By William Wolf


How do you make a show a hit and keep it running? Do you always need a major star? Can publicity ploys give a show a lift? Has potential for reaching the public changed in the internet and social media age?

These were some of the questions examined at a well-attended Drama Desk panel discussion around the topic “You Gotta Have a Giminck…Or a Star,” with Drama Desk member Randie Levine-Miller moderating, and panelists Peter Filichia, critic and author; and press agents John Ellis, Susan Schulman and Leslie Baden-Papa. The event was held on February 10 at Stage 72, The Triad.

Levine-Miller, Drama Desk Director of Special Events, deftly posed incisive questions to the panel to elicit anecdotes and views concerning past and present differences in efforts to boost the possibilities of shows to become successful or keep up momentum. Panelists replied with a range of answers based on their personal experiences with clients and critics, and of course, some of the talk wandered off topic.

On the star issue, there was no argument that a current star like Hugh Jackman can sell tickets. Baden-Papa cited “The Producers” as a show that absolutely depended on its stars, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, to succeed. Replacements after they left the show simply didn’t work, she said. The willingness of stars to do publicity also figures importantly in promoting a show successfully. Josh Ellis, who had a long experience as press agent, reached back to cite the reluctance of the Andrews Sisters to do interviews, and conversely commended Yul Brynner as being especially cooperative.

“I had a very close relationship with Brynner,” Ellis stated. “He became almost like a father to me, and the saddest thing I ever had to do was make the announcement of his death.”

Susan Schulman, who has recently written an entertaining and informative memoir titled “Backstage Pass to Broadway,” mentioned how uncooperative Lesley Ann Warren was in a show in which she starred. Schulman reported that Warren didn’t even want to rehearse with others but wanted to do so in a separate room.

The most colorful aspects of the discussion centered on the use of publicity ploys. Schulman spoke of promoting one production by having a contest to find the most beautiful pig. Ellis recalled how distinguished actress Eva Le Gallienne agreed graciously to become involved in choosing a pig to be in a show from a group of pigs. Asked why she chose the one she did, she said it was the most intelligent.

Ellis paid tribute to the late David Merrick as the most astute and innovative in promotion. His stunt of finding persons with the same names as critics to give rave quotes for a show is well-known. But Ellis described how Merrick parlayed an idea of getting the press to watch the choosing of a child for a show at an audition to which the press would be invited. Merrick took the idea a big step higher by setting up an event with an audience in attendance and having the curtain rise on a stage full of the dancing, auditioning children.

Baden-Papa cited a recent ploy at “Rock of Ages” during the super bowl period with a group of NFL players coming on stage.

Filicia, former Drama Desk President and author of “Strippers, Showgirls, and Sharks,” had some serious things to say on the subject of the relationship between theater and critics. He noted that the New York Times still has the power to influence the fate of a show. When the matter arose concerning some reviews that refer to elements that had nothing to do with the actual performance, he was adamant that theater critics judge only what is on stage. Other panelists agreed. Schulman said that she hoped Woody Allen’s coming “Bullets Over Broadway” should be judged on its merits, not on the current flap involving accusations against him.

Schulman, with others nodding agreement, pointed to changes in the press landscape. In bygone days there were more newspapers with their reviewers and more television reviewers, but with those traditional sources dwindling, the internet and social media had become outlets where comments were also faster. It was necessary for press agents, she said, to have a whole new list of contacts.

One element that I found hard to take was a cozy feeling on the panel that those presenting theater and those reviewing it should all be united in the same common objective—sort of one big happy family—to help the theater thrive. But critics have to be independent and express their own pro or con views, no matter how acerbic, without worrying about whether the show will be successful or not. A critic’s main responsibility is to his or her audience or readers. Whether a show succeeds or fails should not be the concern of the critic, who is there to express a personal analysis. The critic is not a part of the industry. At Stage 72, The Triad, 158 West 72nd Street. Reviewed February 11, 2014.


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