ASK PLAYBILL.COM: Merchandise

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Ask Playbill.com is a weekly Playbill.com column that answers questions about theatre, generated by readers and Playbill.com staff, every Thursday. To ask a question, email AskPlaybill@Playbill.com. Please specify how you would like your name displayed and please include the city in which you live.

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This week's question comes from Devan from New Jersey.

Question: When did Broadway shows start selling merchandise? How is it decided what will be sold (for example, the designs of T-shirts)? Who receives the profits from the items sold? Answer: For this question, we spoke with Randi Grossman, the owner of Max Merchandising, who began selling Broadway merchandise when she signed on with Rent shortly after it opened and is now overseeing merchandise for at least ten current shows, including Spamalot, Spring Awakening, Avenue Q, Legally Blonde, Mamma Mia! and A Chorus Line. As for the history of Broadway merchandise, Grossman says, "As we know it to today, it started with Cameron Mackintosh," she says. "With his productions of Cats, Phantom and Les Miz, it's at that point where it really took off. It really became a business, and there was more than a CD and a brochure being offered."

When Grossman and her team first start work on a show, they meet with the producers, the ad agency, the marketing team and sometimes the creative team and the authors to start thinking up their ideas. Grossman and her team read through the script and highlight certain lines that would make for good quotes to put on a T-shirt or other item.

Show to show, the scope of merchandise is similar. "There is a core line that is logo-specific," she says, meaning there have to be some items that simply have the show's logo. "And then it branches out from there," she adds, "depending on the direction the show takes. We'll start working with different graphics or we'll add lyrics that are in a song or text and we branch out. But it starts with the logo."

Another rule of thumb: You want some merchandise for each gender, but more for women. "Women buy more merchandise than men do," Grossman says.

Max Merchandising's in-house graphic artist will design some of the items and create print-outs, which are then presented to the producers to decide what they like. After that, the physical samples get made, and the producers and Grossman's team decide what goes on the shelf.

Then they see what people buy. "We'll put things out there," she says. "We had high hopes for a particular shirt, and it didn't do as well, and we'll pull that shirt and we'll put in another item and see how that goes."

It's a lot of trial and error. For example, Grossman's vice--president came up with the idea for a Legally Blonde T-shirt that read, "kiss a leprechaun for me" — a line from the show — for St. Patrick's Day. Max often does holiday-themed merchandise in December, such as Christmas ornaments, but had never done it for another holiday. "I just thought it wouldn't work at all, and, lo and behold, it was terrific," Grossman says. They now plan to do merchandise for other holidays mentioned in Legally Blonde. "Most shows wouldn't be able to do that," Grossman says. "Legally Blonde has the right audience. Legally Blonde has a lot of repeat business, it has the right fan base that is in the right demographic to like that idea. It's not something that would work at Curtains."

The lines that go on the T-shirts can change over time. For Rent, Grossman says, "We didn't put 'no day but today' on a T-shirt until probably the second year, and it was one of those 'a-ha!' moments. I was like, all of a sudden, 'That's what's supposed to be there, that's what will resonate.'" On the other hand, she adds, "When we did Legally Blonde we knew that 'Oh my God' was going on a shirt from day one."

At Spamalot, the top selling T-shirt slogan and top-selling button is "I'm not dead yet." The second highest-selling button is "I fart in your general direction." "We don't have the 'fart' T-shirt," Grossman says. "We decided that women wouldn't want their husbands to buy it. We do have holy grail boxer shorts." Overall, Spamalot sells around 1,400-2,000 T-shirts a week. But the show is unique in that the novelty items — such as killer rabbit puppets and the coconut shells — sell well. "Most shows have a few break-out items," Grossman noted in a follow-up email, "but Spamalot is unique in that the wide range of audience demographic leads to a wider assortment of top-selling items." Spamalot is known for having a higher percentage of male audience members as compared to other musicals, which generally tend to attract more females.

At A Chorus Line, of the many potential lines to put on T-shirts, Grossman's company chose "And now life really begins," a reference to adolescence, from the song "Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love." That's because, "when this production opened, it was an attempt — and they succeeded — in bringing in a younger audience," Grossman says.

As creative as the merchandise can be, Grossman says, the top sellers at a musical tend to be the souvenir program and the CD. Those are followed by the T-shirt of the large logo across the chest. "As much as we want to create an opportunity for your fashion line, and the opportunity for people to buy many things, first and foremost it is still a souvenir to take home of their experience on Broadway," Grossman says.

For a children's show, things work a little differently: The top sellers are the toys, followed by the "plushes," Grossman calls them (the stuffed animals, or Grinches, or whatever), followed by the T-shirts — but the T-shirts can't just have the logo. For Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, Grossman says, "We need to have the Grinch in a really cute characterization," some sort of pose, or else the kids won't want it.

So, how do you decide what merchandise to use for a play such as Thurgood? People aren't exactly going to buy miniature stuffed Supreme Court justices. Grossman says for that show, the producer, Bill Haber, came up with the idea to have a book on Thurgood Marshall's life, which is selling well. With a recognizable play like Macbeth, you can have more fun. For the recent revival, Grossman's company did a hat that said "The Scottish Play" and a T-shirt with the line, "by the pricking of my thumbs something wicked this way comes." "It's a little sexy," Grossman says. "I don't think I could go through The Country Girl script and come up with something like that."

As for the financial arrangement, Grossman says, typically, her company runs like an independent store, taking case of all its costs and taking home the money it makes — except for a percentage of the gross sales that goes to the production, which can be anywhere from 15 to 35 percent. That means that when a show closes after three weeks and there are T-shirts left unsold, Max Merchandising takes the hit.