Monday, November 02, 2009

Neil Simon out; Elvis In?

Does that subject header make sense? It does when you consider that the closing of The Neil Simon Plays means that (unless things change) this spring the Nederlander will be occupied by Million Dollar Quartet, a musical featuring actors playing Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley that most of you probably forgot was announced for a Broadway berth. And if you think this post is about how in recent years we've seen both Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley musicals bomb on Broadway, that will have to be saved for another time, because this post is about the much more interesting failure of The Neil Simon Plays.

I read Patrick Healy's analysis of the closings in The New York Times and was left with the feeling that what he was saying was that it is generally impossible to produce a Neil Simon play today. That is unless it features marketable "stars," which the recently shuttered production of Brighton Beach Memoirs was lacking. I think that is crap. Yes, it doesn't help Neil Simon that many of his lines have become cliched or at the very least seem tired in 2009. But, still, I think there are many people who want to enter into the theater to the warm embrace of a time gone by. So why then do I think Brighton Beach was such a failure?

Well, I think a lot of it has to do with marketing. The ads were not good and I do not believe there was any sort of direct mail campaign. This is a show that needed flyers in the suburban JCC. It didn't have them there. The ads should have really promoted the titles and had quotes about the brilliance of the plays. This art was hopelessly old-fashioned and made it seem like the two shows were playing on the same night. And if the producers wanted David Cromer to be the "thrilling" part of the mounting (though I am not sure how that would possibly make sense), they should have said "an all new production from the acclaimed director of..." I mean, something. It was also unclear from the ad what show was playing when. My mother, for example, asked me if Brighton Beach was closing next month, as she had heard on the radio that Broadway Bound would be opening then.

You can say this all didn't make a difference--but that is foolhardy. Shows are made by marketing. For a smaller scale example, look at Altar Boyz. Yes, it got good reviews, but so have some other off-Broadway shows that failed. The reason it succeeded was the marketing, making it sexy and young and utilizing a street team element to make its fans seem more involved. If the ads had just had the title treatment and one Times quote, I don't think Altar Boyz would still be playing. Look at Jewtopia--crappy show, but great title and great marketing. Posters everywhere. I remember going to the clubhouse at my grandparents' development and seeing a small Jewtopia poster and a bunch of flyers. There should have been Brighton Beach $25 off coupons in that same place. People that live there would have totally gone to see Neil Simon. But did those people even know Brighton Beach Memoirs was open? If they are like my grandmother, they might have read the Newsday review a week late, the same day the closing was announced.

Now, I am not criticizing the press campaign, as there was a good amount of press (brought to you mainly by press agent Jim Byk, who I believe I've said here is one of my three favorite sources for musical theater history information). But, when you have a star-less Neil Simon play, target marketing is essential. It gives people who read a sort of positive review, extra incentive to go see the show. That $25 off flyer means something to people going to the JCC in Rockland County. These aren't people who know they can go to Broadwaybox to get a discount code. These are people who want to see the colorful flyer--they want it where they go to the gym or to play cards or they want to get it in the mail. The review or the David Cromer feature in The Jewish Week might not get them to call for tickets, but something targeted to them might just do it.

Do I think a better marketing campaign would have made Brighton Beach a hit? No, I am just listing factors that I think would have helped get us at least to Broadway Bound. And what of Broadway Bound? I have to say, I feel like I've seen Brighton Beach Memoirs 100 times (which cannot possibly be true), but I was excited to see Broadway Bound, which I am much less familiar with. Am I similar to the majority of audience goers? Probably not, so I am not saying Broadway Bound standing alone would have been a hit. But I do think, as stated above, the whole roll-out concept caused confusion. I also think it actually dampened excitement rather than heightened it. Case in point: my friend's parents wanted to see one of the Neil Simon plays, but they were waiting for the Broadway Bound reviews to get excited enough to buy a ticket for one. They knew in this time of economic uncertainty, they could only go see one of the shows and so they were just sitting back and waiting. I mean, let's face it, The Neil Simon Plays are not like the Coast of Utopia trilogy. In the case of Coast, you had a long gap and a subscription base and you also had a fascination element: people who saw one Coast of Utopia entry and loved it felt it necessary to see the others. This was not the case with Brighton Beach and Broadway Bound, even though they are two plays featuring the same family and are in that way more tightly connected than the three Coasts, they have different titles and seem to stand alone. After all, they were not written to be all done at once. Love of one might mean you would be more likely to buy tickets to the others, but there wouldn't be a compelling need. We all know what happens in them.

Would stars of helped? Yes, of course. Would more street marketing have helped? Yup. Would it have helped if the production was amazing? Uh, huh. And what else? Tons. Many things went wrong to lead to the failure of Brighton Beach Memoirs, not the least of which was a poor choice of venue that I think made the play seem even smaller than it was meant to be. Because of these numerous factors, it is unfair to imply that today's modern audiences simply don't want to see a Neil Simon play.