Diane Willcox, the general manager of Broadway/San Diego, knew that Spring Awakening wasn't the average musical her group usually presented and it would require something other than the average marking campaign.
When the Duncan Sheik-Steven Sater show debuted Off-Broadway at the Atlantic Theatre Company and soon after transferred to Broadway, critics praised it as the most innovative rock musical since Rent, one that used a propulsive alt-rock, punk-ish score and a tough libretto to relay an unstinting account of teenage sexual angst and confusion. Its regional audiences, Willcox suspected, wouldn't be found entirely through the usual spate of mailings, advertisements and e-mail blasts.
"Since Spring Awakening is a show that's geared toward Generation Next, or whatever you want to call it, we were really keen trying to find ways to communicate with that audience in the manner that they're used to," said Willcox. "That led us to the whole world of MySpace, Facebook, Twitter. It was a whole new world for this."
To aid her in finding the show's ideal audience, Willcox drafted the young Holly Mann and Deanna Chew, members of that "Generation Next." Mann and Chew were put in charge of the "West Coast Guilty Ones," a guerilla marketing program that takes its name from the name of the original Spring Awakening fan club, which in turn adopted the title of one of the songs in Sheik's score. Mann and Chew created MySpace and Facebook pages for the show and began recruiting volunteers to assist in getting the word out about the show, which ran in San Diego Aug. 15-31. Volunteers were typically young theatre fans and Spring Awakening fans in particular. They were asked what their favorite songs were from the musical, what scenes made them cry and similar inquiries. "I got to know them," said Mann. "That helped them be receptive to what I had to say once the marketing of the show began."
Eventually Mann and Chew put together a West Coast Guilty Ones group numbering roughly 60 people, most of them teenagers. The volunteers would help with e-marketing or by posting bulletins about the show on their own MySpace pages. In exchange for their work, they would earn points, which could be exchanged for various perks. These rewards included everything from a meet-and-greet with the Spring Awakening cast to being invited to sit in on a dress rehearsal.
The West Coast Guilty Ones program was so successful that it was used by presenters of the tour up and down the Pacific coast. (Tour dates include Portland, Los Angeles and Seattle.) "A lot of times we're struggling to find anyone to go out as ambassadors to a show," said Scott Kane, vice-president of marketing and sales for San Francisco Best of Broadway series at the Curran Theatre, where the national tour officially kicks off Sept. 4. "But this is sort of a built-in-program. It's really easy for the road to take advantage of."
Kane put together a group of 60 volunteers, most of them in high school, or just starting college. Their ultimate bonus is to earn enough points to see the show. Many of the volunteers, Kane pointed out, have heard of Spring Awakening and are familiar with the music from listening to the CD, but have yet to actually attend the stage production.
Willcox said the unique marketing strategy has paid off. Sales, which started out slowly, grew in the last weeks leading up to the first performance in San Diego, as the West Coast Guilty Ones crew began infiltrating the community, leading to spikes in internet sales.
Not everyone took advantage of the Guilty Ones program. Michael Porto works at the Gammage Auditorium at ASU in Tempe, AZ, where Spring Awakening will play Dec. 9-14. "I don't think there are so many of those type of kids in Arizona," he said. Porto was more concerned with informing potential theatregoers about the sometimes raw nature of the musical, which features swearing, partial nudity and simulated sexual intercourse and masturbation.
"We sent a letter from our executive director to all our subscribers that was very specific to the themes of the show," said Porto. "This show has a particular subject matter that we feel is important work, but may not be for everyone."
In an unusual move, the Gammage gave subscribers the opportunity to opt out of Spring Awakening if they weren't interested. According to Porto, only 16 percent of the 10,000 subscribers exercised the option. (This was not an issue in the more liberal-minded San Francisco market, where no opt-out was offered, and, said Scott Kane, the subscriber renewal rate was 95 percent — the highest ever recorded.)
In addition, ASU invited community groups and leading subscribers to an event last spring at which Spring Awakening producer Tom Hulce explained the nature of the show. Joining Hulce on stage were parents who had attended the musical with their kids. They shared their experiences with the 300 people in attendance. "We wanted people from the very beginning to know what they were going to expect," said Porto.
The dissemination of knowledge will continue up until, as well as during, the run. The theatre staff will have a table at the campus' student union during lunch hour from October to December, for anyone who should wish to ask questions. And there will be a talk back following each performance of the show.
Willcox also made it her business to reach out to questioning parents, going through the usual marketing routes of brochures and e-mail blasts. She also directed adults to the musical's official website, which has a "Parents Guide" design to quell all worries and doubts. "It's very important that families walk in fully informed as to the content of the show," said Willcox. "What's been interesting for me as a soccer mom is sitting around with other soccer moms trying to explain this show and getting a lot of feedback."