Ticket buyers leave Broadway’s Winter Garden Theatre feeling they got their money’s worth after the musical’s 20-minute balls-to-the-wall fight sequences, complete with spraying blood, clanging bells and the primal thunk of glove pounding flesh. How’d they do that? they wonder. Drew Hodges, the Broadway ad man who shook up the industry in 1996 with his mold-breaking campaigns for Rent featuring rough graphics, grimy looking punk photography and dare-you-to-see-this copy, entered the Tony Awards season this week with more game-changers that are separating the shows he represents from the sea of exclamation points and quotation marks that are the bread-and-butter of theatrical advertising.
Start with Rocky, which got middling notices on the whole but acclaim for Rocky’s championship fight with Apollo Creed. The ad for the show — a gritty photo of that climactic match — explains how the sequence was designed for maximum realism. A line from the photo leads to a box telling us, for example, that custom-made gloves were designed to allow the actors to land full punches without hurting each other.
Remember how Penn & Teller would open their act by telling us how magic tricks were done? It didn’t wreck the show. The same logic applies here. “You have to remind everybody how you are not like the others,” Hodges told me this morning at the midtown Manhattan offices of his company, SPOTCO. “Here, it’s not like we’re giving away a secret. The question is, Does the ad make them want to see it? Well, knowing things beforehand heightens the experience.”
Hodges and his group worked with Rocky director Alex Timbers to narrow down which effects to fit into the ad. “Alex gave us 20 ideas, and we may do another. It’s about the reality of the show, and people are loving that scene. The point is to freeze the moment.”
Producer Scott Rudin, who’s not connected with Rocky, sent Hodges a note calling it “the best ad of the season.”
“And no-one does shock and awe like Scott,” Hodges said, relishing the hat-tip.
Hodges had a different challenge with last year’s Tony best musical winner Kinky Boots: How to keep interest up when all the attention is being focused on new shows. Cue James Earl Jones, Josh Groban, celebrity chef Mario Batali, tennis legend Martina Navratilova and a few other bold-facers, all outfitted in the show’s ubiquitous thigh-high boots, under copy reading “Just Be Who You Want To Be.”
Each of the stars is promoting a favorite charity; click on the image and you see the photo shoot and a discussion of the cause.
“Rocky came together in three days,” Hodges said. “The Kinky campaign was probably our longest ever in planning, a year since we thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to get well-known people into those boots?’ We see this everywhere else, using celebrities to promote a cause and a product, but not on Broadway. “If you don’t define what is the event of your show, it will define you,” he said. “We didn’t want Kinky Boots to be seen as Priscilla 2. I hope to get the fire department from Hempstead, Long Island into the boots. The brand is big enough now.”
Hodges, who came out of pop music and film, is thinking about the Tony races the way Hollywood agencies think about the Super Bowl and the Oscars: As a time to, well, strut your stuff and throw some unexpected punches. And guess what? Folks are taking note. Given the lack of clear front-runners in so many key races, every nominated show will need to sharpen its pitch. “I have no problem with acknowledging that that this was a Tony nominations ad,” Hodges said.
Related: 68th Tony Award Nominations
He’s not alone: In coming weeks I’ll tell you about unorthodox and unexpected ways other producers are planning to get an edge in the five weeks before the June 8 Tonycast.