Give A Hand for Hand To God

If your social media is anything like mine, you’ve probably heard about the Hand To God discount that was announced at the beginning of the week. From people excitedly anticipating the show to posts acting as PSAs for cheap ticket availability, I noticed much more chatter about the show this past week than I’ve seen in the last few weeks leading up to its first preview tomorrow night. I want to take a moment to talk about the effects of this promotion beyond how excited I am that I was able to get in on it before the tickets were all scooped up.

If this news didn’t make it to your social media, I’m referring to two promotions over the last few months in which two upcoming Broadway shows – Something Rotten and Hand To God (both produced by Kevin McCollum) – offered deeply discounted tickets to early previews for a short window of time. In December, Something Rotten offered every single seat at the first three previews for $15.95 “to celebrate the year in which the musical is set,” according to the BroadwayWorld release. This past week, Hand To God offered a limited number of seats throughout the first 15 previews for $20.15 to celebrate the year in which the show debuts on Broadway.

I’m a big fan of this promotional concept, and I’m not just saying that because theater tickets are generally way too expensive. Most of the time, discounts materialize when a show is having trouble filling its house, when the seats might go unsold without giving a little extra incentive to ticket-buyers. These promotions feel rooted somewhere else – in fact, Something Rotten’s promotion began before tickets were generally onsale, so it couldn’t be that the house was looking empty. Though selling tickets is obviously a goal of any Broadway discount, I think these promotions are doing something bigger.

How so? On the most basic level, cheaper tickets make for more access for more audience members, which is an end unto itself. I’ve written often about different methods of an accessible theater and these themed discounts, which are also much more discounted than most Broadway offers, are a fun step in that direction (though the limited nature of the discounts does not take it completely there). But access is only a piece of this strategy’s puzzle. In BroadwayWorld’s announcement of this week’s promotion, McCollum explains, “Hand To God is a show that is going to get both traditional and non-traditional theatergoers talking-in a big way. To that end, we wanted to make the show affordable for audiences eager to get in on the conversation early.” McCollum is executing these promotions in order to start a conversation. That’s crucial.

Of course, it’s generally acknowledged these days that word of mouth is critical to selling tickets; it’s not revolutionary that a producer would want to get people talking about their show. But there are many ways to create buzz. Karey Kirkpatrick, one of the writers of Something Rotten, joked to the New York Times that they’d considered calling the show The Book Of Mormon 2 or Free Beer because they “have a lot of seats to fill.” Whether a well-executed social media campaign or a crafty title, whether substantive or gimmicky, the people involved with marketing a show have many different tools in their arsenal to get people talking. What matters to me here is that they chose this particular methodology of creating buzz – one in which they’re both benefiting and enlisting the audience.

Since the internet became A Thing, online commenters have taken a lot of flack for pouncing on shows in their early previews. Of course, some of those commenters are more respectful than others, but the form of commentary as a whole is much maligned. These promotions reflect a different understanding of the role of early preview audiences. They last for a limited window of time and, as such, only have time to attract the most theater-savvy people. It’s a way to get them talking about the shows and generating buzz before anyone’s even seen it. In that respect, the promotion has already successfully worked on me, and I’ve been an agent of it too, without consciously realizing it. Not only that, it’s all but inviting internet commenters to the early previews and thus filling the seats with people who are going to talk about the show. In a Broadway season as crowded as this spring, buzz counts in a big way. You get to see the show for cheap while helping the show spread the word. Everyone wins.

A fact that I think is not entirely unrelated is that both of these productions are new work and proud of it. Both productions broadcast their originality front and center: Something Rotten proclaims itself “a very new musical” and Hand To God’s status as “a new American play” is the basis of its teaser video. In a Broadway climate that largely favors recognizable quantities (whether as a movie adaptation, a jukebox musical, etc.), new plays and musicals face an uphill battle when trying to find an audience. With the exception of audiences of one of Hand To God’s previous off-Broadway incarnations, these audiences are entering without preconceptions. They have to build their buzz from scratch, and they’ve chosen to do so in a way that includes the people responsible for creating it.

Watch this video on YouTube.

What’s so remarkable to me about this strategy is the way it exposes a Broadway ecosystem that’s sometimes easy to forget. Ticket prices seem to climb higher and higher every day, eliminating swaths of audience members who get priced out of attending. Reviewers seem to be increasingly disconnected from the audiences they purport to represent. It’s easy to lose track of the audience’s interests and needs in order to benefit the bottom line. But audiences are the motor that keeps it all going.

In that way, these promotions remind me of the Godspell “tweet seat” performance, in which the producing team, led by Ken Davenport, selected a number of the show’s most active twitter followers and asked them to live-tweet a performance. That event, which took place months after the production’s opening night, used very clearly different tactics, but its underlying strategy was the same: to give fans – of the production, in the case of Godspell, or of Broadway in general – a special experience that also promotes the show.

So. What does all of this mean for the future of Broadway? The million dollar question – and I think there are a million answers, too. What if some Broadway shows participated in a program akin to TodayTix and the Public’s Free First Preview lottery or Soho Rep’s 99¢ Sundays? What if there were previews with a special discount for current theater students and recent grads, or for people who are in any way a part of the theater industry? And those are all for creating advance buzz – the “tweet seats” performance shows that there are tons of creative ways to get people talking mid-run, too. Admittedly, it’s easy to be idealistic as someone who’s nowhere close to being a Broadway producer. But through these two discounts, Kevin McCollum is working to show that productions can reap the benefits of a more accessible theater. I’d like to see more shows try.

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