Marketing Musicals in the Digital Age: Sara Bareilles' 'Waitress' Reaches Beyond Broadway

Sara Bareilles Album Release Concert - H 2015
FilmMagic/Getty Images for Epic Records

Familiarizing potential audience members with a new score before the show opens could provide a useful leg-up at the box office.

For the past week, Sara Bareilles' latest album has rested steadily on the iTunes top 10 — almost unheard-of for a record that previews a Broadway musical. Because that's what What's Inside: Songs From Waitress actually is: a concept album for a musical theater project that hasn't even begun previews yet, and won't for another four months.

"It is imperfect, soulful, messy, optimistic, feminist and really true," Bareilles told the audience of her latest project during a recent one-night-only concert at New York City Center. She described the performance as, "a musical journey of the show Waitress, and I'm gonna play every character because I'm a narcissist!"

And that she did. While standing on a checkerboard floor, in front of red stools and a giant sign that read "Joe's Pie," Bareilles casually and conversationally introduced the pregnant pie-baking waitress Jenna ("Door Number Three"), her diner co-workers — the spicy Becky ("I Didn't Plan It") and anxious Dawn ("When He Sees Me"), and eccentric oddball Ogie ("Never Ever Getting Rid of Me"), complete with colorful facial expressions, brief plot descriptions and jokes about musical theater tropes.

The only character she didn't play was the main love interest, gynecologist Dr. Pomatter. Instead, she had actor Drew Gehling, who will be playing the role on Broadway, accompany her on two duets.

The producers and creative team behind Waitress, directed by Diane Paulus and starring Tony-winning Beautiful breakout Jessie Mueller, are taking extra care with their baby as they enter the treacherous waters of Broadway. With Bareilles' help, they are introducing the music early to an international audience via the album. The singer-songwriter hopes her passion project will appeal to her adult-pop fan base, who cheered especially loudly from the concert venue's four tiers after the nostalgic ballad "She Used to Be Mine."

Like many musicals from recent seasons, Waitress was adapted from a popular movie — the 2007 indie sleeper hit starring Keri Russell. But simply having a familiar movie title on your marquee is no guarantee of success. Just ask the producers of recent commercial failures like Big Fish, The Bridges of Madison County, RockyBullets Over Broadway or Honeymoon in Vegas.

Bareilles' live-streamed concert, zooming in on the show's score, might just be the key to unlocking a ticket-buying audience from beyond the usual New York theater demographic. Broadway has changed, and a musical can only survive by spreading its marketing net as wide as possible. Simply hooking a star or staging a press blitz no longer cuts it.

"It's absolutely essential that we reach beyond the metropolitan area to national and international," says producer Barry Weissler, who promises more digital marketing initiatives before Waitress opens on April 24. "If [Chicago] didn't have an international audience, it couldn't have survived for ten years. ... We're not a film that plays a thousand screens a night; we're one theater in one place, with a thousand seats, every night. If you want a long run, the ripple has to move out across the world."

As demonstrated by American Idiot, and going further back, by Cats, Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar, hit concept albums can lead to hit Broadway shows. (While American Idiot fell short of recoupment on Broadway, the show has had an extensive touring and international life.) But the synergy doesn't always work. Chess, while a hit in London in the '80s, tanked on Broadway, and Sting's advance exposure of the musical The Last Ship in album form couldn't halt its early Broadway demise last year, despite favorable reviews for the score.

However, Waitress has been building solid buzz since its tryout run this summer at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., and Bareilles' concert performance and album release should help amplify that word of mouth. Cast albums for decades now have been an afterthought for a niche market — not an advance promotional tool. But exposing potential audiences to a musical score before a show opens could prove a key factor in building advance sales on Broadway.

This season's new musical debuts have already tried various other digital initiatives: Allegiance aimed to parlay George Takei's social media influence into a web series; and School of Rock – The Musical seized YouTube's new format and released a 360-degree music video for a track from composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, collecting over 1.3 million views. The Color Purple stars Jennifer Hudson and Cynthia Erivo also recorded a music video from the upcoming musical revival.

Then of course there's this season's juggernaut, Hamilton. That groundbreaking show previewed its score in a way that was effective and yet entirely accidental, when a recording of Lin-Manuel Miranda performing the opening number back in 2009 went viral as the downtown hit was jumping to Broadway. Hamilton has since gone on to break records with its cast album, as well as chalking up a record advance at the Broadway box office of $57 million.

Blockbuster hits on that level come along once every few seasons if Broadway is lucky. But by putting her music-industry muscle and extensive fanbase behind her pet project, Bareilles is doing her bit to see that Waitress nabs a slice of that sweet success.