Fun on a Friday: does this remind you of anything?

For today’s blog, I thought we’d stay on the DeLoreon we took a ride on yesterday and take a glance at the New York Times review of Merlin in 1983 from the legendary Butcher of Broadway, Frank Rich.

See if this review sounds familiar, even though it was written so long ago . . .

”Merlin,” it must be noted, has not yet officially opened. In contrast to most Broadway musicals, which tend to preview for a month or less in New York before an official premiere, this one is now in its eighth week of previews. Three ”opening” dates have been announced for the show – the third of which was last night – and then canceled. The fourth, most recently announced opening date is Feb. 13, and should changes made in ”Merlin” by then justify a substantial reappraisal, it will be provided here.

This report is based on Thursday night’s preview. While the producers of ”Merlin” may consider the musical not yet ready to be seen by critics, they have allowed in more than 60,000 paying customers since Dec. 10 at the full, $40-top ticket scale. Open or not, ”Merlin” is already, after ”Cats,” the second-longest running musical of the season.

It was as if Mr. Rich had Mr. Merlin’s crystal ball.

Special thanks to PP reader and fellow People Of Godspell-er, Adam, for passing this along.


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How to prep your audience for a preview.

The theater is a peculiar bird.  Shows learn to fly in front of a paying audience, instead of just by themselves, under the wing of their protective mamas.

These days, new plays and musicals put themselves out there in front of everyone.  And when I say everyone, I mean everyone . . . . in the whole wide web.  And that’s scary for first-time flyers.

So who goes to see preview performances, and what are their expectations?  Of course, the theater has its early-adopters just like any other industry (how many of you had to have the first iPhone), but what do you do with those that aren’t early-adopters, that find themselves going to the show in previews, expecting to see a finished, polished product?  If you don’t manage their expectations, their word-of-mouth is going to reek like old onions.

The ambitious new musical, Tales of The City, which is premiering right now at ACT, decided to get out in front of what their preview process was about–just what audiences should expect, and how they should participate.  ACT sent out an email to the people who purchased tickets to a preview which included a note from their dramaturg and an actress in the show.  I got ahold of an email (thanks to a reader out there), and I’ve posted it below.  Here it goes:

Welcome to the world premiere musical Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City!

Producing a musical is like producing a straight play, only with a thousand more moving parts, all of which have to mesh in perfect balance. We’ve just finished four weeks of studio rehearsal and a technical process in which an evocative set, lights, an orchestra, and more than 200 costumes were added to the mix—more moving parts! It’s been an incredible ride so far, but the real excitement is about to begin.

We’re at the point where we need you, our enthusiastic preview audiences: the show is so big and so intricate, so intimate and so explosive, that the more opportunities we have to test the mix, the better the show will be. Where you laugh or applaud, where your attention is rapt, where we sense that maybe we’ve lost you for a moment—all of this provides us with the most crucial information we need to continue fine-tuning the production. With this in mind, we’ve added several previews beyond our usual five, and we’re delighted that you’ll become our new creative partners on the next leg of this exciting journey. After all, the aim of all these months of effort has been to make a show for you.

So welcome to A.C.T. We hope you’ll enjoy the show!

Michael Paller


Dear Friend of A.C.T.,

In the process of rehearsing Tales of the City, I have done some pretty insane things:

1) Bared my breasts. Twice. (Once when I was asked to and once ’cause I just felt like it.)

2) Helped Wesley Taylor (the actor playing “Mouse,” wearing nothing but Superman briefs) soar through the air to cross from upstage right to downstage left.

3) Cried my guts out while singing a beautiful but emotionally wrenching duet with Tony Award winner Judy Kaye. (It was a particularly hormonal day for me.)

4) Cried my guts out some more in the halls of A.C.T. as our beautiful, brilliant Betsy Wolfe (who plays Mary Ann Singleton) just hugged me ’til I stopped, no questions asked.

5) Narrowly escaped a tragic yet humiliating end (death by disco ball—DON’T ASK).

6) Nodded my head in absolute seriousness when the stage manager said, “Okay, actors, let’s take it from ‘Crotch,’ and after lunch we’ll pick it up from ‘Go **** yourself.'”

And that’s just in the last six weeks.

My journey through Armistead Maupin’s brilliantly crafted San Francisco tales started long before we set foot in the hallowed halls of the American Conservatory Theater. I got a call about three years ago in New York City while I was doing Hairspray on Broadway (playing Velma Von Tussle). I was exhausted—the call came on my only day off. The casting director (a genius of a man named David Caparelliotis) asked if I’d be willing to show up on my next day off to do a cold reading of Tales of the City at Jason Moore’s house.

And believe it or not, I was stupid enough and ignorant enough to say “no”—not once, but twice. It wasn’t stupidity so much as it was the old “eight-shows-a-week-and-not-getting-any-younger” exhaustion. I am so NOT a morning person, and getting up on a Monday morning (my one day off) to go do even MORE theater on the one day I was permitted to NOT do theater just seemed plain CRAZY—especially when my voice was already tired and everyone was getting sick.

God bless David C., and Armistead Maupin, too. David tried one more time, and he said that Armistead had seen me perform and that he heartily approved of me doing Mona in that initial little cold reading at Jason Moore’s house.

“Really??? What did he see me in?”

“I showed him the YouTube video you posted.”

I’ve been known to post silly videos on YouTube from time to time as my alter-ego, the “99 Cent Whore.” She’s a cross between Loretta Lynn, Jack Black, and an assistant night manager at a 99 Cent Store in West Covina who likes to sing and plays the guitar REALLY badly.

Before I knew it I was in Jason’s beautiful home bright and early on a Monday morning. As I walked in the door, a handsome gentleman I’d never met before (who looked more like a naughty, sexy Santa Claus than a celebrated author) approached me. Armistead had an ACTUAL twinkle in his eye, and he smiled as he walked toward me singing, “Come on, come on, be a big slutty broke-ass whore, shop at the 99 Cent Sto-or-ore!” Then he laughed. That did it. I was in. I was a goner. I loved this man. I would beg, borrow, or steal to play the part of Mona Ramsey.

Once I read Jeff Whitty’s awesome script, read aloud by the actors they’d assembled that day, and heard those gorgeous songs (which the composers had to play on a boom box), I could think of nothing I’d rather do more than Tales of the City. And in three years, that feeling has only intensified. I am humbled on a daily basis by the talent surrounding me. The production team, the creative team, the cast, the A.C.T. folks—it’s all brilliant and it’s all FUN.

There have been several incarnations of this show, from a cold reading at an apartment in NYC three years ago, to a workshop in a barn in Connecticut, to a staged reading in NYC, to another one-month workshop here at A.C.T. last year, and I am lucky enough to still be a part of it. In an age that’s chock full of reality TV and people who are “eliminated” after every commercial break, I don’t take my continued involvement in this show lightly. I will gladly get up at any hour of the day they tell me to. This show is gorgeous to look at, to listen to, and to be a part of. It’s hilariously silly at times, deeply important, and always riveting.

And if none of that appeals to you, well . . . I do show my tits. So, you know . . . there’s that.

Mary Birdsong
Tales of the City cast member

People are forgiving.  As long as you’re truthful.  And I find the more you explain, in a positive and participatory way, the more enthusiastic audiences will be about your work (the key is the “positive” part – don’t whine about how you had no money and only 29 hours, blah, blah, bs).  ACT has embraced the era of transparency in the theater, and in addition, emails like the above . . . well, they just make me want to buy a ticket.

What do you think of the above?

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Do audiences care if a Broadway show is in previews? Survey says . . .

Oh Spidey . . . you just can’t keep your name out of the papers.

And, based on the 1.8 million bucks you did over Christmas week, I bet you’re starting not to care.

The latest bit of publicity about the uber-musical hit the wires late last week when Bill de Blasio, a NYC public advocate, sent a letter to the Department of Consumer Affairs stating that Spidey was in violation of the law, due to its extended preview period, and their alleged failure to disclose this information to ticket buyers.

While part of me believes Mr. de Blasio is looking to catch a ride on the Spider-Man publicity train in order to further his own political ambitions, this is not the first time this argument has been made (anyone remember Nick and Nora?).

This bit of news started an internal debate between the two sides of my mind.  Do we have to do more to distinguish between opening and previews?  Should we charge less?  And then came the big question . . . do consumers really care?

I formulated my own opinion (surprise, surprise) and then realized that if I really wanted to find out if consumers cared, I needed to talk to consumers!

So, I sent my trusty weekend intern Jason out into the cold to chat with folks in the TKTS line and find out!

We asked 100 US residents if knowing that a show was in previews made them more inclined to see it, less inclined to see it, or if it made no difference at all.

Ready to see the results?

Not so fast.  Before I reveal to you what they thought . . . what do you THINK they thought?  Come on, imagine this is The Price is Right and you have to guess before you see how much that box of Wheaties actually costs.

What percentage was more inclined?  Less inclined?  And what percentage didn’t give a flying superhero.

Here are the results:

12% were MORE inclined to see a show in previews.
18% were LESS inclined to see a show in previews.
70% didn’t care either way.

Surprising? Not to me.

Now, as with any survey, you have to take into account the group sampled (and the size of that group).  A TKTS audience may be only in town for a short period of time, and have a totally different criteria for making that choice.  A NYC resident theatergoer may want to wait until a show is fully cooked before taking a bite.  Admittedly this was a down-and-dirty survey.

But it still says something.

The audience just wants in.

However, the bigger challenge for the Producer is that if your show is a bit “rare” during previews, you should be more concerned about what the audience is saying on the way out of the theater.  Because if they don’t care that the show is in previews, then they’re not going to cut you any slack for it either.  For them, it’s just there . . . so you better be prepared to give them the goods.

We love talking to the folks on line at the TKTS booth.  Wanna see what we’ve asked them in the past?

– Read the results of our survey of WHO is actually standing in that line here.

– Read the results of our “When I say Broadway, you say . . . ” survey here.

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Give yourself a preview-prepping workshop.

Previews can be one of the most stressful periods of a writer’s life. Regardless of whether or not you think critical response is important to your show, the countdown to Opening life can feel like a ticking time bomb.

All the elements of the show you’ve worked on for years are finally realized for the first time.  Sets, costumes, lights, special effects, actors, etc.  It has all come together.

Except for that scene and song in the second act.

Writers are constantly called on to rewrite lines, scenes, songs, etc. during previews.  I’ve seen entire musicals restructured, endings changed, intermissions excised, a song cut, the same song added back, and so on.

Stressful, right?

Unless you’ve practiced.

There are lots of writing workshops and classes out there, and if you’re a writer I recommend taking one that forces you to present material every 1-2 weeks in order to keep yourself on a schedule.

But does that prepare you for previews?


In addition to the above, I strongly recommend writers give themselves (or each other, if you can find some goal-oriented friends out there) a Preview Preparation Speed Writing Workshop.

Here’s how it works:

Imagine you’re in previews of a new musical playing The Palace.  The love song between your hero and heroine isn’t working and Hal Prince, who you’ve luckily snagged to direct, isn’t happy.  He marches up the aisle and says, “That scene and song has to go.  And I need something new by dinner.”

Dinner is four hours away.


Shows can take years to actually get to the first preview.  And all that time can be for nothing if you can’t write during previews.

Learn now.

Should previews be open for online review by bloggers, chatters and more?

Ellen Gamerman at The Wall Street Journal wrote a terrific piece last week about previews, and how problems that shows encounter during the several weeks of previews are exposed more in an online world than they were a decade ago.

It’s true.

Leading man flubbing his lines?  It’ll be all over the boards.  Problems in Act II?  Expect a blog about it.  Set come crashing down on the ensemble?  Well, in that case, you’ve got bigger problems than the boards and the blogs.

There’s a lot of people out there that are jumping up and down, throwing tantrums that two year olds would be proud of, saying, “You can’t review previews!  These people shouldn’t be talking about previews!”

To that I say . . . here’s a bottle of milk and a blanket, now get over it.

As much as we might not like our shows facing quicker criticism from audiences than ever before (and a few of mine have faced some harsh online attacks), there is nothing we can do about it.  Online word of mouth is the new Word of Mouth, and there’s nothing you can do to get in its way.  Can you imagine if any of the people upset about “preview reviews” went up to a group of folks at a Starbucks who were trashing a preview of a play and said, “You can’t talk about that show, it was a preview!”

The group would laugh, and probably trash the show even more.

Word of Mouth used to be invisible, which is why no one complained about stopping people from “chatting” about shows in previews.  The internet gives us (and others) a chance to see the formerly invisible force, which is why so many people want to stop it.

But you can’t.  We all need to realize that Online Word of Mouth and Traditional Word of Mouth have merged into one stronger and faster force of customer communication.

Critics, of course, who work for publications and are given free tickets, are subject to regulation.  One of the reasons I helped form the ITBA, was in the hopes that the new media warriors (aka The Bloggers) could get the same access as critics, which would give the shows a chance to reach a new audience, but with some control over when the bloggers were seeing the shows.

But if your chatters are paying for a ticket, you can’t stop the e-talkin’, so I wouldn’t even try.