Broadway gets religion

Stage producers tap into faith-based audiences

This season, Broadway’s finding its faith.

With a new production of “Godspell” in previews and a revival of “Jesus Christ Superstar” on the way in the spring, the New Testament has staked out two potentially concurrent Rialto outposts. At the same time, a handful of producers — including the team behind “Memphis” — have begun to tap the same faith-based demo that has powered sales of recent films such as surprise success “Courageous.”

“The fact is, Christians and Jews and people from other religious traditions go to see shows,” says Tom Allen, partner at Allied Faith and Family, the faith-focused arm of Allied Integrated Marketing that’s drumming up auds for “Memphis” both on Broadway and on tour. “They’re a little more guarded, because some of the shows run contrary to their world-view, but it’s a robust, influential market.”

Church orgs have long made up a significant chunk of group sales on the Main Stem. Only now, however, are producers beginning to make more formal inroads into the network of influential faith leaders in a way that mirrors film campaigns for “Soul Surfer” and “Dolphin Tale.”

Alongside “Godspell” (which opens Nov. 7 at Circle in the Square) and “Superstar” (opening March 22 at the Neil Simon), the currently running “Sister Act” — although far more a secular comedy that just happens to feature nuns — has shown some pull among church groups, particularly for the D.C. and Baltimore-area orgs that turned out for “The Color Purple.”

Stephanie Lee, prexy of Group Sales Box Office, says her company can instantly call up extensive databases of past group-ducat customers from faith-based orgs, and that many of those ticketbuyers have lately seemed a little less traditionally conservative than in the past. The group-ticketing service recently sent out a mailer trumpeting the season’s potentially appealing titles with the words, “Find Your Faith on Broadway.”

The subject matter of “Godspell” and “Superstar” seems tailor-made for devout audiences, but as successful outreach for pics including “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never” has made clear, faith-based auds can often be attracted to entertainment in which the tenets of faith aren’t a central topic but a thematic undercurrent.

“Never Say Never,” for instance, is essentially a concert pic, but it includes multiple segments that showcase the teen idol’s spiritual roots, including a scene in which performers say a group prayer before taking the stage at Madison Square Garden. On Broadway, secular title “The Color Purple” did strong biz with African-American church groups, drawn by the well-known story’s themes of healing and forgiveness.

Similarly, “Memphis,” about the 1950s interracial romance between an African-American singer and a white DJ who becomes one of the first to play black tunes, doesn’t deal primarily with religion, but the faith-based demo has been sympathetic to the tuner’s themes of tolerance, perseverance and overcoming bigotry. To spur interest among churchgoers, Allen invited some of Gotham’s religious leaders to take in the show.

“So much of it is letting people know it’s a show that’s safe to come to,” says Sue Frost, one of the producers of “Memphis.”

Allen describes a network of gatekeepers to faith-based auds — including Catholic bishops, pastors at megachurches, leaders of nonprofit ministries and the personalities on faith-oriented radio stations — who can serve as powerful motivators to a demo that’s as hungry for entertainment as any other seg of the population.

“It’s important that shows pass that initial threshold, and not be too experimental or radical with the gospel,” Allen adds. “But if you hit it right, you have other people doing your marketing for you.”

In the case of both “Godspell” and “Superstar,” any outreach to the faith-based demo is just one initiative in an overall campaign to target several potentially interested niche auds, along with the broader swath of general theatergoers.

For instance, “Godspell” producer Ken Davenport says the musical revival can also target fans of composer Stephen Schwartz and his megahit “Wicked.” Plus, it benefits from the tuner’s status as a familiar staple of stock, amateur and regional theater.

“The faith-based audience is a big group, and it could do some wonderful business for us,” Davenport says. “But we’re not solely dependent on them. I feel like ‘Godspell’ is such a part of pop culture, it’s almost jumped the religious shark.”

Like “Godspell,” “Superstar” has made it into the pantheon of landmark tuners regardless of its biblical inspiration. As illustrated by a recently tweeted photo of a man in a yarmulke standing at the box office of “Godspell,” not everyone who wants to see these musicals would identify themselves as a Christian. “There’s a cross-pollination of faith on Broadway,” Lee says.

“Superstar” producer Michael David anticipates courting faith-based auds alongside other demos likely to be interested in the show. A partner in Dodger Properties, David also was involved in the 1988 Broadway run of the Oedipus-with-gospel tuner “The Gospel at Colonus,” and he recalls that at the time, Broadway outreach to religious audiences was haphazard at best.

“Our process was ragtag,” he says. “Now there’s a considerably more organized pipeline to those audiences.”

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