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Two Unknowns, One Season: Broadway Producer Bets on Risk

A Broadway play about a potentially satanic handpuppet and a new musical comedy about struggling Renaissance playwrights might not look to have much in common at first glance. But it turns out “Hand to God,” now in previews, and “Something Rotten!,” which begins previews tonight, have a couple of areas of overlap.

For one thing, they’re both produced by Kevin McCollum. And for another: They’re both titles that will make the average consumer say, “Huh?”

That unfamiliarity alone makes them notable, when more and more shows arrive on Broadway with the potential pre-sales power of a well-known title (“Finding Neverland,” “The Elephant Man”) or an A-list star (Helen Mirren, Larry David, Hugh Jackman). Any one show arriving without the benefit of a known element would be a risk. But one producer taking on two such titles simultaneously? That might strike some as downright foolhardy.

McCollum has come up with a response to doubters: “These shows aren’t hard to sell,” he said. “They’re hard to pre-sell.”

McCollum has a hand in some surer bets, too. He produced “Motown,” which proved the Broadway selling power of the legendary music brand, and is working with Fox on developing musical adaptations of movies including “Mrs. Doubtfire.” But he harbors a clear affinity for original — i.e., untested — work: He’s been a lead producer on risky successes “Rent,” “Avenue Q” and “The Drowsy Chaperone.”

Such titles, however, present a marketing and advertising challenge that more familiar names don’t. Adding to the hurdles for “Hand to God” and “Something Rotten!” is the fact that neither of those shows feature a bankable star in the cast.

“Kevin relishes the risk, and he likes to push the envelope,” said Tom Greenwald, the chief strategy officer at SpotCo, the Broadway ad agency working with McCollum on the $14 million “Something Rotten!,” a cheeky musical-comedy remix of Shakespearean theater history.

For that show, Peter de Seve, the New Yorker cover artist responsible for the character design of the “Ice Age” films, has provided a boisterous, comic image of two men-in-tights taking a bow in front of a rowdy and not entirely friendly Renaissance crowd.

At the same time, all the usual promotional copy is given a knowing wink. The placeholder pullquote hanging from the marquee of the St. James Theater reads, “‘We haven’t seen it yet!’ — The New York Times.”

Meanwhile, the show’s behind-the-scenes YouTube videos — standard fare for an incoming musical — have been given a mockumentary slant a la “The Office,” with video segments featuring Christian Borle, the actor who plays Shakespeare in the show, letting the Bard’s greatness go to his head. On Playbill.com, potential ticket buyers can look up shows in the 1595 Broadway season, including “A Corset Line.”

“My strategy is to create a conversation with the advertising,” McCollum said. “Our job is to make you think, ‘Oh, what’s that?’ and then give you a clue about whether it’s something you might enjoy.” To that end, he enlisted the creators of “Something Rotten!” and “Hand to God” in each show’s respective advertising campaign to ensure the tone of the ads matches the productions.

“If people chuckle at the advertising, they can assume they’ll chuckle at the show,” Greenwald chimed in. “Even if they don’t buy tickets right away, they’ve made a little check mark in their minds.”

With the campaign for “Hand to God,” handled by ad agency AKA, the aim has been to acknowledge, with a wink, the perception that an outrageous comedy about a foul-mouthed puppet might not belong on Broadway.

“Broadway’s going to hell in a handpuppet,” reads one banner. In some ads, the dirty puppet makes cracks about other Broadway shows currently running, such as “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” (“Why so angry? I’d be happy with an inch.”) and “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” (“What about the curious incident of your mom in my bathtub?”)

Such promos are there to back up the word of mouth that McCollum aims to seed through low-price preview performances. “Something Rotten!” sold every seat in its first three preview performances for $15.95 a pop, and “Hand to God” is offering $37.50 tickets during previews.

“Hand to God” can at least bank on the critics loving it, as they did when the show played Off Broadway at MCC Theater last year. “Something Rotten!,” on the other hand, made the unusual choice of calling off a tryout run at the last minute to grab the Broadway venue McCollum preferred for the show.

“To go out of town, it would have cost more, and we probably couldn’t have gotten all the talent we wanted, and we probably would have had to build two different sets,” McCollum said. “I made the calculated business decision that it was less risky to come in.”

As for why he gets involved with such commercially uncertain titles, he points back to seeing the early concert version of “Rent” and knowing he wanted to be involved, even though he wasn’t sure where it would go. That show came from a crew of Broadway rookies, as do “Hand to God” (writer Robert Askins and director Moritz von Stuelpnagel) and “Something Rotten!” (composer-lyricists Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick and co-book writer John O’Farrell).

There are business reasons to take the risk. Coming on board to develop “Hand to God” back in its earliest staging in 2011, McCollum said the property could have had potential as a TV series or a small movie, or at the very least as the beginning of a relationship with talented artists.

But there are philosophical reasons behind the risk, too. “Broadway’s healthiest when we have original material that surprises,” he said.

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