New York Observer
Priscilla, Queen of the Altar: a Musical Found a New Way to Market Itself That Includes On-Stage Weddings
One groom calls his ceremony â€˜one of the best 10 minutes of my lifeâ€™
By W.M. Akers 11/21 5:59pm
When the curtain fell on the June 24 performance of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, at the Palace Theater, the cast took the stage to make a special announcement: New York State had just legalized same-sex marriage. After two and a half hours of karaoke favorites like â€œI Will Surviveâ€ and â€œMaterial Girl,â€ audience members were already in a lively mood. But upon learning that marriage equality had come to New York, they went ballistic.
Not long after, at the end of another performance, a young man and his boyfriend took the stage. Clutching the mic, voice and hands trembling, Yuri Rodriguez attempted a speech. â€œEver since I met you,â€ he said, â€œIâ€™ve never been happier and Iâ€™ve never felt so much love andâ€”â€
Rather than gush further, Mr. Rodriguez fell to one knee and whipped out a ring. He had been nervous, he explained last week, not just that Stephen Troiano might decline his proposal but that â€œsomebody in the audience might yell something stupid.â€ He had nothing to fear. The crowd, again, went mad, and roared with applause.
This summer, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert began offering a series of wedding packages through its â€œconcierge service.â€ For a nominal fee, couples can arrange on-stage engagements, wedding receptions, bachelorette parties or a â€œdance-onâ€ cameo at the top of the second act. Like Priscilla itself, these special moments are equal parts heartfelt and tacky. But they are also an indication that, after a summer of slow sales, this campy jukebox musical has found its brand.
After successful runs in Sydney and Toronto, Priscilla opened at the Palace in March. Despite decent reviewsâ€”The Observerâ€™s own Jesse Oxfeld called it â€œperhaps the best jukebox musical Iâ€™ve seenâ€â€”it struggled to find a foothold in a market flush with similar shows, suffering limp weekly grosses that bottomed out in early September at just under $550,000. (Wicked and The Lion King regularly gross over $1.5 million.)
But in an unusually drama-heavy fall, this technicolor fantasia stands out as one of the only feel-good musicals available to those who are sick of Mamma Mia! After slogging through the September doldrums, Priscilla emerged last month with some of its best weekly numbers ever. The wedding parties account for a tiny fraction of those sales, but are indicative of a flexible marketing strategy that seems to have saved the production.
Priscilla marketing director Nick Pramik, of SpotCo, was responsible for rejiggering the showâ€™s advertising to emphasize the contribution of lead producer Bette Midler, whom he called â€œa perfect brand fitâ€ for a show that, like her, â€œhas a lot of integrity but is also over-the-top.â€ Besides a series of radio and TV spots featuring the diva, a new poster shows her arm-in-arm with stars Nick Adams and Will Swenson, wrapped up in one of the pink boas that partying bachelorettes can purchase at a group rate of three dollars per scarf. The message: This isnâ€™t a playâ€”itâ€™s a party.
Besides the aesthetic shift, that willingness to change tactics sent a message to the group-sales agencies that are responsible for the destinies of most Broadway shows. Extras like these wedding parties make it easier to pitch the show, and it is always good to keep your sales reps happy. According to Group Sales Box Office president Stephanie Lee, the Priscilla marketing team â€œis not just going through the motions of putting butts in seats.â€ She called the showâ€™s producers â€œgroup friendly.â€
â€œIf I have any sort of unique request, theyâ€™ll act on it,â€ she said. â€œTheyâ€™re hungry for the business. They believe in the show.â€
When long-distance fans traveling by bus balked at summerâ€™s rising gas prices, Priscillaâ€™s producers offered a $500 gas voucher. To soothe the fears of groups wary of the showâ€™s slightly racy content, they promised an unprecedented money-back guarantee. That last policy might have seemed like an act desperation when it was introduced, but, Mr. Pramik said, â€œwe have not had one single person ask for a refund.â€
â€œWe never have dissatisfied customers,â€ he added.
When they got married on Nov. 4, Bob Kennedy and Chris Lewis had been together for, by Mr. Lewisâ€™s count, â€œ14 years, four months, and about 18 days.â€ They live in Houston, but travel to New York regularly for work, theater and the Westminster Dog Show, where, as handlers, they won best of breed in 2010 with a Pomeranian named Windsorâ€™s Quick Draw.
Mr. Kennedy was found to have prostate cancer in 2002, and its progression has recently forced him to take time off from his work as a pharmacist. His partnerâ€™s illness, Mr. Lewis said, â€œput a little bit more of a sense of, not urgency, but timeliness to getting married now, while weâ€™re still able to.â€
They had discussed marriage half-seriously for years, but didnâ€™t like their options. â€œAt the time I thought, I donâ€™t want to fly to Ames, Iowa, just to get married and then fly back to Houston,â€ said Mr. Lewis. Getting married in New York was more attractive, and they began planning a trip soon after June 24. When two dozen friends decided to tag along, Mr. Lewis hunted for a way to spruce up a city hall ceremony.
The play was the centerpiece of a night on the town that included bumping into Carol Burnett at dinnerâ€”she graciously blessed the unionâ€”and singing Funny Girlâ€™s â€œMy Manâ€ at Village show-tunes bar Marieâ€™s Crisis. Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Lewis had seen Priscilla twiceâ€”in London and at the New York openingâ€”and were happy to go back for thirds.
â€œWhen I talked to them about the tickets, they were so supportive and so helpful,â€ Mr. Lewis said. â€œFar beyond just the normal, â€˜Oh, boy, hereâ€™s the chance to sell 25 tickets.â€™ They sounded genuinely happy and honored that weâ€™d chosen to do this.â€
Because Mr. Kennedyâ€™s illness requires him to walk with a cane, dancing on stage was out. Instead, actor Tony Sheldon made an announcement at the end of the performance, commemorating â€œthe uniting of two families.â€ Mr. Sheldon, who last week appeared in the show for the 1,500th time, said that the on-stage events donâ€™t bother him, so long as they happen after the curtain falls.
â€œIâ€™m not in favor of mucking around with the performance,â€ he said. A decade ago he would have opposed any such marketing gimmick, but rising ticket prices have changed the way audiences interact with Broadway.
â€œPeople donâ€™t just come to see a show,â€ he said. â€œThey want a presold title, a name that they know, a TV star that theyâ€™ve heard of. So if you donâ€™t come up with something like this, youâ€™re gonna get left behind. Sure, itâ€™s a marketing tool. But itâ€™s as much a marketing tool as having Harry Potter in How to Succeed.â€
For people like Chris Lewis and Yuri Rodriguez, this marketing gimmick has produced memories that will endure for decades. Before he proposed to his boyfriend on stage, Mr. Rodriguez spent two and a half hours in a cold sweat. It was worth it.
â€œThat phrase â€˜Go big or go homeâ€™ is kind of the only way to live in my eyes,â€ he said. â€œI didnâ€™t want it to be in any way forgettable. When weâ€™re 75 years old and married and starting to lose our memories, I wanted it to still be vivid. It was one of the best 10 minutes of my life.â€