NEW YORK – All winter and spring, the Broadway producer Joey Parnes wore his game face to the advertising meetings at 11:30 a.m. Wednesdays for his $7.5 million musical “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder.” The show was losing money most weeks, and his big bet – that the June 8 Tony Awards could be a game changer – was a ways off and hardly a sure thing.
But Parnes had reasons to hope. His budget included a $1 million reserve to absorb operating losses. There were some profitable weeks, but he did not pay anything back to investors, relatively unusual for eight months of performances. Nor did he indulge in panic spending during slow weeks, instead building a nest egg for ads if the musical hit a gusher of Tony nominations. (It did, 10, the most of any show.)
Perseverance paid off. Parnes walked into last Wednesday’s meeting at SpotCo, an entertainment advertising agency, with the Tony Award for best musical in hand, twirling its medallion before setting the prize on a conference table. And then he said what everyone in the Broadway industry is wondering: “So now what do we do?”
“Gentleman’s Guide,” a clever comic musical about a British heir driven to murder, is a test case for the impact of the Tony for best musical, as Parnes and his marketing team try to create a hit show where none existed before. An ideal plan is to become the next “Avenue Q,” which won the Tony in 2004 and grew into a smash that ran for five years, longer than many initially expected. Or perhaps “Gentleman’s Guide” will have a trajectory like “Memphis,” which had strong summer sales after winning in 2010 but then settled into an uneven two-year run that barely turned a profit.
The reality, however, as Parnes’ question to his ad team conveyed, is that the future for “Gentleman’s Guide” is muddier than most best musical winners have faced. The show is generating less buzz than “Avenue Q” and far less than recent winners like “Kinky Boots” and “The Book of Mormon,” according to Broadway group sales agents. Nor does “Gentleman’s Guide” have the base of audience members that helped earlier winners like “Memphis,” which attracted black theatergoers, and “In the Heights,” which appealed to Hispanic ones.
Perhaps the biggest challenge is that “Gentleman’s Guide” comes off like a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, twee at times, with a winking sense of humor and a script heavy on wordplay. Given that the musical lacks stars, its advertising has emphasized this cleverness – such as television spots featuring the plummy voice of David Hyde Pierce sardonically jousting with its two lead actors in their Edwardian garb.
“The groups that are thoroughly enjoying it are white women in their 50s and 60s, middle-class traditional theatergoers who like that it’s not risqué,” said Stephanie Lee, president of Group Sales Box Office, a leading Broadway ticket agency. “A Broadway show needs a bigger audience base to have a long run.”
But rather than try to broaden the show’s appeal to tourists and others with an altogether new message, the “Gentleman’s Guide” producers and their SpotCo team are doubling down, with more ads under consideration in which Hyde Pierce tells viewers that they are “woefully behind the curve” if they haven’t seen the show. They will also run online ads on BBC.com in hope of reaching the “Downton Abbey” crowd, as well as on other websites like The Huffington Post and Entertainment Weekly.
The big difference in these new ads, as shown in a 30-image slideshow at the SpotCo meeting last week, is that they relentlessly hammer home the idea that “Gentleman’s Guide” is the best musical of the year.
That will be the message on the show’s first billboard in Times Square, which will be up shortly; a 13-panel advertisement in the Columbus Circle subway station, a major hub near the Upper West Side; and more ads on television and in newspapers and new ones in magazines like The New Yorker, People and GQ. This new spending is expected to total about $50,000 a week.
Parnes bristles at the word “operetta” and sees his show as much more than that: the funniest new musical comedy of the season, with an astonishing central performance by Jefferson Mays, who changes costumes at lightning speed to play eight roles. Building an ad campaign around Mays might have been possible if he had won the Tony for best actor; it went to another nominee, Neil Patrick Harris of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”
The new television ads do play up the show’s comic timing, but the win for best musical Tony dominates. Hence some new ads featuring one of Mays’ characters holding up the Tony, next to the words “The Best Musical!” as he sits on a falling piano meant for some poor bloke’s head.
The post-Tonys picture is bleaker for other new Broadway shows that can’t make that claim. The musical “After Midnight” will close June 29 after failing to win best musical.
“Bullets Over Broadway” and “Rocky” both had big musical numbers on the CBS telecast of the Tony Awards, which can sometimes juice ticket sales, but that remains to be seen. “Rocky” has the benefit of the deep pockets of its lead producer, Stage Entertainment, but high running costs mean it is still losing money most weeks.
On the brighter side, Disney’s “Aladdin” is the highest-grossing show of the spring, now in the $1.2 million a week range, with advanced ticket sales of more than $18 million. “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” whose star, Jessie Mueller, won a best actress Tony, is grossing $1 million a week and has advance sales approaching $10 million, compared with $8 million before the Tonys. And “If/Then” has its popular star, Idina Menzel, under contract into spring 2015.
“It’s a good thing to win,” Kyle Young, SpotCo’s vice president for digital strategy, said as he reviewed the positive upticks.
The conference room erupted in laughter at the understatement, after the grim winter. Parnes raised his palms as if to high five everyone.
“It’s a very good thing,” he said with a smile.