Some things sell themselves: Viagra, five-dollar umbrellas on a rainy day, The Producers, etc. The new Mel Brooks musical is such a box-office phenomenon (its advance sale is already at $15 million and counting) that the show's producers--a.k.a. the most happy fellas in the whole Broadway theater--can afford to take a soft-sell approach to advertising, at least for awhile. So many unqualified rave reviews greeted the Broadway opening of the show that a quote ad could easily take up several pages of any newspaper, yet the Arts & Leisure section of this past Sunday's New York Times contained only a quarter-page ad featuring a single, succinct quote: "A gift from the show-biz gods," which is how Richard Zoglin of Time magazine described the musical. We can probably expect a humongous quote ad this weekend; the show's performers and creators deserve to bask in glory, even if such an ad can't be expected to add very much to that mind-boggling advance sale.
Other shows should only have it so good! Though word had it that the initial plan for the Roundabout Theatre Company's Follies revival was not to run a quote ad, given the show's mixed-to-negative notices, there was apparently a change of strategy in this regard. A large ad in Sunday's Times contained numerous, positive quotes, though a special effort was required to come up with them. For instance, the ad recaps Ethan Mordden's statement in The New York Times that, "for those who truly love the American musical, Follies is the ultimate theatrical experience." But Mordden is a freelance writer, not one of the paper's theater critics; the quote comes from a preview article on the show where, in context, it was a reference to Follies in general rather than to this specific production. (Ben Brantley, the Times' first-string reviewer, had a negative reaction to the Roundabout revival.) Also taken out of context was a quote from Newsweek's Marc Peyser, who, in a review dated April 16, characterized Follies as Stephen Sondheim's "grief-stricken masterpiece." He opined that much of the current production is "delightful," but went on to note that "none of the four leads has the vocal reach to plumb the music's heartbreaking depths" and concluded that the production "gives you a 'sorry-grateful' feeling: grateful the show is back, sorry it doesn't soar." What was all of this boiled down to in the quote ad? "Follies is a masterpiece."
Though the aforementioned Brantley was underwhelmed by the Bells Are Ringing revival, he loved the performance of its star, so the show's ad agency was able to reproduce a wonderful quote: "God bless Faith Prince. Performing in a voice that glistens, [she] reminds us how musicals can kidnap an audience's empathy." The Bells ad also includes praise from The Star-Ledger (Michael Sommers) and the New York Post (Clive Barnes), and it trumpets the fact that both Prince and the show have received Outer Critics Circle Award nominations.
Since The Adventures of Tom Sawyer hasn't opened yet, no critics' quotes are available. Theater insiders have been curious about the fact that, until recently, this new musical based on the classic novel by Mark Twain has kept an unusually low profile. But it now seems that this may have been due to a canny decision on the part of the show's producers, ad people, and press reps to wait until the hoopla surrounding the opening of some other spring musicals (i.e., The Producers) had died down a bit; TV commercials for Tom Sawyer, which opens officially on April 26, have just begun to run.
And then there's A Class Act. Surely disappointed that some decent reviews--and quote ads meant to capitalize on same--have had little or no effect on the show's terrifying box-office receipts, the producers have retreated to a small ad that quotes only Billboard magazine ("The best new musical in years") and notes that the show and co-star Randy Graff are Outer Critics Circle Award nominees. Recent TV spots--one including testimonials from Donna McKechnie and John McDaniel, another featuring (of all people!) Joan Rivers--also seem to have done "Nothing" for the show, as its cast members are lamenting in a delightful number at this year's Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS Easter Bonnet competition (yesterday and today at the New Amsterdam Theatre).