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Raisin in The Sun: Diversifying Broadway By Eric Schnall

Date: Jul 10, 2004

For this inaugural column, we asked Eric Schnall, Associate Producer and Marketing Director, of the Broadway show “Raisin in The Sun” to share the case study of its highly successful marketing campaign (with a budget of just over $800,000 total for advertising, including pre-production, and under $7,000 for street promotion, for the entire run) that attracted a diverse audience to Raisin in The Sun and is a prime example of how Broadway is responding to an increasingly multicultural America.

The Start of Something Big

I’ve worked on shows that have brought non-traditional audiences to the theater… shows that managed to crack the mainstream and challenge preconceptions of who goes to the theater and will buy a ticket to a show. When Raisin was in pre-production, I was told that we would be lucky if African-Americans made up 40% of our audience; I was told how difficult it was to bring this audience to Broadway. However, it was clear once we began performances that ‘Raisin’ was attracting an enormous audience made up primarily of African Americans. Couples on dates; multi-generations of African American families and they’re all connecting to the show and cheering at the end. It was a vision of what Broadway could be. By the end of our run, our audiences (by our estimates) were 75% African American, sometimes greater. It became a bona fide mega-event in the African American community, unlike any Broadway show before it. The demographics turned Broadway on its ear.

“Raisin” was historic in many ways. The production recouped faster than any play or musical on Broadway in 2004. It broke house records at the Royale Theatre for eight weeks in a row. It won two Tony Awards and was nominated for two more. It was the second most financially successful play of all time on Broadway – in terms of how much it grossed per week – second only to the revival of ‘Long Days Journey Into Night’ with Vanessa Redgrave, which had the benefit of both a higher ticket price and a more traditional Broadway audience built into it.

We went on sale with “Raisin” with a full-page 4-color ad in The New York Times in February. It was an American Express Gold Card offer. And we didn’t sell many tickets from that ad. Rather than panic, we realized that our target audience wasn’t necessarily reading The New York Times.

Marketing “Raisin in The Sun” to a Diverse Audience

I’ve worked on shows that have attracted large audiences of young people. Young people are not necessarily reading the New York Times or receiving direct mail pieces in their mailboxes. They’re listening to the radio or going to clubs and record stores or surfing the Internet. So that’s exactly how we reach them – we go where they go. We did use traditional means of marketing and advertising Raisin — a direct mail piece sent to 250,000 homes, ads in The New York Times and TimeOut New York, etc…but from day one these were supplemented by a vast array of promotions and marketing strategies to expand the breadth of the Raisin campaign to reach African Americans and young people.

Street Teams Were Effective

I’d used street teams very successfully on De La Guarda, flyering outside of clubs at 3 am on the weekend. So we did the same thing with Raisin, blanketing the city’s clubs, record stores, concert venues, bars, retail, etc. If there was a Black Eyed Peas or a Missy Elliot or a NERD concert, our street team was there handing out flyers. We went to MTV’s Times Square studios and stood outside while they filmed TRL. We wanted to create a buzz. We had scaled the theater so that there were affordable seats for young people at every performance. Tickets in the front row were $25.

Start With A Classic Play and an Unbeatable Cast

The casting on “Raisin” was incredible. We had a three-time Tony winner in Audra McDonald, a beloved TV star in Phylicia Rashad, an up and coming film star in Sanaa Lathan and a worldwide superstar in Sean Combs. It was magical, this combination of celebrity from very different arenas, and I think it very much contributed to the event-ness of “Raisin”. As soon as casting was finalized and I realized we had Audra McDonald and Sean Combs playing a married couple — that is totally unexpected, and the unexpected is exciting to audiences. The casting was electric.

Sean’s celebrity also opened doors and broadened the scope of our promotion; it allowed me to do promotions, for instance, at the Virgin Megastores in NYC. The idea of marketing a 45-year-old classic play at a record store, or flyering outside of a club at 3 a.m. is pretty radical. And my street teams reported real excitement amongst young people. So very early on, I realized that this could work in a big way. We had 4 exciting stars coming from different worlds reintroducing a fantastic play to a new generation. We were an altogether different kind of Broadway event.

Urban Radio / Black Press / Internet Promotion

We created massive promotions at urban and R&B radio stations like WBLS, Hot 97, 98.7 Kiss and WKTU. Print-wise, we arranged promotions with Vibe, The Source and Essence. We also did web promotions with Essence and Vibe that included email blasts with discounted tickets for Raisin while the show was in previews in March and April. We saw significant sales from these promotions and everyone took notice. I quickly realized that the African American audience was embracing this show in a big way from the get-go. We began to advertise in African American newspapers, such as The Daily Challenge and the Amsterdam News. I also had a multi-lateral promotion with America Online that included prominent placement on its Black Focus page, as well as special ticket offers and email blasts to AOL subscribers on a national level. After the show opened, we continued to advertise in black print media, while cutting back on our spending in The New York Times and TimeOut. If the New York Times readers weren’t coming to our show, why advertise there?

Grass Roots Outreach

We got the word out to the group sales agents who specialize in African American outreach. We sent information to church groups, universities, high schools, etc. We flyered African American neighborhoods in Brooklyn, the Bronx, etc. We spread the word on Internet message boards and to organizations like NAACP, hip-hop and multi-cultural organizations, not-for-profits, etc.

Subway and Amtrak Advertising

We spent a large chunk of our advertising budget on a subway campaign. We had 400 posters on subway platforms throughout the five boroughs of NYC. We thought that the scope of our audience for “Raisin” was as large and varied as New York itself, and the subway just seemed the most natural and effective way to reach the largest audience possible. Raisin is such an important and relevant play, and we realized it would be a cultural event way before it actually became one. I arranged a promotion with Amtrak in which large banners were hung in train stations in Philadelphia, New Haven and Washington DC well in advance of our first performance. We wanted to get the word out on the broadest level possible.

Word-of-Mouth Kicked In

In previews, we saw that the show was genuinely clicking with audiences. They were laughing and crying and having a very visceral, immediate connection to the play. As soon as the cast took its curtain call, our audience would leap to its feet. It was a very immediate and genuine ovation. It was very exciting. There was a buzz in the theater unlike any I’d ever experienced. So we knew we had a show that was clicking with audiences, and positive word-of-mouth was spreading quickly.

The show received mostly favorable reviews. Our weakest review happened to appear in The New York Times, and for a traditional Broadway show, that might have spelled disaster. The producing team went straight into a post-opening advertising and marketing meeting, in which we culled the reviews; see what we’ve got, strategize and make big decisions. During the meeting, we kept getting the box office numbers, and they were off the hook. Even though we’d received a less-than-stellar review in The Times, it wasn’t having any impact on the box office — and in a sense, that was truly radical, that a lousy New York Times review just didn’t matter one bit. We were all enormously proud of the production, so it was gratifying to watch the numbers go through the roof. From there on, the box office just kept growing. Word of mouth was fantastic. There were lines of African Americans of all ages stretching down 45th Street, something you just don’t see on Broadway.

Sean Combs: The Show’s Secret Marketing Tool

Sean Combs was a dream in terms of his dedication in getting the word out. He went on TV, radio, did countless print interviews. He spread the word and did so much work on behalf of the production. He believed in Lorraine Hansberry’s play and her legacy, and worked very hard to bring in a new audience to Broadway. He very much complemented the promotion for the show. He went on MTV’s TRL, BET’s 106 & Park, The View, Letterman, the Today Show, etc. We were lucky to have a star that was so committed to the project. He believed in the play and its relevance on a very gut level, as we all did. The cast was very unified, and a true family. Everyone on the Raisin team both on stage and off was very much in love with Lorraine Hansberry’s play; there was a sense that we were all trying to honor her legacy and bring this production to as wide an audience as possible. I think Lorraine would have been thrilled that her play reached such a wide audience and became a pop cultural phenomenon all over again, 45 years after its Broadway debut. Mohammed Ali, Usher, Hilary Clinton, Aretha Franklin, 50 Cent, Bono, Outkast, Denzel Washington, Nicole Kidman … all the stars came to see the show. In May, the show received four Tony nominations (Phylica Rashad became the first African American actress to win Best Actress in a Play, and Audra McDonald won her 4th Tony Award for Best Featured Actress). We pretty much sold out the entire run right then and there. You couldn’t get a ticket for the last two months of the run.

The Broadway of The Future

Raisin really turned Broadway on its ear. It was a new breed of mega-event, one that was embraced by African Americans. “Raisin” proved that the black audience is ready, willing and able to come out and support Broadway in a big way. It remains so far the most profitable show on the 2004 season — and its run was just 15 weeks. It’s an absolutely amazing statistic.

Our four stars had commitments after our 15 weeks were up, so we knew there was little chance of extension. But there was something absolutely thrilling about a show going out on top, both artistically and commercially. The success of “Raisin” bodes very well for the future of Broadway.

Contact: Eric Schnall, 212-352-9520 or EMSchnall@aol.com.

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