so forgotten.)

Now the producers just have to try to sell it.

“We are talking directly to our audience with our ad campaign,” McCollum says. “We’re telling them about our process. I sort of wanted to be Producer in Chair.”

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