‘Hamilton’ a Burr on the Side of Musical Rivals

With the tony awards looming on June 12, it’s campaign season on Broadway. But as “Hamilton” dominates the zeitgeist and stands poised to land the top awards, campaigns look a little different this year.

“In another year, I would work very, very hard to let people know who were are and what we’re doing,” says producer Barry Weissler, whose new musical “Waitress,” based on the 2007 Adrienne Shelly film, is competing with “Hamilton” for the top prize for new musical. “This year, we’re doing what we can. But everyone votes for ‘Hamilton.’ That’s not a secret.”

In general, producers are shelling out less money on marketing during this campaign season than in prior years, according to one advertising insider.

“In terms of the campaign, we’re certainly not spending as much money in the paper this year as we did with ‘A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,’” says producer Joey Parnes. “Because it feels kind of obvious what’s likely to happen.”

Parnes is the lead producer of “Bright Star,” another show in the running for the new musical title opposite “Hamilton.” In 2014, he was the producer of “Gentleman’s Guide,” which concocted an elaborate Tony Awards push built around gleefully macabre nods to all its competition on Broadway. “Gentleman’s Guide” emerged with four awards, including the trophy for new musical.

“In that kind of atmosphere, where there wasn’t a clear frontrunner, it did push us to really create a thought-out campaign in terms of advertising and press, to get the word out not just to the general public but to that lovely group of Tony voters,” Parnes says. “This year, we’re doing a lot more online stuff. And being on the Tony telecast might not hurt either.”

Therein lies one of possible silver linings for the nominated shows caught in the long shadow of “Hamilton.” With interest in the founding-fathers musical approaching stratospheric levels, there’s a chance that the traditionally ratings-challenged Tony broadcast could get a boost.

“ ‘Hamilton’ is such a cultural phenomenon that people are going to tune in,” says Ricky Kirshner, one half of the verteran executive producing team behind the Tony telecast. “Having heard of it, they’ll think, ‘What’s this all about? I want to see what it is.’ It’s good for us in that way, and in that it’s great entertainment. It also helps the other shows. If the Tony ratings go up, and everyone gets seen, it helps them all.”

That means that the 3½-half minute performance segment that each nominated show gets during the broadcast will be seen by more people, which in turn will give producers more marketing bang for the quarter-of-a-million bucks it can cost to stage those sequences.

But a ratings spike isn’t a sure thing. The last time the Tony Awards honored a pop-culture juggernaut was in 2011, when “The Book of Mormon” scored nine awards. Ratings for the ceremony that year actually downticked from 2010, when the comparatively obscure “Memphis” won.

But Kirshner is more concerned about the fait-accompli nature of this year’s Tony race. “The bigger issue will be if ‘Hamilton’ starts racking up a lot of the awards early in the ceremony,” he says. “People might just tune out.”

To keep interest high, “Hamilton” is said to be doing a sequence not yet seen on TV for the Tonycast. “I hope they hold ‘Hamilton’ until the last hour and give me the first,” Weissler says.

A Tony telecast bounce could be one more way in which the “Hamilton” surge benefits all of Broadway, where the general thinking is that any show that gets the wider world talking about theater lifts all. That includes productions on the road, where there’s already evidence that the national hype for “Hamilton” is fueling season-long subscription sales at regional presenters.

For the producers of the Tony telecast, the challenge will be to capitalize on all the “Hamilton” buzz while making sure the rest of Broadway gets its moment in the spotlight as well.

“Is Hamilton a juggernaut? Sure it is,” says Glenn Weiss, who exec produces the telecast with Kirshner. “But the process of putting this show together is interesting every year. ‘Hamilton’ just makes it a little more interesting.”

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