Tonys: Inside a Broadway Show's Opening Night War Room

THR visits with the producers, advertising agency and publicists of 'The Visit' to learn how and why some critics' thoughts wind up in marketing and publicity materials.
Scott Feinberg

It's a few minutes before 10 p.m. on Thursday, April 23, at the Lyceum Theatre on 45th Street in New York City. The curtain has just come down on the first non-preview Broadway performance of The Visit, a dark musical directed by John Doyle from a book by Terrence McNally, with lyrics by the late Fred Ebb and music by John Kander. In other words, it's what you call "a prestige property," which is undoubtedly what attracted to it the legendary Broadway actress Chita Rivera, who is 82.

As a well-dressed crowd of 950 people — packed into the cramped 112-year-old theater, Broadway's second-oldest — rise to their feet in applause, two bouquets of roses that were quietly slipped into the back door just moments before are rushed down the aisle to the front, where they are dispersed among the crowd. The curtain rises again, and cast member after cast member come out to take their bows. Last of all is Rivera, whose emergence kicks the noise level up several octaves and initiates a shower of roses in her direction.

It's opening night — the last of the 2014-2015 Broadway season, and possibly the last leading role of Rivera's illustrious career — and the festivities have only just begun.

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Pete Sanders, a veteran publicist who has worked for the Broadway PR company O&M since 2012, prior to which he ran his own firm The Pete Sanders Group for 13 years, escorts several attendees backstage to Rivera's dressing room to pass along their felicitations. Among them are Harry Belafonte, who performed with Rivera at Las Vegas' Caesars Palace in 1977; Rita Moreno, who got to play Anita, the part that made Rivera a star on Broadway in 1957, in the 1961 film version of West Side Story (Moreno won an Oscar), sparking rumors of a feud; and Angela Lansbury, for whom The Visit was originally developed and slated to open on Broadway in 2001, but who had to withdraw from it when her husband fell ill. At that point Rivera became involved with the musical and has remained attached to it ever since.

The long road to Broadway has been a bumpy one for The Visit. Rivera was to do a short run of the show in Chicago before transferring to New York. But the economic tumult caused by 9/11, and the resulting concern about dark material in the wake of the terrorist attacks, led the producers to abandon that plan. But Rivera stuck with the show through lows, like the collapse of financing that was to bring The Visit to The Public Theater as an Off-Broadway production in 2004, and highs, like the show's resurrections at the Signature Theatre in Arlington in 2008, the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2014 and, in 2015, 14 years after she first signed on, the Great White Way.

Now, it's time to celebrate.

Sanders — a trouper of a flack who once spent a night in jail after trying to gently escort a woman who was blocking a filmed performance out of the view of a camera, prompting allegations of assault — rushes out of the front lobby, across a small red carpet in front of the theater and past the likes of Bernadette Peters, a pack of photographers and a crowd of lookie loos. "Usually we don't do the press outside like this," he says. "Usually we do it at the party. But we decided to get it out of the way. This way everyone can just go to the party and not have to worry about it." He hails a cab; "42nd between 11th and 12th, please," he says, identifying the address of the event venue Espace. "What's going on over there?" the driver interjects, motioning to the theater. "It was the opening of a show," Sanders says with a look of exasperation, unable to get a minute to breathe even in a taxi.

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Theater critics, who are invited to special performances of Broadway shows before they open to the public, may begin publishing their reviews online and in print once the show's opening night performance gets underway. Some outlets' go up at 8 p.m. sharp. Others, like The New York Times, make publicists sweat it out a bit by waiting until later in the night, usually around 10 p.m. The Times' review has always mattered most to Broadway shows, though the preconception that it alone can make or break a show is perhaps overstated these days, when a few outlets have a wider reach. (The reviews of the Associated Press are syndicated in some 3,000 newspapers around the world.)

"When I started [in the mid-1980s] obviously there was no Internet," Sanders says. "We actually had to run to the Times [headquarters], which was on 43rd Street, and they would bring the Times [newspaper] down at 11 o'clock and put it in the pay thing, and you'd pay a dollar and you'd take copies and you'd take them to the opening night party. That's how you used to find out." He chuckles, "In the old days, when the Times came out, if it was a really bad review, the party would, like, end. People would start leaving."

There's no danger of that happening on this evening. Ben Brantley's review of The Visit has just posted on the Times' website and Sanders has read it. Like many of the show's other reviews, it's pretty mixed — tantamount to 2.5 stars out of 5, it is later calculated — but it offers high praise for Rivera, the person as much as her performance, which gives its promoters more than enough to work with. "When it comes down to it, the reviews are only one day," says Sanders. "If you have quotes and you put quotes in an ad, people don't know what the whole review is. Honestly, I don't even think people read a whole New York Times review when it's really long. You just need some good quotes." He adds, "Even in a mixed review for The Visit, if they rave about Chita, that's all you need. You just pull those Chita quotes. People want to see her."

Once at the venue, Sanders meets up with Rick Miramontez, the president of O&M, who in recent years has made headlines — last year for representing or consulting on all four best musical Tony nominees, and this year for walking away from Harvey Weinstein and Finding Neverland. Miramontez — in a tuxedo with a yellow carnation in its breast pocket (yellow is a recurring color in The Visit), sipping a mixed drink and chatting with guests — excuses himself and follows Sanders through the party, into a kitchen door and down several long sterile hallways. "Jesus, this is Clintonian," he says. Finally, they come upon a small room in which seven other people are huddling. The atmosphere is tense, but is broken up every so often with witty wisecracks. There's no fighting in here. This is the war room.

"War room" is a colloquial term for the space in which a Broadway show's lead producers, advertising agency and publicists gather during an opening night party to process the show's reviews and strategize about how best to capitalize on them that night online and the following day in print and on radio. Meeting right away like this, even while guests are partying under the same roof, is essential, because impressions about a Broadway show can become solidified within days, if not hours — some shows don't even last a week — but they can be shaped.

"I like to call it the 'war room' because it's very purposeful and it's very Carville-Stephanopoulos [a reference to Bill Clinton's campaign strategists at the center of the 1993 documentary The War Room]," says Miramontez. "It's that serious. We try to communicate the reviews in a certain way and — I don't want to say 'spin it' because, in a way, that's not right, but — use the reviews to the best of our ability. And it's a very quick activity." Indeed, it all happens within about an hour, at least on this night.

Inside the room, there's lead producers Tom Kirdahy (McNally's husband), Edgar Bronfman Jr., Tom Smedes and Hugh Hayes; Damian Bazadona, president and founder of the digital marketing agency Situation Interactive; Greg Corradetti, president, and Vinny Sainato, creative director, of Serino/Coyne, one of the town's leading theatrical ad agencies; and Miramontez and Sanders. Aren't they sorry to be missing the party? "No, this is where I've got to be," says one of the producers, joking, "I have a big family and they're all having fun and I'll see them on holidays."

The occupants of this room know that they have a bit of a tough sell on their hands: The Visit is drawn from a 1956 Swiss tragicomic play, as opposed to a preexisting property with which the mainstream public is familiar. And it's about regret, vengeance and death, themes that don't exactly scream enjoyment and escapism to tourists, who account for a considerable chunk of Broadway ticket sales. But these are not hurdles that can't be overcome with clever marketing. By focusing people's attention on the portions of reviews that enthusiastically cheer Rivera, the team believes that it can create a level of excitement that will propel the show to Tony nominations the following Tuesday and, as a result, a surge at the box office.

One thing that has generally been accepted on Broadway, if not in Hollywood, is the paraphrasing of reviews in marketing materials, either by uniting different parts of a review as one or by using completely new language, often without consultation of the critics to whom it is being attributed. Part of the reason that publicists are welcomed into war rooms is so that producers and ad agencies can get a sense of how far they can go with this. Miramontez explains, "They'll always look to me, who is the direct connection to the critics and has the rapport with them, and ask, 'Can we say this?' 'Can we say that?' Because we all have to paraphrase in life but, you know, there's a line." He continues, "I'm a real hard-ass about it because I'm the one whose ass is on the line with these guys," adding, "You have to appreciate what their intent is" and "I wouldn't want to give us credit for something we don't deserve."

As the session gets underway, the search begins for suitable quotes for ads on the Web. Target sites have already been determined. "At some point in the next few hours," the young woman in the room says, "BroadwayWorld will have an interstitial and will have a big unit. TheaterMania will be up in the morning and then we'll have regular standard banner sizes where those run — The New York Times and Playbill." Quotes will also appear in paid advertisements on social media sites, such as Twitter.

The group considers a few options. Some read as if they were written to appeal to the occupants of a war room, begging the question: Do some critics, for whatever reason, write reviews in a way that makes them likelier to being quoted? "Some do," says Miramontez. "And there are some who get mad that they're not quoted. And I want to say, 'Bastard, make it better! Don't bitch, write better! Give me a better quote — I want it!'"

Someone reads the opening line of Elisabeth Vincentelli’s New York Post review: "It’s Chita Rivera’s world: We just live in it." "That's such a great quote!" exclaims someone else. After a brief pause, another person asks, "'It's Chita's world, we just live in it' or 'It's Chita's world, we're just living in it?'" Still another answers, "I think 'we're just living in it' is more fun than 'we just live in it.'" "Yeah," the previous speaker agrees.

"Do you have [the review of critic] Chris Jones?" asks Kirdahy. "The Chicago Tribune?" replies Sanders. "Yeah," Kirdahy says. "Have you seen his?" "No," Sanders replies. "He's always been a fan of The Visit," Kirdahy replies. "And he will be, we heard," says Sanders. "Let me check if it's up." "It's up," says another who quickly Googled it. Several pause to read it, some leaning over others' mobile devices. "It's great," says one.

"I should say USA Today was bumped from tomorrow, she sent me an email," Sanders says. "Because of Bruce Jenner." "What's happening with him?" Miramontez deadpans, sparking a round of chuckles.

"These are the web banners that are going live tomorrow morning. Want to hear them again?" asks someone. "Yes, I'd like to hear them one more time," says another. "OK, these are the five quotes we'll be using in rotation: 'Stunning. A haunting, masterly, 100-minute powerhouse.' —Newsday. 'Kander and Ebb have never written a finer score — gorgeous.' —The Wall Street Journal." "That's fantastic!" interjects Miramontez. "[Terry Teachout] delivered." The reader continues, "Next: 'A thrilling cap to the Broadway season.' —Associated Press. Next: 'Chita Rivera stops the show. She's a devilish delight.' —The New York Times. And finally: 'It's Chita's world. We're just living in it.' —The New York Post." Someone else adds, "And then we'll rotate other ones out every day."

"What are the other ones?" Sanders asks. The reader replies with a few, including, "'Chita Rivera's mesmerizing.' —The Hollywood Reporter." As they seek ideas for others, Miramontez asks, "Didn't VH-1 call her 'the Queen of Broadway?'" Sanders immediately says, "VH-1 might be an interesting choice to use, to bring in young people!" Someone else counters, "Not in our first three days. These are as much about nominations and industry [as retail]. For that, these sources are great — New York Post, New York Times, Newsday." "Absolutely," Sanders agrees. "Get some exclamation points on these things," adds someone else. "Right," the reader replies.

They now begin focusing on the following morning's "live read" for radio. Someone asks, "Do you want the Times quote or do you want 'It's Chita's world, we're all just living in it?'" Miramontez replies, "I like 'It's Chita's world' because that's more Madonna, that's more pop." Another person says, "I agree, it's sticky — I love sticky phrases." "I don't know if I know what that means," Sanders politely says. "'Sticky phrases'? It sticks! 'It's Chita's world, we're just living in it' is a sticky phrase." "I see," says Sanders. The other person replies, "When we write what's going to go on TV spots, I want phrases more like that."

Miramontez says excitedly, "You guys, Madonna is coming on Saturday!" Someone jokingly asks if she is going to text during the show. (Days earlier she had conspicuously not been invited backstage after attending a performance of the Off-Broadway sensation Hamilton and doing just that.) "No, that's why she's coming," says Miramontez. "So she can sit there and not text — it's a PR play!"

Finally arises the topic of underslings, the boards that can be seen hanging from marquees throughout the theater district featuring quotes that tout the show inside. "Those things usually go up within 24 hours," says Miramontez. But that is not an option for The Visit, since the Lyceum was designated as a landmark — the first Broadway theater ever to earn that distinction, in 1974 — which means that, by law, things cannot hang from it. "That's the drag with this theater," says Sanders. "We can put quotes in the cases there," points out Miramontez, referring to the glass frames that are mounted along the front of the theater.

At a little after 11 p.m., no more than an hour after the session convened, the war room is declared closed. "Now let's party," says Sanders, half seriously. The festivities outside are still hopping, with Rivera's co-star Roger Rees accepting congratulations by one of the buffet stations, a sweater-clad F. Murray Abraham holding court by the desserts and Alan Cumming and his husband slinking across the dance floor as a playlist of Madonna songs blares in the background. But work will resume the next day, focusing more on long-term planning, and will continue for many days thereafter.

By midnight, if one were to visit the official website of The Visit, one would see at the top of it the aforementioned Times quote in caps: "CHITA RIVERA STOPS THE SHOW. SHE IS A DEVILISH DELIGHT! —THE NEW YORK TIMES." The quote was pieced together from two different sentences in the Times' review: "'I’m unkillable,' Ms. Rivera’s character says, and a line uttered with throwaway bravado stops the show," and "She’s a devilish delight when Claire dances with her traveling entourage of blind men." (It is unclear whether or not Brantley ever approved the change; he apparently never objected to it, as it remains on the site 10 days later.)

The Chita-centric strategy seems to be working. The Visit wound up bagging Tony nominations for best musical, best actress in a musical (Rivera), best book, best original score and best lighting design — a strong showing — and it's holding its own at the box office so far. In other words, the theater community is turning out for one of its own. As one pundit told me at the party, "We're all very much the nerds. We're very into the history. She represents the industry. And in this show she's the engine — the whole thing supports her."

For all anyone knows, Rivera, who is something like the Meryl Streep of the Tonys — she previously was Tony-nominated for Bye Bye Birdie, Chicago, Bring Back Birdie, Merlin, The Rink, Jerry's Girls, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Nine and Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life, winning for The Rink and Kiss of the Spider Woman — may even take home a third statuette June 7. And nothing — except, perhaps, a best musical win — could be better than that for The Visit.

Don't let anyone tell you otherwise: there's truly no business like show business.