Selling Out: Stars, Gimmicks, or Great Ideas?

William Wolf reports on Drama Desk's February panel featuring a bevy of press agents talking shop.

How do you make a show a hit and keep it running? Do you always need a major star? Can publicity ploys give a production a lift? How has the Internet and social media changed the potential for reaching the public?

These were some of the questions examined at Drama Desk’s panel discussion “You Gotta Have a Gimmick…Or a Star.” Moderated by Randie Levine-Miller, Drama Desk Director of Special Events, and featuring critic and author Peter Filichia as well as press agents John Ellis, Susan Schulman and Leslie Baden-Papa, the event was held on February 10 at Stage 72, The Triad.

Levine-Miller’s incisive questions elicited anecdotes and views concerning panelists’ past and present experiences trying to boost the success of shows -- or at least keep up the production’s momentum.  On the star issue, there was no argument that a film and stage luminary like Hugh Jackman can sell tickets. Baden-Papa cited The Producers as an example of a show that absolutely depended on its stars, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. Their replacements after they left the show simply didn’t move tickets, she said.

The star actor’s willingness to do publicity also figures in promoting a show successfully. Josh Ellis’s long experience as press agent allows him to remember the reluctance of the Andrews Sisters to do interviews and, conversely, commend Yul Brynner as being especially cooperative.

“I had a very close relationship with Brynner,” Ellis stated. “He became almost like a father to me, and the saddest thing I ever had to do was make the announcement of his death.”

Susan Schulman, who has recently written an entertaining and informative memoir titled Backstage Pass to Broadway, mentioned how uncooperative Lesley Ann Warren was in a show in which she starred. Schulman reported that Warren didn’t even want to rehearse with others but wanted to do so in a separate room.

The most colorful aspects of the discussion centered on the use of publicity ploys or “gimmicks.” Schulman spoke of promoting one production by having a contest to find the most beautiful pig. Ellis recalled how distinguished actress Eva Le Gallienne agreed graciously to become involved in choosing a pig to be in a show. Asked why she chose the pig she did, she is reported to have said it was the most intelligent.

Ellis paid tribute to the late David Merrick as the most astute and innovative theater promoter. He would famously find regular theatergoers, with the same names as theater critics, to give rave quotes for a show. But Ellis described how Merrick came up with the idea of inviting the press to watch children. Merrick parlayed the idea by setting up an event with an audience in attendance and having the curtain rise on a stage full of the dancing, auditioning children.

Baden-Papa cited a recent ploy at Rock of Ages: during the Super Bowl frenzy in New York this winter, a group of NFL players appeared on stage.

Filicia, former Drama Desk President and author of Strippers, Showgirls, and Sharks, spoke seriously on the subject of the relationship between theater and critics. He noted that the New York Times still has the power to influence the fate of a show. When the matter arose concerning some reviews that refer to elements from an actor’s real life that has nothing to do with the actual performance, he was adamant that theater critics judge only what is on stage. Other panelists agreed. Schulman said that she hoped Woody Allen’s coming Bullets Over Broadway should be judged on its merits, not on the current flap involving accusations against him.

Schulman, with others nodding agreement, pointed to changes in the press landscape. In bygone days there were more newspapers reviewers and more television critics; but with those traditional sources dwindling, the Internet and social media have become outlets where comments fly by faster. It was necessary for press agents, she said, to have a whole new list of contacts.

At times, there was a cozy feeling on the panel between those presenting theater and those reviewing it, as if all should be united in the same common objective—sort of one big happy family—to help the theater thrive. But critics have to be independent and express their own pro or con views, no matter how acerbic, without worrying about whether the show will be successful or not. A critic’s main responsibility is to his or her audience of readers.

Whether a show succeeds or fails should not be the concern of the critic, who is there to express a personal analysis. The critic is not a part of the industry.

An earlier version of this piece was posted on wolfentertainmentguide.com, February 11, 2014.