- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 18, 2007

NEW YORK — When “Spring Awakening” opened on Broadway in December, it received the best reviews of any musical this season.

Critics fell over their adjectives in praising the $6 million pop-rock adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s tale of angst-riddled, sexually confused youngsters in late 19th-century Germany. Its explicit story, sometimes graphic in its depiction of churning adolescent desires, juxtaposed a 100-year-old story with a startlingly contemporary score by composer Duncan Sheik and adapter-lyricist Steven Sater.

Yet the show was not an instantaneous hot ticket, much to the dismay of its vociferous fans, mostly of the Internet variety, who seem to be tracking its every box-office hiccup.

Business has been building, and no one can doubt the musical will be around for the late spring awards season when the show will be a solid contender and maybe an outright favorite for prizes. Last week, for example, it grossed a respectable $485,466, filling nearly 83 percent of the seats at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre.

But will the show be difficult to get into, comparable to “Jersey Boys” these days on a Saturday night or “The Producers” when Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick were holding forth?

That ticket-building is what an army of producers, led by Ira Pittelman, Tom Hulce and Jeffrey Richards, is trying to accomplish, particularly now that Broadway has entered the lean theatergoing months of January and February.

But “Spring Awakening,” acclaimed last summer in an off-Broadway production, presented obstacles, not the least of which is its provocative subject matter.

“It’s challenging — challenging in that we didn’t want to turn anyone off, but we didn’t want to misrepresent what we had,” says Mr. Pittelman, who has produced such Broadway shows as “Topdog/Underdog,” “Stones in His Pockets” and the Kevin Spacey revival of “The Iceman Cometh.”

” ‘Spring Awakening’ is an impossible show to describe to somebody,” says Tom Callahan, a creative director at Serino Coyne Inc., the advertising and marketing agency that handles the musical. “It’s a sound bite nightmare.”

For one thing, the musical isn’t going to appeal to everyone — the subject matter is sexuality, after all. And there are no stars to prime the box office.

“When you sell a lot of shows,” Mr. Callahan says, “the first question you ask is, ‘Who’s in it?’ ” And “Spring Awakening” is mostly filled with a cast of young unknowns.

So a game plan was set in place early — after the show closed a successful summer run at off-Broadway’s Atlantic Theater Company and before it began previews on Broadway.

“What we had going for us were the off-Broadway reviews that were really good,” Mr. Callahan explains.

That alone, though, doesn’t guarantee publicity and ticket sales because Broadway as mass popular entertainment has changed, too. Except when a star from another medium, such as Julia Roberts or Usher, ventures onto the Great White Way, theater gets marginalized on entertainment pages in mainstream publications and on their Web sites.

Gone are the days when a big Broadway show could win rave notices and then the following week finds its star — a Channing, a Verdon or a Streisand — or its creators — a Rodgers and Hammerstein or an Andrew Lloyd Webber — on the cover of Time, Life or Newsweek.

The young audience most favorably disposed to like “Spring Awakening” is not thought of as the theater’s usual target audience.

“Hip and trendy and edgy and Broadway don’t belong in the same sentence,” Mr. Callahan says with a laugh, “and the kids are never going to think that it’s hip and trendy. So they have to find (the show) in their own environment, which is the Internet … and on their IPods. Or they have to be told by their peers. It’s not going to come from traditional Broadway advertising.

“… We put together a promotional piece that went right on our Internet site, and then we put a video together that went on it, too. … We get like 5,000, 6,000 people a day visiting the site,” Mr. Pittelman says.

The site is the handiwork of Situation Marketing, headed by Damian Bazadona. Among other ventures, Mr. Bazadona’s company designs Web sites and Internet marketing campaigns for Broadway shows including “Avenue Q” and “The Drowsy Chaperone.”

The video found its way to potential audiences in a variety of ways. One was by would-be theatergoers visiting the show’s official Web site, www.springawakening.com.

“Another was … we created ad units for a variety of sites such as Time Out New York and New York magazine that had the video embedded in it. So, instead of having an ad unit with (just) a logo, it actually had the video playing. So you could watch the video without even coming to the ‘Spring Awakening’ site,” Mr. Bazadona says.

There have been unusual aspects of the musical’s own site, too, particularly one that takes advantage of its younger fans’ Internet savvy.

“We have a section on the site called ‘Spread the Word,’ ” Mr. Bazadona says, explaining that fans can put a banner for the show and/or the video on their personal Web sites, such as those found on MySpace.

“Those banners could be updated with new messaging by the producers at any time, which created a cost-effective channel to speak to fans in real-time.”

Then there are ticket prices. “Spring Awakening” has cheaper tickets available for audiences who might be deterred by the $111.25 top price, which is what many Broadway musicals charge today. There are 40 tickets for sale — at $30 each — for seats onstage, available for each performance, and the show has special programs with various New York universities that allow students to purchase $25 tickets, according to Mr. Pittelman.

“Spring Awakening” hasn’t stopped traditional advertising either, buying radio advertising primarily on New York-area radio stations where the median age of the listeners is 30 or under. The cast recording, released by Decca Broadway, helps, too. It was recorded before the show’s Dec. 10 Broadway opening, which is unusual, since changes are made in most musicals right up to opening night.

“The creators (Mr. Sheik and Mr. Sater) felt the show was complete,” says Brian Drutman, senior director at Decca Broadway. “There [weren’t] going to be major revisions, so there was no reason to wait. It made sense to get it out.

“The music and the plot exist together but are traveling in parallel universes. So the cast album stands on its own,” Mr. Drutman says. “From a marketing standpoint, that’s made the songs much easier to get radio airplay. Most (except for one that repeats a certain four-letter word) are radio friendly.

Mr. Pittelman calls his work and the work of all his colleagues on “Spring Awakening” “an amazing journey,” one that began for him in February 2005 when he saw a concert performance of the show at Lincoln Center and knew he had to be involved.

“This has been a labor of love,” he says. “The music spoke to me in a way that things rarely do. And I knew I had to produce it. It’s just a terrific feeling when you do something for those reasons and it actually works out commercially.”

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