Marketing Broadway Musicals: Moving Beyond Cookie-Cutter

The company of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. Photo: Gretjen Helene, American Repertory Theater.

In the crowded past season for new Broadway musicals, the landscape offered an embarrassment of riches for all audiences. Hailed as a “record breaking season” with grosses of $1.45 billion and audiences of 13.27 million, the success of two shows alone — Hello, Dolly! and Dear Evan Hansen — drove up the box-office along with such old-time commercial hits as The Lion King, still selling out after nearly 20 years. Whilst the overall artistic quality of any season is obviously debatable, the diversity of the products during the past Broadway season has to be one of the most interesting in years. From shows based on pre-existing source material to original stories to adapted takes on familiar themes, visitors like me to NYC are spoilt for choice when it comes to stumping up for a ticket.

But not every production shares a piece of the pie. This is also the headline for any Broadway season, but this year it requires further examination.

The challenge for any season of diverse and complex musicals is an understanding by producers and marketing teams of whom their specific audience is and how their show can rise above the noise and speak to that (potentially) new audience. Seasons come and seasons go and each has its own success stories. As the rat-run of awards season begins and the fight for pull-quotes and media attention spins out of control, the more traditional marketing methods are overly relied upon, such as reviews from The New York Times slapped front and centre on print ads or else projected across Times Square like a bat signal for audiences looking for a guaranteed good time.

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Do traditional marketing methods do justice to and serve the product? As the commercial Broadway musical further diversifies and pushes boundaries in terms of form and content, so should our attitude and behaviour in marketing them. Working in the industry for the last five years in London, you notice — as in NYC — cookie-cutter patterns trotted out as each new show is announced. From show launches to long-form print features to video show-reels, Broadway musicals tend to be marketed the same way. No marketing company would suggest promoting a 12-day Alaskan cruise in the same way they would a spring-break trip to Aruba. Why should marketing musicals be any different?

Part of the problem is that the public consciously still regards “musical theatre” as one identity. Whilst some people are quick to say “I don’t like musicals” or “musicals don’t appeal to me,” we know that when pushed on why that is, their answers and reasoning becomes less concrete. People rarely say “I don’t like films” or “I don’t like music,” and we need to understand why that is. We need to embrace the fact that unpicking the tastes, likes and dislikes of any consumer takes time. With the right amount of effort, it can be done, and to great effect.

The success of Hamilton has obviously reinvented what it means to be musical theatre, to be absorbed into the cultural zeitgeist. This is why Hamilton stands aside from almost anything else on stage during the past decade as it brings new audiences in, often for the first time. Every show can’t, and shouldn’t be, Hamilton. But reinvigorated interest in musical theatre as legitimate entertainment has the potential to draw a wider crowd — one that doesn’t necessarily recognise a New York Times pull-quote as some gold standard of achievement.

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Knowing how to sell a piece of theatre is a highly skilled art form; some companies do it very well. For every Hamilton, however, there’s a Tuck Everlasting or an Amelie — promising shows that fail to make the commercial cut. During my time in NYC, I saw 10 shows over seven days; away from the artificial trappings of opening nights and luvvie audiences, you begin to understand that each of these shows can, or should, speak to a unique set of people. From the audience at Bandstand, representing an older set drawn to the postwar-era style and music, to a younger set at The Great Comet embracing an innovative presentation, what’s clear is that the two products couldn’t be more different. Each presents different marketing challenges and opportunities. Each speaks to the need for marketers to move well beyond the tried-and-tested to move effectively with the times.

I’m not suggesting a lack of crossover appeal between Broadway musicals: there will always be a core base of theatregoers drawn to it no matter how it is presented. It’s the more casual, once-a-year ticket buyer who interests me the most, from the tourist box-checking NYC activities to the family celebrating an anniversary to the couple out for a night’s entertainment. Intrigued by familiar names, word of mouth or recommendations from a concierge, there can be dozens of reasons for attending a certain show. But as content pushes in multiple directions, so the marketing must reflect segmented audiences.

Look at A Bronx Tale: The Musical, arguably the most quietly successful musical on Broadway right now. It received no Tony nominations. It received fair reviews, not over-the-top, fantastic ones. But as the Times recently reported, the show’s marketing strategy works because it’s winning “suburban love,” not “Broadway prestige.” A Bronx Tale: The Musical appeals to a different audience than, say, Dear Evan Hansen, but its real success comes from its marketing company knowing its potential audience and how to target them for successful conversions. The show, since it opened, has consistently achieved at least 83% of its gross potential and played to least 90% of capacity — no mean feat for a show that critics and theatre-wags have openly sniffed at.

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This past Broadway season offers other case studies. The millennial and teenage market is particularly strong, not only due to Dear Evan Hansen, but also Anastasia. These are musicals that speak to people other than the Long Island boomers drawn to A Bronx Tale or well-heeled, grey-haired Manhattanites. I spoke to audiences at each show I attended on my visit, asking why they were there. The responses were shockingly different each time. At The Great Comet, the couple next to me had never seen a musical before on Broadway yet knew from social media that this was a new and exciting style of show. At A Doll’s House Part 2, I sat next to an older New Yorker attracted by the critical buzz surrounding both the play and Laurie Metcalf’s performance. At Come From Away, I was sat with two Canadians in town for a conference who “simply had to see” this show that everyone back home was talking about. The suffering husband beside me at Hello, Dolly! sighed at the fact he had been dragged there by his wife and repeatedly asked me how much longer I thought it would drag on for (another issue entirely).

These responses, though unscientific, confirm that there’s no obvious formula to marketing a Broadway musical, and that, in a crowded spring, audiences have a wealth of options to suit different tastes. I was struck by the diversity of audiences at 10 very different shows, yet around NYC I didn’t particularly notice any effort to embrace or utilise different methods of conveying that message beyond the usual approaches. Ads for Hello, Dolly! hang from many streets and avenues, yet three sets of native New Yorkers I met had no clue that Bandstand was happening, or that Amelie had enjoyed a brief run. As producers and creatives work harder to provide audiences with new, exciting productions, marketing companies need think outside of the box when it comes to driving their messages home.