10 Questions for a Broadway Pro. Volume 1: A Broadway Mad Man.

Today on The Producer’s Perspective we’re introducing a brand new feature, which is a spin-off on my Advice From An Expert articles.

In “10 Questions for a Broadway Pro,” I ask . . . yep . . . a Broadway Industry Professional 10 Questions!

We’ll talk to all sorts of people involved in the modern theater and get their perspective on their job, their role in the biz and what they’d like to see change.  We’re gonna hear from Casting Directors, Marketing Directors, Press Agents, and more (let me know if there is a position you’d like to hear from).

The inspiration for this feature came from my first gig on a Broadway show.  I was the Production Assistant on the Barry and Fran Weissler revival of My Fair Lady, starring Richard Chamberlain and a 23-year-old Melissa Errico.  My duties included everything from getting Richard his fresh-off-the-bone turkey sandwiches to typing up the rehearsal schedule on a Mac Classic.

And it was one of the greatest times of my life.

The best part about the gig was that I was exposed to a whole bunch of people and positions that I never knew existed before.  The job gave me a chance to see who was pulling the curtain strings of Broadway . . . and made me realize that I was even more excited about being behind-the-scenes rather than in them (I was on the actor-track).

I used to ask everyone involved in the show questions about what they did. Thanks to their answers, I learned so much about what I wanted to do and what I didn’t want to do.

So, I thought I’d give you a virtual experience of what I went through back then, and introduce you to not only the biggest players on Broadway whose names aren’t on the marquees, but also help us all understand what exactly they do on a day-to-day basis.

First up is one of Broadway’s own Mad Men, Drew Hodges, the founder and CEO of SpotCo, one of the two Broadway heavyweight ad agencies.  (Drew also happens to be #21 on BroadwaySpace.com’s 50 Most Powerful People.)

Having sat in many an ad meeting with Drew, I can tell you that he’s one of a very rare hybrid that combines incredible business acumen with unbridled creativity.

Without further ado, here are 10 Questions with Drew!

1.    What is your title?

Founder, SpotCo Advertising

2.    What show/shows are you currently working on?

Next Fall, Million Dollar Quartet, La Cage, Memphis, A Behanding in Spokane, Chicago, The Pee Wee Herman Show, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Hair, A View From the Bridge, Billy Elliot, Fences, Time Stands Still, Red, In The Heights,  The 39 Steps, Avenue Q, West Side Story, Come Fly Away, Lips Together Teeth Apart, Present Laughter, The Miracle Worker, Blue Man Group, Radio City Christmas Spectacular, Love Never Dies.  In no particular order.

3.    In one sentence, describe your job.

We create identities and sell tickets for live theatrical events.

4.    What skills are necessary for a person in your position?

Creativity, marketing, problem solving, humility, humor, and fast thinking.

5.    What kind of training did you go through to get to your position?

I owned my own design studio doing advertising and design for entertainment – film, cable, and the recording industry – for 12 years. Before that, I got a BFA in Graphic Design from the School of Visual Arts.

6.    What was your first job in theater?

I did the poster for The Destiny of Me, the sequel to The Normal Heart for Tom Viola and Roger McFarland.  It’s a portrait of my right hand.

7.    Why do you think theater is important?

It creates joy and outrage, both often when we need it most.

8.    What is your profession’s greatest challenge today?

Conservatism, and too many cooks.

9.    If you could change just one thing about the industry with the wave of a magic wand, what would it be?

That every challenge be met with humor and poise, rather than blame.  The team is always better when unified and caring.

10.    What advice would you give to someone who wanted to do what you do?

If you wanted to work in advertising for theater, there are several paths to take.  If you are a graphic designer, video editor, web designer, etc., we just look for a great portfolio that has vibrancy, a sense of humor as a person, and the ability to move fast.  A love of theater is not essential, and often times, I like that people bring a more diverse palette to our Broadway materials.  If you wanted to be an account person, a writer, etc., a passion for theater is a great help.  A sense of marketing, or marketing courses as a background are nice.  We have several people from the BMI workshop, and the producing program at Columbia.  We also have people who have worked at other more traditional ad agencies, and that knowledge can be a huge help, when combined with the joy (or the heartbreak) of theater.

Because Drew is the kind of guy that always goes a little further in everything he does, he also answered a bonus question.  When asked what kind of advice he would give to someone that wanted to be a Producer, he answered as follows:

Surround yourself with the best people, and be willing to understand that every friend you have will tell you your project is perfect.  You need to listen to real people, and if your advance is falling, people don’t like it as much as you think.  The opposite is also true- if your advance is climbing, no matter how slowly, people are genuinely loving your show and you should keep going.

Want to hear more expert advice from Drew but don’t have a show that he can advertise yet?  Listen to some of his American Theatre Wing panels here.

3 Things I’ve learned from the NBA, NFL and MLB.

Since Broadway and Off-Broadway shows can’t afford to have marketing laboratories trying every idea we come up with, I often look to other industries to see what they’re doing, in the hopes of being inspired to try something in ours.

Here are three simple ideas that I got from the NBA, the NFL and MLB.

  1. Have a ‘Bat Day’.Need a reason for people to come to the theater on a Tuesday?  Need a reason to get some of your marketing materials in the homes of your advocates?  Most importantly, need a reason to get some press?  Give something away!  People love free stuff, whether it’s a bat, a hat, or a souvenir program.  On Oleanna we gave away Mamet’s latest book, which got us in the press, gave the customers more of a value, and put a big, bulky, hardcover impression on hundreds of coffee tables.
  2. Sell your turf.The NY Giants recently announced that they were selling off the pieces of their stadium before it gets demolished this year.  You can buy turf, seats, even the goal posts.  Why not?  It’s environmentally friendly, it’s gonna make some fans happy, and it’s gonna make the Giants some money.  We just did something similar at Altar Boyz and donated a chunk of the money to BC/EFA, and used the rest to write down some of our closing costs.
  3. Retire your best players’ jerseys.When great players leave the game, they raise the jerseys into the air where everyone can see them and remember the history that is a part of each franchise.  Why don’t long running shows do something like this?  It seems like 3,425 people have played Billy Flynn in Chicago.  I’d love to see a picture (or even the same small costume piece) from each one of them along the walls inside the Ambassador.  And I think audiences would eat it up as well.  A list of well-respected actors that have come before the current cast could give the production even more weight, and more for an audience to talk about.

Marketing is everywhere.  Don’t be afraid to snatch another industry’s idea and make it your own.

They’d do it to us.  The problem is, we haven’t come up with anything first.

Yet.

Three reasons why Glee is great.

There is no question that Glee is great for Broadway.  Here are three reasons why I love it:

1.  IT PUTS BROADWAY PEEPS TO WORK

The transition from theater to television is a lot more difficult now than it was in the early days of both industries.  Look at how many great Broadway actors are out there that you haven’t seen headlining in movies and piloting pilots.

And then along comes a show like Glee, and the casting directors can’t get enough from our pool: Lea Michele, Matt Morrison, Jonathan Groff, John Lloyd Young, Debra Monk and more.

The longer it runs, the more our folks will get a chance to lend their talents and their pipes to that program.  And then they’ll hopefully come back to Broadway and bring some fans with them.

2.  IT PUTS SHOWTUNES NEXT TO POP TUNES

“Where Is Love,” “Tonight,” “I Could Have Danced All Night,” and “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ The Boat,” are just a few of the showtunes featured on Glee, and these classics are smacked right up next to songs like “Can’t Fight This Feeling,” “Rehab,” and “Single Ladies.”

The line between pop and showtunes is being blurred.

Who knows, maybe we’ll go back to the days when major rock bands like, oh, I don’t know, The Beatles, sang showtunes when looking to make a big splash on television.

3.  IT PUTS SINGING INTO STORIES

So often I hear people say, “I just don’t get musicals.  People start singing.  What the?  People just don’t do that!”

For the most part, Glee chose the Jersey Boys model (or Altar Boyz model, for that matter) where the musical numbers are actual performances and not “sung scenes.”  Still, having a show like Glee helps audiences get used to the fact that music can be incorporated seamlessly into entertainment.
The movie musical has helped Broadway significantly over the past decade, with shows like Hairspray, Chicago, Phantom and Rent ALL adding years to their runs (and millions to their box offices) thanks to their movie counterparts.

Broadway now seems to be making its way into television, in a subtler way, but in a way nonetheless.

Let’s hope shows like Glee continue to merge the two mediums.

What and who is an impresario?

Merrick, Mackintosh, Drabinsky . . .

All of these producers have been called impresarios during their careers (Drabinsky has been called a few other names most recently).

But what exactly is an “impresario?”

Thanks to one of my favorite readers, Laura M., for sending me this article that appeared in a Minneapolis paper with some great quotes about what impresarios do.  (BTW, Minneapolis is one of the greatest non-big-city theater towns in the country.  I’d even take it over my hometown of Boston and over LA.  NYC, Chicago and then Minneapolis, IMHO.)

Now that you know what an impresario is, you have to ask yourself if you really want to be one?

5 More things I learned about Las Vegas.

I’ve written about Vegas before, having spent several months working there as the Company Manager of Chicago at the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino, and having spent many hours there hunched over a poker table.

I like Vegas. Where else can you stare at a  beautiful nature-made mountainscape in one direction and a beautiful man-made pyramid with a shaft of light shooting out the top in the other.
Pyramids and pirate ships aside, it’s a tricky town, especially for Producers, with more live entertainment produced on and off the strip than anywhere else in the world.  Jersey Boys, Cirque, Hypnotists, Comedians, Strippers, Magicians, etc., you name it, and someone is producing it.
Whether or not they are making money, is another question entirely.
Every time I go out to that man-made-Mecca, I learn something new, and the trip I took this past week, was no exception (special thanks to the NATB and the Ticket Summit, who had me out to speak at their conferences, and therefore inspired the trip and this post – and put a few bucks in my pocket thanks to a Jack High flush against a set of 8s.).
Here are five more things I learned about Las Vegas:
1.  SIN IS IN.
When I first went to Vegas, The MGM Grand had a theme park, and New York New York was promoting its roller coaster.  “Bring the family” was the rallying cry.  There are still plenty of family friendly things to do in Vegas, but for the past several years, the “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” marketing-mantra has had its effect on live entertainment as well. The old fashioned sexy/topless Vegas revue is back in style.  The in-room hotel glossy mag advertising the “what to dos” while it town, featuring ad after ad of Crazy Horse, Zumanity, Jubilee, Bite, Thunder From Down Under, etc., etc.
And of course, the Vegas-Broadway love child, PeepShow directed by Jerry Mitchell, with songs by Andrew Lippa, starring Shoshana Bean and headlined by Holly ‘Hefner’ Madison (and yes, you to get to see her two talents – I’ll let you decide what those are).
2.  VEGAS HAS AN OFF-BROADWAY TOO.
Down a ways from the strip is where Vegas began.  It’s old school Vegas with it’s 99 cent shrimp cocktails, penny slots, and more. It’s cheaper. It’s off the beaten path.  It’s intimate and more personal.  Some would call it more “real”.
Sound like a familiar description? It’s exactly what Off-Broadway is.  And just like we try to tell tourists here about seeing an Off-Broadway show, downtown Vegas (or The Freemont Street Experience) tries to let visitors know that they haven’t really experienced Vegas unless they’ve come downtown at least once during their stay.
And I agree with them.  You haven’t lived until you’ve had a 99 cent shrimp cocktail and a deep fried twinkie.
3.  DON’T LIKE YOUR SHOW AFTER IT OPENS?  CHANGE IT.
Vegas doesn’t settle.  Revising a show after it opens is common place.  Le Reve (which I heard was revised twice), Chris Angel’s Believe, and many others have undergone changes well after the shows were “frozen”.  If audiences aren’t digging it, they bring back the team (or bring on a new team), and tweak it until it gets a better response.
If only we could do that here (The Scarlet Pimpernel tried it, but it didn’t take).
It makes sense that Vegas is willing to make these investments. For one, the shows are capitalized at much higher rates, so tossing in a few more bucks doesn’t mean as much.  And two, the shows are designed to run a lot longer and need to, so getting them just right is much more important.
4.  IT’S ALL ABOUT ‘OUTDOOR’.
There isn’t much that isn’t advertised on in Vegas.  Everything is a billboard:  slot machines, walls, giant mobile signs trucked up and down the strip, and even the urinals.  I would have snapped a photo of that urinal mini-board, but frankly, I was a little worried that if I whipped out a camera, the biker standing next to me would stop what he was doing and show me why I should always wear a helmet.
5.  IF YOU’RE NOT INTERACTIVE, YOU’RE DEAD.
Vegas is non-stop excitement. There’s an energy that sweeps you up as soon as you step off the plane and keeps you going, no matter what the time and now matter how much money you lose.  And let’s face it, most people go there to gamble, get drunk, and do the things that you’re not supposed to do at home. It’s an adult theme park.  People who go to Vegas want to play.
And playing doesn’t mean sitting back and watching a “play”.  Every single thing I’ve ever seen in Vegas has some sort of interactive element. Headliners, illusionists, comedians, Cirque and their clowns, and so on.  The interactive element has to be there.  Let your audience sit back and relax, and they’ll start getting anxious about getting back to those tables, wishing they could be losing money rather than sitting through a show.  You better not even think about a fourth wall.
That’s one of the reasons that traditional musicals don’t work in Sin City, and the only ones that even have a shot are the mega-brands like Phantom, J. Boys, Mamma Mia, and Lion King (And I’d double-down that none of these shows are as successful in Vegas as they have been in other locations).
You know what else I learned about Vegas?  Every time I go, which is usually about 4 times a year since I worked there, it somehow makes you want to learn more.
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