The American public still loves the theater, but the media is proving to be a tougher audience, especially on the local level. As such, PR pros have had to rework the way they publicize their plays.
Despite the seemingly endless entertainment options available to the average American, the theater remains a viable cultural force across the US, and as such continues to get its share of attention from a wide variety of media. Most major newspapers still have a resident theater critic, and the Tony Awards, celebrating Broadway's best, remain both a national TV staple and a major news story.
As it has for decades, The New York Times remains the center of theater journalism. Not only is theater advertising a major source of revenue for the paper's Arts section, but the good opinion of a Times critic remains the most sought after commodity for Broadway and off-Broadway alike. "The Times can absolutely send people in droves to a show," explains Chris Boneau, partner with New York-based Boneau/Bryan-Brown Promotions. "It can serve as a call to action."
Yet in recent years, the debate continues in the industry as to whether the Times still has the clout it had a decade ago, when critic Frank Rich, a.k.a. "The Butcher of Broadway, reigned. The recent revival of Thoroughly Modern Millie received a bad review from the Times, yet went on to garner five Tony Awards, and is still doing about $1 million in business weekly.
This tends to reinforce the long-held mantra of theater PR executives that good plays will eventually find their audience, with or without the help of the media. "What happens when you're in PR and have a hit show is that people come looking for you, says Boneau, citing Top Dog/Under Dog, which was playing to 25% capacity during its preview run, as an example.
"Then The New York Times gave it an incredible review the morning after it opened, and at 3pm that same day, Suzan-Lori Parks became the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize (for theater), he says. "In 24 hours the whole campaign shifted. Forty people wanted interviews and... we were doing sell-out business for the next two months."
Boneau says that burst of initial attention enabled the agency to reach out beyond theater reporters to a much broader audience, including African-American and music magazines such as Rolling Stone and Vibe. Parks was profiled by People, and Vogue very quickly put together a fashion shoot featuring the play's two stars, Mos Def and Jeffrey Wright.
PR plays to a tougher audience
But the publicity bonanza for shows like Top Dog/Under Dog and the upcoming adaptation of La Boheme by Moulin Rouge director Baz Luhrmann notwithstanding, theater PR is a tougher job than it was 10-20 years ago. In New York, for example, the local newspapers still have staff theater critics, as do magazines such as New York and The New Yorker, and the all-news affiliate NY1. But local TV outlets no longer have dedicated reviewers, and national outlets like Time and Newsweek have cut back coverage of the theater scene that takes place only blocks from their editorial headquarters.
A similar pattern is found in major markets around the US. Productions still get reviewed, but the PR pros we spoke to lament the lack of more comprehensive coverage. "Nobody has as much space as they used to, says Charles Zukow, founder of San Francisco-based Charles Zukow Associates.
"So we're competing for the same space with other forms of entertainment."
To combat this, publicists and producers have begun turning an aspect of a production into a media event. "When Disney opened up the box office for The Lion King in Los Angeles, they closed off Hollywood Boulevard, set up a stage, and did a major performance and presentation, says Wayne McWorter, marketing director for Broadway/LA. "They had 20 television crews covering it."
McWorter says much of his job involves national touring companies that stop for two weeks in cities like Los Angeles. With this type of tour, timing is everything. McWorter says, "We try and get something out to the local press about two months out, but a paper like the LA Times may want a longer lead time."
McWorter says one media trend that is working to his advantage is the move by many smaller Southern California papers to join consortiums and consolidate their coverage so the same entertainment content appears in multiple outlets. "It's an ideal situation for me because I'm dealing with big-name shows like South Pacific with Robert Goulet, he says. "But my concern is for the smaller community theaters that used to get stories in the local papers. Can they still get that story if the entertainment coverage is unified among seven newspapers?"
Roger Ricker, who handles PR for the Media Theatre in suburban Philadelphia, says smaller theaters who don't handle either national tours or plays featuring big-name celebrities simply have to work harder to get the attention of the media. "I work day and night getting information out regarding the musicals we put on, he says. "Sometimes they may not write up that press release, but if you keep sending them releases, eventually that editor will write about what we're putting on."
The road to Broadway has changed
One change that's occurred in major theater production has been the tapering back of the traditional pre-Broadway tryouts in cities such as Philadelphia, New Haven, CT, and Boston. Today, more and more shows opt to do a lengthy preview right on the Great White Way, and if there is an out-of-town tune-up, its likely to be in some relatively far-off locale such as San Diego or San Francisco.
Hairspray, a musical based on the John Waters movie, recently had is pre-Broadway tryout in Seattle. Tracey Wickersham, director of marketing and PR for Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre, says PR that began several months before the May 30 debut played an important role in generating buzz for what turned out to be a sell-out preview run. "Even though it is John Waters, and even though there was a movie,
you couldn't tell the story through just marketing, she says. "PR was able to tell people about this play, why it was interesting, and why it was going to be successful."
The positive buzz about Hairspray has already trickled back to New York.
But while a reporter from The New Yorker did arrive to do a background piece, and the Baltimore Sun covered the run as part of a six-part series chronicling the development of the play by one of its native sons, the major theater critics stayed away. "There's an unspoken agreement between the producers and the reviewing press where the latter understands that the show needs a certain amount of time to be refined," explains Wickersham.
Most theater critics have a limited geographic influence, but there are a few with national reputations. They include Ben Brantley of The New York Times, Steven Winn of the San Francisco Chronicle, John Simon of New York, John Lahr of The New Yorker, and Michael Phillips of the LA Times.
Most of the influential theater critics and reporters tend to be at consumer publications, but even the trade magazines such Variety and Backstage have found that insider news about the theater has appeal far beyond the show business world. "Despite the fact that this publication is specifically for actors, there are a lot of people who aren't actors who pick it up because they want to know what's going on in the acting world, notes Pamela Bock, web editor of Backstage West.
While theater coverage can be a struggle on the local level, the most encouraging sign for theater and stage publicists may be the gradual reemergence of a national audience. Not only do websites such as Broadway.com and Backstage.com cater to theater buffs across the US, but Playbill recently launched a national subscription-based print issue.
WHERE TO GO
Newspapers: The New York Times; New York Post; New York Daily News; Newsday; Baltimore Sun; Seattle Post-Intelligencer; San Francisco Chronicle; Los Angeles Times; Village Voice and other alternative weeklies
Magazines: Playbill; New York; New Yorker; Vogue; Elle; Time Out; Los Angeles
Trade titles: Variety; Backstage; The Hollywood Reporter
TV & Radio: NY1; NBC's Today; CBS' Early Show; Good Morning America; National Public Radio
Websites: Broadway.com; Playbill.com; Backstage.com.