Episode 1 Transcript – Rick Miramontez
Ken: Hello, this is Ken Davenport. Welcome to The Producer’s Perspective Podcast. Every single day on my blog, The Producer’s Perspective.com, you get to hear my perspective about Broadway, but here on the podcast I sit down with an industry pro to get their perspective on our very unique and interesting industry. This week I’m talking to someone who is actually used to arranging interviews, not giving them. I am sitting across a wooden table right now from one of Broadway’s biggest and best spin masters. Yes, I’m talking about none other than Broadway’s powerhouse press agent, Rick Miramontez. Welcome, Rick!
Rick: Thank you. What an intro!
Ken: Rick is the president of O&M, a public relations shop on Broadway that represents some of the biggest shows in town, including Kinky Boots, which happens to be one of my shows, It’s Only a Play, which is also mine, Gentleman’s Guide, not mine . . . I’m mad at Rick for not getting me on that show since it won the Tony . . . Beautiful, Side Show, the upcoming Finding Neverland and a whole bunch of other shows from previous seasons, including that little show that no one has ever talked about in the press called Spider-Man. Rick was recently profiled in a massive article in the New York Times, you should Google it, it’s a fantastic read, an interesting insight into what makes press on Broadway work. And in addition to being known for his way with the press, he’s also got one of the best fashion tastes in the industry. So a big welcome to Rick. We’ll start off with a very simple one. Rick, you are a press agent on Broadway. In a sentence or two, very quick, what do you think the definition of that role is?
Rick: The Broadway press agent is the person responsible for creating as much noise that costs the producers net zero dollars, in terms of selling tickets, and our partner in crime would be the show’s advertising agency. And of course producers spend a lot of money at the hands of that ad agency, buying ads, but we’re responsible for creating interest in the show, attention on the airwaves and in print, etc., etc., all for free, basically.
Ken: Except for your fee, which is miniscule compared to what we would pay for a New York Times ad.
Rick: I would totally agree. What you pay for a New York Times ad is defined and it’s very expensive, but what we can do for you is literally priceless – you cannot buy it.
Ken: Now we worked together a very long time ago.
Ken: On the Jekyll and Hyde tour.
Rick: A tour of Jekyll and Hyde, yes.
Ken: That was 15 years ago or something like that.
Ken: Tell me a little bit about your path to becoming a press agent and how you ended up here today.
Rick: I grew up in Los Angeles and I loved showbiz, but the part of showbiz I loved was really the theater and performance. Never really the movies, which is interesting to me and to people when I explain where I’m from. But I grew up not far from the music center of Los Angeles, which is the Lincoln Center counterpart, a wonderful performance space, and at the time there were two producers there who did spectacular work, genre-defining work: Gordon Davidson and Robert Fryer, who was a legendary Broadway producer who brought in big stars and traditional plays. And then, across the plaza, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the legendary producers Feuer and Martin presided over the LA Civic Light Opera. So as a student in high school and later in college, back in those days, $3 would get you a student ticket to see amazing, amazing work, and I was hooked. While I was never an actor or a performer, necessarily, I wanted to be a part of the theater and I read a copy of New York Magazine, because that was my true life’s ambition, to live in New York. And there was a cover story about Stephen Schwartz’s upcoming Broadway musical, Working, and people working on Working, and there were behind-the-scenes profiles, and there was a profile about the press agent of Working. And I thought, “Wow, that’s so interesting,” because I saw what eventually turned out to be true. This is the person who’s involved in every little bit, a 360-degree view of the entire Broadway scene. They’re in contact with the actors and the creatives and the producers and the ad people and the audience and the ushers and the media. So I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I became a journalism major in college and around that time I just started interning around. And Los Angeles had this funky theater scene called Equity Waiver – theaters with 99 seats or less sprouting everywhere – a very, very vibrant and interesting theater scene. And I just became very useful there, to the producers of these small shows, and then I became an intern at the music center. And then one of those lucky breaks happened where the guy who was then the PR man of Robert Fryer’s theater group, Ahmanson, was going onto bigger things in the organization, and he thought very highly of me, and he introduced me to Mr. Fryer. And literally two weeks before I graduated from college they basically gave me the whole department. It was one of those, “I don’t want to do it. Give it to the kid, he’ll do it,” and that was an amazing break. I remember my first day on the job, my first paying job in the theater, I was sitting in a rehearsal room, listening to Lillian Hellman answer questions of the cast of Another Part of the Forest. So it was spectacular, and Mr. Fryer, may he rest in peace, and what a troublemaker he was, and a great tastemaker, said, “Kid, you’ve got to pay attention to what you’re doing right now and really serve these people that you’re working with, because they will take care of you for the rest of your life.” And that’s really proven to be true, particularly with moving to New York.
Ken: That’s fantastic advice about taking care of those people. As a producer I have to think of the same thing. How do I take care of the artists, the actors and the audience, of course?
Ken: Is there a secret to a show getting great press these days? Are there certain ingredients for a show that gets the attention of the press and the audience?
Rick: I think it’s two things. The obvious answer, the elephant in the room, is if you have a big star in a production the phone will ring and you basically just answer the phone, and you’re a glorified secretary, and you’re just setting up appointments and interviews and TV appearances, etc. It’s not the most interesting kind of work for me but one is very grateful when it happens. It’s so hard, usually, and I welcome that “challenge,” but I think the real thing that creates a winning moment for a show is the theme: what it is about, how an audience relates to it, and the moment in time in which it’s being presented. There are moments in our world when people need comedies. It’s Only a Play is sort of like lightning in a bottle, but I saw that it might be because that show is really interesting. It is a very, very funny show about the theater that will appeal to a lot of people, and the cast features the sort of Olivier of comedy, of Broadway, of our moment, Nathan Lane – but also Nathan paired with the spectacular Matthew Broderick, which is a duo that will go down in legend in any industry, and then a cast that is full of other star names. So it’s a show about the theater, a comedy about the theater, that just seems so glamourous to the world at large. So I knew it would be a huge hit, but I think it wouldn’t be as big a hit if, in 2014, we didn’t need to have to laugh so much. I’ve always admired Nathan but it is an amazing thing to stand in the back of that house and watch him open that play and perform that scene with the new kid, Micah Stock, who is wonderful, and to just see how he pleases an audience and how he controls the audience and how artful he really is. It’s extraordinary.
Ken: If you could choose only one of these three things for a show – a Tony Award, a glowing review from Ben Brantley – the best review he’s ever written – or a star, a big Hollywood star – which of those three would you choose? You only get one – God comes down and says, “Rick, on your next show, you get one of these three things.” Which one would you choose?
Rick: I’m going to pick the one that would surprise me: a Tony Award. I will tell you, the star thing is, – even if it’s a big star – it only works, to me, it’s only foolproof if it is the right star at the right time. I won’t name names, but I’ve seen it not work as well. The Tony Award – and I only bring that up because we represent A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, and A Gentleman’s Guide is what you would probably classify, in Broadway terms, as a hard sell. It’s a very artful piece that does not have the full-throttle, populist appeal that other shows might, although it is side-splittingly funny and very appealing. But it is a hard sell. I’ve got to tell you, I have never seen what a Tony Award does for a show like I did for that. I’ve talked to people about that, and we just sort of came to the consensus that nowadays the imprimatur of a Tony for best musical or best play is truly, more than ever, the good housekeeping seal of approval, and it’s marketing shorthand – if somebody comes into town, people go to the theater now in a more limited way than they used to (obviously that has to do with the cost of tickets), and they need to see “the” show, instead of a moment in time when they might have gone to four of five shows a year. It’s not as casual a decision, and the Tony Award, nowadays, as I’m discovering with the winner of last year, means more than it ever has. And it kind of means everything because, as much as I love that show, I can see that it got a great a rave review from the New York Times but that didn’t do the whole thing for it. It was really when the Tony Award was given to them over other deserving shows and almost in the weeks preceding that when it got the most nominations. There was really no looking back for those guys.
Ken: Yeah, I graphed that out on the blog and saw a significant upswing when those nominations came out. It was as if they had heard all of the good buzz, and there was word of mouth about that show on the street, and all of a sudden there was a stamp of approval when it appeared in the press that Gentleman’s Guide led the way.
Rick: Hear, hear.
Ken: So you got that rave in the Times for Gentleman’s Guide and I’ve seen other shows get raves. Side Show just got one. Do reviews matter now as much as they used to? How has that changed? We all still want it. We want that New York Times review. Do they make or break shows like they used to?
Rick: I think it matters, and I was just speaking to a very important producer about a show that is opening off-Broadway and she said to me (and of course I presented the entire upside: “I think this show we’re working on is going to be fantastic,” etc.), and she said, “But if we don’t have the Times, we have nothing.” It hasn’t, in recent moments, been explained to me in such stark terms. So there is this idea that it is make or break with a New York Times rave, but I don’t think the New York Times can make or break a show anymore. I think it can be helpful and, for all kinds of reasons (mostly opaque, not at the box office), it could be really helpful, but I wouldn’t say it’s the most important ingredient in the selling of a show.
Ken: You just made a lot of producers that are listening feel a lot better! I certainly agree – we’ve seen a lot of shows that have not gotten the reviews that they would have dreamed about that have gone on to massive, massive success, which is good. We’ll extend that a little bit to the customer reviews – do you find those matter? Are you hearing producers talk more about the comments on the New York Times website or Yelp reviews or bloggers’ reviews? Do you think that’s important?
Rick: I think it is important, because it’s really a reflection of the most important selling tool, the most important ingredient in the marketing of a show: word of mouth. It’s an extension of that. It’s a little like the Wild West right now, so who’s to know how much it means? And is there a portal to funnel those opinions as excitingly and powerfully as there might be? I don’t know about that, but word of mouth is the whole ball game, is the entire tamale – it’s the meal – and those comments are a reflection of that.
Ken: This happened to me, which is why I bring it up: you are working on a show, you’re out of money, advertising dollars, you’ve got nothing, that’s it. But everyone believes that there’s still something there that people are enjoying. What would you tell the producer to do? What is something they can do that doesn’t cost $100,000, like putting a full page ad in the New York Times? The reviews have gone away at that point – what would you tell the producer? How would you generate some interest in the show?
Rick: That’s exactly where we get the call. There is a project that I’m quietly keeping my eye on that’s sort of in a similar situation, and the producer of that articulated the potential end game, what he referred to as the Hail Mary pass: you’re at the ten yard line, you can see a clearing and you get one last pass off and maybe they’ll catch it in the end zone on the other side of the field – and I think it’s really just making that clearing happen. I would probably – I don’t have anything specific, I am talking “probably” because we are talking about Hail Mary pass time. If the audience doesn’t love it you’re basically dead, or if the show is just not good. But really it’s the audience who makes that determination. You’ve got to try to keep it open as long as you can – it’s sort of playing the clock out, and I would come up with three or four outrageous publicity stunts that cost nothing that might generation attention that the producer can afford.
Ken: You’ve worked with a lot of producers over the years. I won’t ask you to tell me who your favorites or your least favorites are (unless you want to), but can you tell me some of the characteristics that you think the best producers that you’ve worked with have? What does it take to be a great producer in today’s market?
Rick: There are two attributes that I look for. One – and this is a basic – is good taste. Somebody with good taste, and by “good taste” I mean they are passionate about the theater, they are passionate about making good shows happen, they are passionate about Broadway, and they know how to deliver something with class, and something that’s worth $150 a ticket. Secondly, the really great producers are the one who are the most collaborative, the ones who you really have a relationship with, meaning they ingratiate themselves to you as much as they want you to do the same for them, and they listen to you and they take your opinion to heart. There is one producer, and I won’t name them because I’m not going to name any of them, but we work so well together because he really trusts me, we get each other, and that’s such an important ingredient because we can get so much work done in shorthand. He said, “Even when you are trying to manipulate me and you’re spinning me, I trust that you’re doing it for a reason. You’re trying to get me to do something that otherwise wouldn’t happen and I will go with it,” and I think that generousness of spirit, and trust, and ability to see another POV, and to pay attention to a professional, is really winning.
Ken: Obviously you have a great relationship with him if he’s calling you out on spinning him.
Ken: He can recognize it and call you out! That’s really great. The thing that I always find interesting is that there are only three ad agencies in town that do all of the shows. Microsoft and Apple would never share the same ad agency, but on Broadway we don’t have enough business to have 27 ad agencies or 27 press reps, so you’re often faced with the difficult decision – and position sometimes – of representing shows that are competing, or in the same season. Last year is a perfect example of that, with Gentleman’s Guide and Beautiful, both of which came out to be monster hits, one winning the Tony, one not, but both entering the $1 million club. How do you deal with conflicts like that, and what do you tell producers who are unsure about, “Hey, you’re having a meeting right after this one with the show that’s trying to steal the Tony away from us?”
Rick: You know, it’s funny, the adventure of last year, where we were literally involved with all four best musical nominees. It was really interesting because it taught me two things – not that I don’t behave that way anyway, but there were two factors at play that were required because of the unique circumstances. Number one, campaign on your positives. Do not try to tear down the competition. We’ve all been involved in campaigns where the converse was the case. It’s a much better approach, a much more powerful approach. Number two, what this is all about, really, is a much bigger assignment than any one show. It’s about making the Broadway experience more exciting. Not that I’m not fiercely competitive, just focusing single-mindedly on any one show, but I think the Broadway assignment, the idea that theatergoing, that seeing any one of these 50 shows that are on at given time, is the ultimate good that I can provide my industry with. That became very apparent then, and it almost made the one show competing against the other puny. Then you’re just dealing with personalities and managing personalities. It felt very high school in a way, which I love. I do tell nervous nominees, “Don’t sweat it. This is like running for class president in high school.”
Ken: I love that analogy. Let’s talk about the big superhero in the room for a second. In my lifetime, certainly, and perhaps in Broadway history, no show has generated the amount of press that Spider-Man generated. For a while, at every event I spoke at, everyone asked me about Spider-Man. I had friends calling me from Oklahoma that I went to high school with, saying, “Ken, what did you hear about this Spider-Man musical?” I hadn’t spoken to them in 20 years. It probably, from the outset, had to be one of the most challenging public relations shows to work on, yet I would give you the compliment that, from the outside, looking at you and how you handled it, it didn’t seem hard, from what you were presenting and putting out in the press. So tell me now that it’s years behind us, what was it like for you? Was it hard? Were you tearing your hair out? Were you conflicted? Did you want to quit? Did you want to work harder? How was it to work on that show?
Rick: You know, it’s funny, it really taught me some basic principles, or solidified some basic principles that I will always live with. One: protecting the artists and sticking up for the artists. Because the tougher it got, the more I just dug in my heels, because I was sticking up for the people making the show and particularly the people on stage. They were the true heroes. They were rehearsing, at one point, a new show in the day and then doing that show at night. There were these awful things being said about the show, and they had to go and do the show that night and defend the thing while they were actually performing in a complicated show. There were some very serious dramatic moments that tested their mettle, and I just felt like the guy who wanted to stick up for them – not just sell the show, but it felt like an even bigger mission. It was such a great story and I really believed in it, although there were others who didn’t. It’s interesting – I hear from others about my participation in this and I am viewed as sort of a Johnny Cochran figure, somebody who was really great on behalf of his client but on the wrong side of the story. I never saw it that way. I always thought it was great for Broadway for all of this chatter to happen, and I’ve got to tell you, one thing I learned from Spider-Man – which is a very practical and powerful PR lesson – is that you should take the most negative aspect of what your project is and turn that into your shiniest object. And it was a very good assignment. I was forced to do it on that one, but I really learned some skills that I didn’t have until that point. And, secondly, the opportunity to just have a focus on a Broadway show like that was so rare that that was the great thing. The spinning of it was just a joyous opportunity, like being a kid in a candy store, and I saw the results of that because people around the world – and you’re absolutely right, I have been in parts of the world where I cannot imagine anybody would even have Broadway in their consciousness, and people wanted to know all about Spider-Man. “What was going on with Spider-Man?” The engagement was amazing. But what happened with it – and I would like to take credit for the sense of humor with which we handled it –people heard so much about the show, and they wanted to come and see the show, and I could feel from the audience, when they were in the house and the curtain was going up, they were kind of rooting for the show. And I think they saw a better show than might have been on that stage, so it was really a very fun example of how what we do has a direct effect on the show. But really, personally, it was just about being a part of that team with those artists. I get so choked up – when Reeve Carney showed up, this little indie rocker, golden boy, or whatever, a beautiful guy, and we started the show . . . frankly, he had an amazing voice, an amazing presence, but he couldn’t sell it to the tenth row. And by the time he left that show that dude could play the Garden and sell you what he was singing, back row included. Just amazing. Of course, Mr. Tierney, who had the fall, Patrick Page, who’s such a great leader – it was the experience of a lifetime.
Ken: Is all press good press? That show sold a tremendous amount of tickets early on – do you believe in that old cliché?
Rick: I believe in it because there were some really dirty snowballs thrown at us, some very, very funny curveballs thrown at us, and we just handled each and every one of them, I think. There probably isn’t, certainly in politics and other industries I’m sure it’s not the case, but if you’re talking about Spider-Man that adage is absolutely true.
Ken: One last question. We live in a very dysfunctional industry. We all love it desperately, and what I love about you is that it comes out in every word that you say. I can tell how passionate you are about this now that I know more about backstory, about where you started. It’s not too often we steal someone away from LA and Hollywood, and all of Broadway is thankful for that. But there are things obviously that make what we do every single day challenging. Some people may say it’s unions, some people may say it’s ticketing companies. If you could change one thing about Broadway, you were given one wish. You could add ten more theaters, you could have no unions. What one thing would you do that you think could make Broadway a better place?
Rick: I am going to be very practical and say I would point the finger at the media, and the new media, and the print media coverage for Broadway and the way they treat Broadway. It’s a very obvious comment, but Broadway matters less because they are covering it less. I think if we could do one thing I would bring us back to 1965, when a Broadway show was in the national consciousness and the president of the United States would come and see a Broadway show because he was in New York, etc., etc. I think that would do a lot for the stature of Broadway. But the reason why I would do that is because it’s true, it is important. I think it makes our media less important because they don’t cover us, it doesn’t make us less important. So that’s one thing. If I ruled the world I would start with the networks and go from there.
Ken: That is a great answer. Alright, we’re going to let Rick get back to creating buzz for all of those shows so that he doesn’t have angry producers burning up his phone lines. Thank you so much for sitting down with me.
Rick: My pleasure.
Ken: And thanks to all of you for tuning in. We’ll see you next time on The Producer’s Perspective Podcast.