by Esther Tolkoff
Press agents and publicists are the folks in charge of generating "buzz." They must spread the word about a given show by finding ways to pique the potential audience's interest.
"There's a big difference between 'buzz' and hype," says Chris Boneau, of the publicity firm Boneau/Bryan-Brown, which represents many of Broadway's top shows. "You can't manufacture 'buzz,' which is water cooler kind of conversation, recommendations making its way from person to person."
Obviously, those informal conversations would never take place if people outside of the professional theatre world hadn't somehow heard about a show. The press agents are the folks who make sure that they have.
Several of the veteran publicists who were the leaders in this area when Back Stage got started say that the culture of theatre publicity has evolved into something completely different from the world they knew and often miss. Others, including their successors, feel the differences are merely a matter of adapting the same job to a different "scene."
Merle Debuskey, for instance, was press agent for over 500 shows between 1948 and 1996, ranging from highly political plays in tiny Greenwich Village theatres to Broadway blockbusters like "Jesus Christ Superstar." He also worked closely with Joseph Papp to make the New York Shakespeare Festival ("Shakespeare-in-the-Park") a permanent part of the city's cultural fabric.
"New York used to have seven well-read daily newspapers - plus weekly magazines - and they all covered theatre," he recalls. "Broadway was big news." There were columnists like Earl Wilson, Ed Sullivan, Leonard Lyons, Dorothy Kilgallen, and, of course, columnist-radio commentator Walter Winchell, whose world will soon be memorialized in the upcoming Broadway musical version of "Sweet Smell of Success."
Michael Hartman of Barlow/Hartman, the agency that is publicizing this show about the world of publicity, observes, "The play depicts a time when producers were first becoming aware of the power of the media."
Newspapers and magazines are still vital to publicists, but putting a show on today's map also entails working with the Web and new styles of nationwide television showcasing. Word spreads far more widely and rapidly.
On today's Broadway there's also a different type of audience (far more tourists than New York regular theatre-goers) and a different type of producer (usually many producers) now. And there is a close connection between publicity and its increasingly mammoth cousin: marketing. Off-Broadway and "downtown" (Off-Off-Broadway) may be less commercialized, but no show, wherever it may be playing, can survive without a ticket-buying audience.
In 1960 and in the year 2000, the press agent's job has always been a close mix of art and commerce.
It is clear in speaking with a sampling of leaders in the field that they all view their work as a labor of love. Even with the growth of corporate marketing, spreading the word about a show is simply not the same as selling widgets. Every publicist Back Stage spoke with is an ardent fan of theatre itself. Representing any given show is a mission.
Gabbing Over Coffee
Forty years ago, publicists moved in a more tightly knit, highly personalized world.
Merle Debuskey is widely referred to by other press agents as one of the deans of the profession. He and the other veteran publicists recall a highly personalized approach as the major hallmark of the old days.
"Often, when a show got started," he explains, "one producer sat in a room with one press agent, exchanging ideas. Producers like David Merrick, Kermit Bloomgarden, and Alexander H. Cohen came from the theatre world, knew every aspect of it, and were clearly the boss. They'd look at a script or have an idea and decide this would become a show.
"The press agent was steeped in the creative process at every turn. You were at the theatre all the time, and often were totally involved with one show - at the beginning, during out-of-town tryouts, all through the run. There was an idealism about it.
"Today, you usually have several producers, most of whom represent corporations and are major investors rather than 'creative' producers. But they have a lot of say. In the old days, the individual producer got small investments from many people, sometimes over a hundred, often friends."
Debuskey arrived in New York hoping to become a journalist and fell in love with the theatre along the way. He worked in the Village with small companies in such theatres as the Provincetown Playhouse and the Cherry Lane, doing a little bit of everything. Because of his interest in journalism, he sought out reporters and columnists to get coverage for these shows. He succeeded, which was unheard of back "when anything that wasn't Broadway was amateur." That coverage brought in audiences.
Hooked on theatre publicity, he became an apprentice to veteran Broadway press agent Bill Doll as step one to joining the labor union, the Association of Theatrical Press Agents and Managers (ATPAM), which he later served as president for 25 years.
"Years ago, you had very close contacts at each paper, especially with the columnists," he explains. "If you knew Winchell's girl Friday, Rosie Bigman, and she liked you, your message would get through to 'the boss'," he explains.
"Each columnist had a favorite restaurant 'hangout' and you looked for them there. They also had legmen, and there were 'press columnist agents' - seeking out items. If you weren't 'in' with a given columnist, these agents might get your item placed."
The first instance of several publicists working together as partners in an agency kind of setting was Solters-O'Rourke-Sabinson. (Lee Solters, James O'Rourke, and Harvey Sabinson). Most publicists were on their own, working with associates who changed with each new play the publicist handled.
Longtime press agent Shirley Herz feels the big change in Broadway publicity came about in the early '90s, when corporations became dominant in the theatre world. In addition to answering to multiple producers, publicists now attend regular meetings with advertising and marketing representatives. "There are a lot of people in those rooms," Herz has found.
She misses the more personalized days. "We'd meet for coffee at Hanson's Drug Store and trade stories. We all knew each other. We knew the reporters. There was a feeling that something was creatively special about each show. I prefer working with Off-Broadway now, where I think that outlook is still strong."
Chris Boneau believes, "Change was inevitable. The mass media and the Internet have transformed the way people communicate. Information flies so quickly. It's so far-reaching and interconnected."
Among the many Broadway hits his agency represents are Disney's "Beauty and the Beast," "The Lion King," and "Aida." He finds, "Many people use the word 'Disney' to symbolize corporations producing Broadway shows because Disney played such a big role in renovating the Times Square area with the restoration of the New Amsterdam theatre. There's a very positive side to that. Many more people became aware of the theatre."
John Springer was a press agent for years to Broadway plays, and the personal publicist to such major stars as Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Richard Burton, and Elizabeth Taylor. He feels marketing is not really all that new on Broadway. "Selling tickets was always important," he says.
I fell in love with New York at age 14 after I won a contest sponsored by Paramount. My trip, and attending Broadway shows, was the prize. My picture ran in my hometown (Rochester, New York) newspapers. I was taken backstage to meet Helen Hayes after I saw 'Mary of Scotland' and knew the theatre would be my life." But it was a marketing gimmick that brought him here, back in 1934.
Today's audiences are more media savvy. Publicity "stunts" used to be concocted to draw attention. One of the most famous took place in 1961, when Harvey Sabinson and David Merrick playfully decided to boost the sales of "Subways Are for Sleeping" by combing telephone directories for people with the same names as major critics. Several of these people let their names be used for quotes in ads raving about the show in the major papers. The hoax was spotted. The ads were yanked, but they were talked about. This sort of thing, seen as fun then, would probably not be well received now.
Creating That Buzz
The tradition of eagerly waiting for the reviews to be brought to the opening night party is largely gone. The critics' and public's comments are often on the Web before the morning papers appear.
"Local television stations used to have theatre critics covering Broadway openings," recalls Bill Evans, who represents Neil Simon's shows and Mr. Simon himself. "They don't anymore. Theatre isn't seen as 'news.' The focus is on films, popular music, television."
The New York Times' verdict, usually from Ben Brantley, is still very powerful, as is that of several other critics. Yet many plays receive lukewarm reviews and then have long runs.
That's where "buzz" comes in. Reviews are only one part of what the public hears about a play.
"Most press agents used to steer clear of the paid advertising side of shows," points out ATPAM President Maria Somma, "though several got involved with a show's poster.
"The television ad for 'Pippin' changed that. It brought in so many people there was no way advertising could be ignored. The early poster ads for 'Cats,' before the show opened (showing a cat's-eyes mask), was another turning point. They were everywhere. People became intensely curious. The press conference announcing Betty Buckley as the star was a major event."
Bill Evans agrees. "Cameron Mackintosh was a master at understanding today's visually oriented world," he says. "He came up with symbols that conjure up thoughts of a show at a glance. Everyone connects the mask to 'Phantom,' the little girl to 'Les Miz.' A good advertising artist can read a script and come back with something like that. I hope our photo for 'The Dinner Party' has that effect, conveying playful sophistication."
Pointing out ("pitching") interesting aspects of a show to the press leads to feature stories that draw readers and viewers in. For this reason, publicists still spend a great deal of time at the theatre in the manner Debuskey described.
"You have to have an ear for news," says Chris Boneau. "As you get to know the cast and everyone involved with the show, you hear stories the public will find intriguing. Even after show's run for years, there are always stories to be found when you pay attention."
When "Kiss Me Kate" opened, the Times ran an extensive feature about how an opening night is put together, including Boneau/Bryan-Brown's involvement. When "The Lion King" first arrived on Broadway, "We placed stories about Julie Taymor and her work, about how the masks and the costumes were made," Boneau explains. "The New Amsterdam Theatre's reopening was itself a strong story. Reporters and their readers took note."
Bill Evans observes, "A door was opened to a new generation when Rosie O'Donnell, who is seen every morning all across the country, started to showcase Broadway production numbers as Ed Sullivan used to." Now, publicists can readily approach several television programs - "Late Night with David Letterman," "Live with Regis," "Good Morning America" - to book an actor as a guest or arrange for cast members to perform a musical number.
The latter requires intense preparation. Michael Hartman worked with "The Today Show" when it featured "The Full Monty," which Barlow/Hartman represents. The cast performed in Rockefeller Center, outside of the program's studios. A special taping was worked out in which "Today Show" regular Al Roker comically performed with the cast.
"TV versions of a number must be cut to three and a half minutes, much shorter than for the stage," Hartman says. "Camera angles are pre-planned. You need to know Equity and AFTRA rules and countless other details. But the result is that viewers throughout the country are aware of a show."
Auditions for "The Full Monty" were the topic of a recent New York Times article. Hartman points out, "Articles will often also be syndicated elsewhere or run on the Web."
Gary Springer, of the Springer-Chicoine Agency, feels that, in our mass media-driven world, "You need a star involved for a show to get attention." Springer-Chicoine represents Tony Randall and the National Actors' Theatre, which is mounting a Broadway production of "Judgment at Nuremberg" this season. Maximilian Schell, who was in the film, and George Grizzard have been cast thus far. " 'M. Butterfly' attracted great attention because of its subject matter and excellence," but even so, Springer believes, the fact that well-known actors were involved mattered in attracting press.
As we've mentioned, John Springer, Gary's father, represented top shows and stars. With clients like Burton and Taylor, he spent as much time keeping reporters at bay as courting them. How did he manage that?
"They knew and trusted me," he says. "That's what being a press agent boils down to. When reporters know your word is good, they pay attention when you want to get a message across. They take your calls." He feels that human factor has not changed, even if many tools of the trade have. "Die relationships you develop with the press are what count in the end."
Chris Boneau concurs. "You can't fool the press. "
That's as true if you're sending an email as it is if you're having lunch.
Shirley Herz feels that the artistic life of Broadway theatre and the audience itself was changed when the more corporate, marketing-linked approach to publicity became predominant.
"Before that, if a show was a hit," she recalls, "it ran for a couple of years. The audience largely consisted of New York theatre-goers and, after awhile, everyone had seen it."
New shows were opening all the time, many more per season than is the case today. "The financial risk now is too great," she points out.
Herz believes today's extensive outreach to tourists is the reason big musicals often run for many years. "The TKTS booths are mentioned in domestic and foreign tourist guidebooks," she says. "Marketing people work with tour operators and travel agents, so the audience turnover is constant. They look for blockbusters. Publicists work with presentations to sales groups who book tickets for people attending conventions."
Travel editors and critics from other cities, especially in the Northeast, are invited to shows to create "buzz" in their markets. Maria Somma says travel writers were often invited in "the old days," too. "But more people travel now," she observes, "so we reach out farther. The German magazine Das Spiegel, for instance, is an important outlet."
But, notes Michael Hartman, "Top hits don't sell through TKTS. Publicity is important because it makes people so aware of those shows that they want to see them."
A coveted placement is for a Broadway show to have a float in the nationally televised Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. "Macy's makes the final decision," says Chris Boneau, "but we seek to be part of the parade and work with everyone involved. The float for 'Kiss Me, Kate' required a tremendous amount of rehearsal. Every detail must be adapted to the parade's special circumstances .
The focus on big names that Gary Springer noted is certainly out there, but the magic of theatre and sheer talent still shines through.
"Yes, it helps when someone famous is connected to a show," says Boneau, " 'Aida' received a great deal of attention because of Elton John's involvement. But Heather Headley has become a true Broadway theatre star through her role in 'The Lion King' and her work in 'Aida.' " Boneau/Bryan-Brown placed many articles about her, she appeared on television and as a celebrity model in magazines, "but her own talent got her noticed and got the press interested. It still happens."
Laura Matalon and Tanya Grubich are co-owners of TMG, Inc., a marketing company which represents Broadway shows and Broadway touring companies, including "Aida," "Beauty and the Beast," "Rent," "Kiss Me, Kate," "Proof," "The Tale of die Allergist's Wife," "The Rocky Horror Show," "Tom Sawyer," "The Producers," and "Mamma Mia!" "We often look for retail tie-ins," says Matalon. "For instance, we worked with Bloomingdale's and Lancome to promote 'Aida.' Together with Lancome we created a 'color story' based on the colors and textures used in the production in order to initiate a marketing campaign supported by the store with Aida-themed windows, in store appearances by performers, displays, special gifts with purchases, etc."
Another example of marketing in action, Matalon explains, was working with the Loews chain of motion picture theatres to involve "Rent" in the opening of the new E-Walk theatre on 42nd Street. " 'Rent' produced a 60-second rolling stock commercial, 30 seconds of which encouraged people to register for 'free Rent,' " says Matalon. "The other 30 seconds was a commercial for the play." The spot ran in all tri-state area Loews theatres for a 12-week period.
Off-Broadway Is On
Many publicists believe the thriving world of Off- and Off-Off Broadway theatre has retained the more personalized, "artistic" atmosphere they feel Broadway used to have. Merle Debuskey became involved in the late 1940s with getting small theatres' work known. As Off-Broadway drew more actors, he recalls, Equity's Small Theatres Contract was negotiated.
Max Eisen is another veteran press agent involved with Off-Broadway since its beginnings. Long before talk of "diversity," he represented companies depicting many cultures - the Yiddish language Folksbiene Theatre, the Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre, and the New Federal Theatre, which emphasizes African-American works.
"Back Stage was covering Off-Broadway 20 years before the Times acknowledged it," Eisen commented. "Back Stage still covers small productions that no one else does. That is a major contribution to our theatrical culture."
Shirley Herz observes, "The key audiences Off-Broadway today are New Yorkers who are regular theatre-goers, and tourists who are more budget conscious." She believes the atmosphere is more personalized and that there is more focus on the show's artistic content. Herz also agrees that "publicists working Off-Broadway know it's a must to get reviewed in Back Stage."
"Artists often have more opportunity to explore there," says Susan Chicome, who represents several Off-Broadway ventures.
Maria Somma agrees. "Many great shows and actors got their start in smaller venues before going on to Broadway. A press agent getting the word out can make all the difference."
Not Really So Different
Even with all of the corporate involvement, some "old school" publicists don't feel that the basic elements of a press agent's job have really changed.
"Howard Hughes was the ultimate 'suit,'" says John Springer. "People thought about ticket sales in the old days, too."
And feature stories were used to create advance buzz, even back when reviews were considered almighty. Merle Debuskey recalls that "Raisin in the Sun" was controversial because of its depiction of racism. "We couldn't get a house in New York." But the play was well received on the road. Debuskey made sure the out-of-town reviews drifted back to Broadway and, later, that the difficulty in finding a theatre became known. The play did, of course, come to Broadway and became a hit and a classic.
In a lighter vein, to seek attention, Debuskey had a "Chinese dragon" snake through the street in front of "The World of Suzie Wong." The crowd and several photographers took note.
But how different is that from writing Al Roker into a segment of "The Full Monty"?
News may fly faster and cast a wider net, but it's still the publicist who absorbs every bit of information about a show from the insider's perspective, and then lets the world know how "wonderful, marvelous" it is.