When producers decided to transfer the new comedy The Play That Goes Wrong from London’s West End (where it was a hit) to Broadway (where it was completely unknown), they decided to buck the recent convention of producing straight plays as limited engagements.
“People thought I was crazy,” says Kevin McCollum, one of the show’s four lead producers and a man who has brought such hits as Rent, Avenue Q, In The Heights, [title of show], and The Drowsy Chaperone to Broadway. “People thought, ‘What are you doing? No one does that. It’s a limited run, right?’”
But McCollum stuck to his guns and opened The Play That Goes Wrong in an open-ended run at Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre April 2, 2017. “I believed it would take time,” explains McCollum. “We are still a word-of-mouth business. I needed people to see the show and build critical mass.”
Generating buzz is the specialty of a successful advertising campaign. So the producing team behind The Play That Goes Wrong turned to SpotCo, one of Broadway’s premiere advertising agencies and the agency McCollum has collaborated with on nearly every one of his previous 23 Broadway endeavors, to establish a strategy. “My job is to not get distracted by cynicism,” says McCollum of doubters. “My job is to create vocabulary and an environment where we execute a plan.”
“There were challenges,” concedes SpotCo Senior Creative Director Jimmy McNicholas. “It’s not a known entity. It’s totally original. It had very humble beginnings in London” as part of the amateur theatre company Mischief Theatre, prior to its bow on the West End, and it doesn’t boast a star name.
SpotCo needed to transform The Play That Goes Wrong from an unknown into a hit.
Luckily, the show’s title was a helpful starting point. “This title tells ticketbuyers exactly what the play is about. It’s a brilliantly funny, clear, useful title,” says McNicholas. And SpotCo’s design team created show art just as simple and bold: an upside down title with the “G” falling off—an idea from the play’s original producer Kenny Wax.
But what’s become crucial to the success of any show is the creation of a full brand identity—a core philosophy that can be communicated across traditional billboards and bus signs to GIFs on Twitter.
“What’s happening in the theatre, what people are saying to each other and what people are seeing and engaging with in the world,” he says, “if those three things are aligned, I think that goes a long way towards creating a hit.
“It’s about finding that language and finding that voice, sticking with it and never breaking it,” says McNicholas. And that’s proven an effective approach for past unknown shows on their roads to smash hit. Little engines that could like A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder established and adhered to its brand of madcap gallows humor to the tune of the 2014 Tony for Best Musical, and Avenue Q never strayed from its brand of risqué relatability to beat out heavy favorite Wicked for Best Musical in 2004.
So what is The Play That Goes Wrong’s hook? From its London beginning, the comedy—portraying a troupe of amateur actors who can’t get anything right in their production of a British murder mystery—embraced a self-deprecating style of humor.
“I’m a member of SOLT [Society of London Theatre] and I got this announcement [years back] from a young producer named Kenny Wax saying, ‘We really don’t want you to come see The Play That Goes Wrong. We are embarrassed that you have to see it as part of your [SOLT duties]. Please, whatever you do, do not nominate us,’” McCollum recalls. He immediately latched onto that cheeky London humor and McNicholas incorporated it into the tone that surrounds the Broadway campaign.
“At every point we tried to make people laugh,” says McNicholas. “We tried to make people look twice. When you’re selling comedy, you need to find a way to be funny—not just tell people that you’re funny, but show people that you’re funny and prove it.”
One of the show’s earliest television spots—internally called The Shoot That Goes Wrong—did just that. The commercial centered around a motley crew unable to create a good ad campaign. “I remember the DP saying to me, ‘Is it OK that I can see that light in the show?’” McNicholas remembers, “and I said, ‘Roll camera. Hey, Chris Bean, is it OK that we can see the light in that shot?’ Of course he said, ‘What? Who did that? How did that happen?’”
Even the show’s earliest late night television appearance with big-name producer J.J. Abrams stayed true to its excellence at clumsiness in “The Interview That Goes Wrong.”
Amidst all the pratfalls and “errors,” the campaign’s unspoken rule is: Everything must go wrong within the context of acclaim. After all, the show won the 2015 Olivier for Best New Comedy and won “every Tony it was nominated for”—a lone victory for 2017’s Best Scenic Design of a Play.
It’s all about spinning back to the vocabulary and the curated identity.
“We’re never saying that this play is ‘terrible’ or a ‘total disaster’ because that doesn’t necessarily land in the right way,” says McNicholas. “We have a smash hit comedy on our hands and everybody needs to know that.” Still, the language creates an aura without pretentiousness, tuned to a middlebrow accessibility.
As the public learns more, The Play That Goes Wrong has found a broad audience. Looking at the data, the play appeals to the average Broadway playgoer, musical theatre buyers looking to satisfy their comedic side, tourists, and all ages of each population. Because the play is so physical, it transcends language; because its humor deals only in onstage mishaps, it’s appropriate for families. (As the slogan goes: “Bring the kids just don’t forget to take them home”). Twenty-six percent venture in from the tri-state area, but 52 percent come from out-of-town beyond those borders.
For the bottom line, the sum of the audiences is greater than its parts and has led The Play That Goes Wrong to claim the title of the longest-running play currently on Broadway.
McCollum, McNicholas, and company jumped on the status, now able to boast “we’re the funniest and the longest,” says McCollum. “It becomes self-perpetuating because the brand is ‘It’s funny and it’s popular enough that it’s still running.’”
And as theatregoers flock, the show extended on Broadway, announced plans for a 2018 U.S. tour, and will transfer to Off-Broadway's New World Stages beginning February 11 after it ends its run January 6.
With every day The Play That Goes Wrong stays on Broadway, McCollum proves skeptics of the open-ended run wrong. “Very few plays become commercial long-running hits, but I knew that was my goal,” he says.