“No movie stars. No London transfer. No film adaptation,” reads the show’s first big ad, appearing in Sunday’s New York Times. “Pray for us.”
The play, just announced for an April opening on Broadway at the Booth Theater, does indeed make an unlikely candidate for Main Stem longevity for all the reasons listed in a primitive handwritten scrawl in the ad, the creation of theatrical advertising and marketing firm AKA.
Plays on the Main Stem have long been overshadowed by musicals, whose razzle-dazzle spectacle is synonymous with Broadway to most of the tourist demographic looking to catch a show while in New York. For nonmusicals, the safest financial bet is a limited run with a bankable star or two (and preferably a show with a familiar title) — like, for instance, last season’s megaselling “A Raisin in the Sun” starring Denzel Washington, or the current B.O. juggernaut “It’s Only a Play,” now earning big bucks with a cast that includes Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick and Megan Mullally. Up at bat later this season: Bradley Cooper in “The Elephant Man,” Hugh Jackman in “The River” and Helen Mirren in “The Audience,” among other star-driven productions.
“Hand to God,” on the other hand, will come to Broadway with the same small cast that starred in the show earlier this year at Off Broadway’s MCC Theater: Steven Boyer, in a breakout performance lauded by critics, leading an ensemble that includes Marc Kudisch, Sarah Stiles, Geneva Carr and Michael Oberholtzer. While the show doesn’t have London raves in its back pocket (in the way that the current “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” did), the title should register among theater avids who noted the strong reviews the play earned at MCC and, earlier, in its 2011 premiere at Ensemble Studio Theater.
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Still, it’s rare to take a commercial risk on an open-ended run of an unknown title with no big-name stars, much less on an edgy comedy about a bashful teen locked in a struggle with a foul-mouthed sock puppet that’s affixed itself to his hand. Producer Kevin McCollum (“Motown,” “Rent”), the producer who’s shepherding the show to Broadway, chose to turn theatergoers’ heads by owning up to the project’s box office challenges.
“Look, audiences are smart, and we decided to make our vulnerabilities our strength,” said McCollum, who found success more than a decade ago with another puppet-themed Broadway outing, “Avenue Q.” “We’re not what’s typically getting theaters on Broadway. We just want to let people know it’s okay they’ve never heard of us.”
In an unusual move, that first advertisement skips all mention of the playwright, Robert Askins, and the director, Moritz Von Stuelpnagel, both relative unknowns. Instead it sends readers to the show’s website, which hopes to hook ticketbuyers with further information about the show.
The Broadway staging of “Hand to God,” capitalized at a bit more than $3 million, starts previews March 12 ahead of an April 7 opening, in a timeline that looks poised to capitalize on potential awards-season recognition, given the strong critical response the play earned in its earlier incarnations.
The marketing campaign launches with the Times ad, with McCollum making plans to begin tubthumping in earnest after the new year.