Broadway TV Commercials - A history of Broadway on TV
Marketing a musical is no easy challenge. You can have the greatest show in the world with a string of awards to its name and rave reviews, but if the public don't know it's on - they won't be buying tickets. Commercial theatre is ruthless, and shows that don't turn a profit, however artistically successful they may be, will soon find themselves posting closing notices.
Watching new musicals open on both sides of the Atlantic, I'm often struck at the difference in efforts put in by productions in terms of marketing. Traditional ways of marketing include posters on the tube, London bus takeovers and the like - but with new media being front and centre in everyone's daily life - social media has taken over as a key way to reach a core demographic.
There are many things that contribute towards a successful marketing campaign, but I recently read a quote from a producer who has embraced new media's ability to lift a show from the 2D poster and place it into the 3D world - through EPK's (Electronic Press Kits) to YouTube videos, specially commissioned videos and clips from the show. Whilst artistically, many would argue that exposing too much detail from a particular production can ruin the surprise, history would argue that instead this visual experience engages the consumer more and boosts interest in seeing the show live.
The history of TV commercials on Broadway is exceptionally interesting. Pippin broke new ground when it became the first show to actively show footage of the production during the commercial, a move that took Broadway by storm, and changed how marketing would work forever. Bob Fosse's production originally opened on 23 October 1972, and ran for 1,944 performances before closing on 12 June 1977. Whilst it got off to a slow start, the combination of being a 'concept' musical and an unknown subject matter meant it was initially difficult to market.
Despite initial reservations from Fosse, he decided to choreograph and film a small 60 second segment of the production that showed Ben Vereen and two other dancers, Candy Brown and Pamela Sousa perform the "Manson Trio" from the song "Glory". The commercial ended with the tagline: "You can see the other 119 minutes of Pippin live at the Imperial Theatre, without commercial interruption."
The power of this commercial was so unique, that other productions soon got on the bandwagon, with some achieving more success than others. Since 1972, the practise is continued on both sides of the Atlantic, with commercials growing in size and stature - teams of people are now employed specifically to deliver the goods, with the hope that sales will pick up as the footage is beamed out across the country, and of course the world.
Whilst today it's even easier to tap into that market - as a TV spot isn't even needed to have the same effect. Video commercials can easily be shared and distributed online via social media and websites - footage from productions is now as vital as having an interesting poster.
Pippin aside, below is a selection of my personal favourite commercials from Broadway past:
1. A Chorus Line (1975)
Anything Bob Fosse can do, Michael Bennett can do better...A Chorus Line became an overnight sensation after transferring from the Public Theater downtown to the commercial Broadway sector, opening at the Schubert Theatre on 25 July 1975. Following Fosse's lead, the commercial shows footage from the show itself, going further and introducing the main characters and showing a selection of footage from the show in a form of montage. Notice the emphasis on the lines outside the theatre and the direct sales language. Rather than teasing - the language is now driving the hard sell, and it worked.
2. Chicago (1975)
Whilst Bennett's Chorus Line was packing them in at the Schubert, Fosse was attempting to out-do his nemesis with an original musical of his own. Now the longest running revival on Broadway, the original production of Chicago was quite different, and starred Fosse's wife Gwen Verdon opposite Chita Rivera. Notice how the commercial retains much of Pippin's charm, focusing on just a moment of the show rather than a montage, but relies on sex to sell the product.
3. On The Twentieth Century (1978)
The commercial for Cy Coleman's throw-back romp shows a different type of commercial, one that is directed and staged especially for the film. Rather than use stock footage or montage, the film has been directed with a wink and a nod to the camera, with the stars inviting you to be part of the mad-cap comedy, and it's extremely effective. Relying on the star names to sell the product, Coleman's driving melody is put centre stage and it ends up looking like a ride you want to be apart of.
4. Evita (1979)
As the Brits stormed Broadway, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's sensation hit the screens with a rather overwhelming advert showcasing the original Broadway cast. The commercial chooses to focus on the hit song "Don't Cry For Me Argentina", albeit with butchered lyrics and a peppy tempo, but as a tune people know they were certainly onto a winner. The powerful filming of LuPone's virtuoso performance continued to play around America long after she had gone. Watch her eyes at the end as she sings "star quality" and I dare you to not buy a ticket.
5. Nine (1982)
Sex sells was back on the menu at the 46th Street Theatre, as Tommy Tune's (troubled) musical 'Nine' was using all the guns in its artillery to ensure the show would win the Tony over Michael Bennett's 'Dreamgirls'. The marquee was decorated with extraordinary pictures of the stunning female cast, and after her number was censored from the Tony Awards telecast, this commercial ran to remind audiences that they were missing something quite unique. Anita Morris's performance in "Call From the Vatican" and her costume by William Ivey Long were the talk of the town - and the commercial plays on that fact to get the punters through the door. Who said straight men don't see musicals..?
6. The Rink (1984)
If Liza looks straight into your eyes and invites you to go round the rink with her - you do it. This troubled Kander and Ebb musical brought Chita Rivera her first Tony win, and through the power of roller skates attempted to bring something new to Broadway. Whilst the commercial doesn't break particular ground, it's worth it purely to see Chita and Liza bitch-slap each other. Iconic.
7. Starlight Express (1987)
Regardless of what you think about the show itself, can you imagine anything more powerful that being in mid-America and seeing this commercial for a Broadway musical that included people dressed as trains and slogans such as "The Race is On"? John Napier's incredible design and the breaking of the fourth wall meant that Andrew Lloyd Webber's latest musical was destined to be a crowd pleaser. The commercial sets up the unique show and successfully has you reaching for your Amex.
8. Carrie (1988)
Sometimes the best commercials don't require words at all, and instead rely on creating intrigue. Sadly, this misguided commercial of the mega-flop 'Carrie' has gone down in history alongside the show itself. The TV spot was probably the least of the production team's problems; following injuries and bad press, the production transferred from the RSC in Stratford Upon Avon to the Virginia Theatre, where it was met with boos following early previews. Backers withdrew their money and the show closed on 15 May after only 16 previews and 5 performances, making it the most expensive flop in Broadway history.
9. Big: The Musical (1996)
Another epic disaster came in the form of screen-to-stage adaptation of the lovable Tom Hanks film 'Big', which opened eventually at the Schubert Theatre in 1996, following rocky reviews in Detroit. The production was partly backed by Toy store F.A.O Schwartz, and commercially the potential for success was exceedingly high. The commercial taps into everything audiences remember from the film and heavily focuses the dancing piano scene, along with an exciting montage of shots from the rest of the show. Despite this effort, the show only managed to run for 193 performances.
Do you have a favourite Broadway TV commercial? Let us know!