BootLeg Betty

Priscilla, Queen of the Altar?

New York Observer
THEATER
Priscilla, Queen of the Altar: a Musical Found a New Way to Market Itself That Includes On-Stage Weddings
One groom calls his ceremony ‘one of the best 10 minutes of my life’
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 “I Will Survive” and “Material Girl,” 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. “Ever since I met you,” he said, “I’ve never been happier and I’ve never felt so much love and—”

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 “somebody in the audience might yell something stupid.” 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 “concierge service.” For a nominal fee, couples can arrange on-stage engagements, wedding receptions, bachelorette parties or a “dance-on” 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 reviews—The Observer’s own Jesse Oxfeld called it “perhaps the best jukebox musical I’ve seen”—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 show’s advertising to emphasize the contribution of lead producer Bette Midler, whom he called “a perfect brand fit” for a show that, like her, “has a lot of integrity but is also over-the-top.” 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 isn’t a play—it’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 “is not just going through the motions of putting butts in seats.” She called the show’s producers “group friendly.”

“If I have any sort of unique request, they’ll act on it,” she said. “They’re hungry for the business. They believe in the show.”

When long-distance fans traveling by bus balked at summer’s rising gas prices, Priscilla’s producers offered a $500 gas voucher. To soothe the fears of groups wary of the show’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, “we have not had one single person ask for a refund.”

“We never have dissatisfied customers,” he added.

When they got married on Nov. 4, Bob Kennedy and Chris Lewis had been together for, by Mr. Lewis’s count, “14 years, four months, and about 18 days.” 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 Windsor’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 partner’s illness, Mr. Lewis said, “put a little bit more of a sense of, not urgency, but timeliness to getting married now, while we’re still able to.”

They had discussed marriage half-seriously for years, but didn’t like their options. “At the time I thought, I don’t want to fly to Ames, Iowa, just to get married and then fly back to Houston,” 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.

Enter Priscilla.

The play was the centerpiece of a night on the town that included bumping into Carol Burnett at dinner—she graciously blessed the union—and singing Funny Girl’s “My Man” at Village show-tunes bar Marie’s Crisis. Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Lewis had seen Priscilla twice—in London and at the New York opening—and were happy to go back for thirds.

“When I talked to them about the tickets, they were so supportive and so helpful,” Mr. Lewis said. “Far beyond just the normal, ‘Oh, boy, here’s the chance to sell 25 tickets.’ They sounded genuinely happy and honored that we’d chosen to do this.”

Because Mr. Kennedy’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 “the uniting of two families.” Mr. Sheldon, who last week appeared in the show for the 1,500th time, said that the on-stage events don’t bother him, so long as they happen after the curtain falls.

“I’m not in favor of mucking around with the performance,” 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.

“People don’t just come to see a show,” he said. “They want a presold title, a name that they know, a TV star that they’ve heard of. So if you don’t come up with something like this, you’re gonna get left behind. Sure, it’s a marketing tool. But it’s as much a marketing tool as having Harry Potter in How to Succeed.”

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.

“That phrase ‘Go big or go home’ is kind of the only way to live in my eyes,” he said. “I didn’t want it to be in any way forgettable. When we’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.”

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