Tonys: Awards Campaigns Get Creative, Aggressive This Season

An unusual mix of publicity stunts -- among them a "Gentleman's Guide" music video and the "Bridges" composer conducting from the pit -- caught the attention of press and voters this Tony season.
Deen Van Meer
Adam Jacobs in "Aladdin"

For decades, campaigns for Oscars -- and, more recently, Emmys -- have been waged with ever-increasing creativity and aggressiveness. On Broadway, the quest for Tonys have traditionally been conducted more quietly and politely. After all, it's a smaller community with a smaller pool of awards voters. In recent years, however, the top theater publicists -- who number only a few themselves -- have picked up their game.

Gone are the days when it was enough to simply run ads in newspapers; corral talent for the nominations morning press gaggle and nominees luncheon a few weeks later; attend and/or present at and/or perform at events like the Manhattan Theater Club's annual gala, the Obies, the Outer Critics Circle Awards, the Drama League Awards and the Drama Desk Awards; and grant interviews to New York-based newspapers, daytime talk shows and local news programs.

Now, you have to be craftier -- and this year, many publicists were.

TONYS: Who Should Win, Who Will Win 

As Tonys voting began, contenders were promoted through creative print advertisements (the team behind Rocky ran an intricate, colorful New York Times advertisement under the headline "The Anatomy of a Knockout" in which they described all of the elements of the musical's show-stopping final scene) and online (Aladdin's James Monroe Iglehart, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical's Jessie Mueller and The Bridges of Madison County's Kelli O'Hara were among the contenders who performed scenes from their show on The New York Times' web-only "In Performance" section). Rocky's Andy Karl and Violet's Sutton Foster appeared on Larry King's web show. The 12 acting nominees -- six men and six women -- appeared on the first-ever Tonys roundtables hosted by The Hollywood Reporter.

Advertisements also appeared on cabs (After Midnight had several different variations, each advertising a different one of the women rotating through its starring role, Fantasia Barrino, Natalie Cole, Gladys Knight and Patti LaBelle); buses (Disney painted entire city buses with the name and colors of Aladdin); subway stations (Rocky three-sheets ran at the top of the steps of the 1/2/3 and N/R trains in Times Square); and airports (images of the various acting contenders for Beautiful wrapped around each of the poles holding up the ceiling in a prominent part of John F. Kennedy International Airport, and a piano was roped off nearby for a promotional performance by Mueller).

Classically effective "pseudoevents" of the sort that date back to P.T. Barnum -- only now documented by still and video cameras -- included the After Midnight-orchestrated "renaming" of 47th Street as "Duke Ellington Way" by Ellington's granddaughter, accompanied by a significant contingent of the show's cast and band; the presentation of an actual death certificate to A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder star Jefferson Mays following his one thousandth on-stage death; Tommy Tune hosting raucous parties at his penthouse for After Midnight, one of which elicited a visit from the police, who, it was reported, joined the party and a "Champagne Prayer Circle"; a Julianne Moore-hosted tea for A Raisin in the Sun's LaTanya Richardson Jackson; and a luncheon for Bridges' Kelli O'Hara, co-hosted by the show's producer.

There were also some rather outside-the-box marketing ideas, some of which evolved more organically than others. The cast of A Gentleman's Guide created a music video of themselves lip-syncing to Pharrell Williams' hit song "Happy." Students from four high schools were invited to participate in a "talkback" with James Franco and his Of Mice and Men costars following a Wednesday matinee (which was covered by The New York Times). Jason Robert Brown, the composer of Bridges, personally conducted various performances of his show from the orchestra pit. (His caricature was also unveiled at Sardi's shortly after Tony noms were announced.) A vinyl of the Beautiful soundtrack was sent to voters. And the social media team working on Mothers and Sons, a play about the mother who struggled to love her gay son prior to his death from AIDS, reposted homophobic tweets on its Twitter account for a full hour, at the end of which it Tweeted an image that read: "Every post you just saw was shared by an actual Twitter user in the last hour. We've come a long way. There's still work to be done. Keep the progress going."

There were also plenty of happy accidents that resulted in the sort of publicity that no amount of creativity or money could have bought. On March 2, three days before previews of If/Then began on Broadway, its star, Idina Menzel, became the talk of the world when John Travolta mistakenly introduced her as "Adele Dazeem" on the Oscars telecast. (The most popular number that she sang on the hit Frozen soundtrack, "Let It Go," also won the best original song Oscar that night.) Following the Thursday evening performance of Beautiful on April 3, when the cast was on-stage soliciting donations for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, the subject of the show, Carole King, came out from the wings to surprise them and, to help them raise money, even sang a few songs with them. (King's avoidance of the show until that point had raised questions as to her feelings about it, but that night she shouted, "It is effing awesome!") And on April 11, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama attended A Raisin in the Sun -- the one and only show they saw in 2014 -- and then posed for photos with the company backstage (an image of which appears prominently in a digital souvenir book that was widely circulated thereafter).

As Harvey Fierstein, who is personally represented by publicist Rick Miramontez's O&M Co. -- which also repped After Midnight, Beautiful, Bridges and A Gentleman's Guide, and which consulted on Aladdin -- told me, "There are some press agents that type out the press release, send it out and go, 'I did my job!' And then there are others that really make a difference." In my view, those behind all of the aforementioned efforts clearly did the latter.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg