Christopher Kuczewski is what you’d call a Netherling. It’s a reference to the netherworld inhabitants who populate “Beetlejuice: The Musical,” the off-beat adaptation of the 1988 hit film that’s becoming an unlikely Broadway turnaround story. And that designation, which has been given to superfans of the show, goes a long way towards explaining how a production that looked like it might have been a musical also-ran has outlasted the competition.
You see, Kuczewski is part of a legion of theatergoers who are seeing “Beetlejuice: The Musical” on multiple occasions, contributing to a sense of community that’s being reflected on social media channels. All told, Kuczewski, a 36-year old Quincy, Massachusetts native, has seen the show 11 times — eight during its current Broadway run and three during tryouts at Washington, DC’s National Theatre.
“There’s so much to love about the show — the score, the witty dialogue, the design, the staging,” says Kuczewski. “But I think the heart of the show is family and a sense of home, which is both surprising and touching. Several of the characters are struggling to find home, including the title demon, and a group of them are able to come together and form a strange and unusual family. That really resonates with me; I get chills and tear up every single time.”
Critics didn’t agree, including the New York Times, which dismissed the big-budget production as “absolutely exhausting.” And though “Beetlejuice: The Musical” was able to nab eight Tony nominations, including one for best musical, it went home empty handed when awards were finally handed out.
But something unexpected has happened in the weeks and months since “Beetlejuice: The Musical” opened to a lackluster critical response and scant awards love. The show just logged its highest weekly wrap on Nov. 10, with $1.48 million (it was down slightly at $1.37 million last week). That’s a big gain from the $600,000 and roughly $900,000 in weekly ticket sales that the show was averaging in April and June, respectively. In contrast, “Tootsie: The Musical,” which garnered great reviews and won Tonys for its book and lead performance after opening nearly concurrently with “Beetlejuice,” just announced it will close in January. Broadway show’s advance typically declines two to seven months into the run of a show.
With “Beetlejuice,” the advance has not just gone up, it has increased for 14 consecutive weeks, rising more than 100%. The producers expect that trend to continue into December and late November, when tourists hit the city for the holidays. It may not be outgrossing “Hamilton” or “Moulin Rouge!,” but its trajectory has been entirely unorthodox.
“We took an audience first approach,” said Mark Kaufman, one of the show’s producers and the executive VP of Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures. “We benefitted from good old-fashioned word-of-mouth.”
Kaufman and other producers quickly saw that the show wasn’t just playing to big laughs and standing ovations. It was inspiring them to share their enthusiasm by arriving outfitted as characters from the musical or by posting elaborate fan made videos on TikTok and YouTube. Some fans have even started meeting up after a performance to stage photo shoots. In response, the show tried to engage in contests and promotions on Facebook (where the show has 42,000 fans), Instagram (161,000 followers) and other platforms, encouraging guests to show up in outfits and doing promotions such as a “31 Days of Halloween” during which the show came up with giveaways, specialty cocktails, pub crawls, or other items during the month of October. At the same time, the buzz around the show has continued to build. That’s clearest in terms of how its soundtrack is being received. Its received 100 million streams in 21 weeks, faster than “Dear Evan Hanson” or “Mean Girls,” and narrowly behind “Hamilton,” which took 18 weeks to hit that plateau.
There was another important difference between “Beetlejuice”-heads and typical theater fans. When the producers looked at data on ticket sales they discovered that over a third of the show’s audience were first time buyers.
“We found a way to create theater for a mass public,” said Kaufman.
That required making tweaks to their marketing rollout. The show’s backers leaned more heavily on online spots than big placements in newspapers and billboards, hoping to engage with younger, more digitally savvy customers, while also offering lower-priced tickets. The message also changed. Early ads had been more irreverent. Later marketing materials emphasized that audiences were having fun and leaned into the sense of visual spectacle. They also highlighted Lydia, the show’s tween protagonist, as a way to connect with female ticket buyers.
The hope is that “Beetlejuice’s” unexpected longevity sets the show up for a promising future. Kaufman said that discussions are already underway about launching productions in London’s West End and in Australia, and a national tour is in the works.
“When people say go they can’t believe the turnaround, it’s sort of a backhanded compliment because I didn’t think we started from such a humble place,” said Kaufman. “But I also never thought we’d build to this kind of jump. It’s unprecedented.”