On Broadway: From Rent to Revolution is more than a picture book for your coffee table. Written by Drew Hodges, the founder of Broadway advertising agency SpotCo—the place that works tirelessly to translate the meaning of a show to theatregoers looking to buy tickets—the tome takes readers through 20 years of theatre (in show posters).
“I wanted to show all the work that went into the final posters,” Hodges said at the release party for From Rent to Revolution, held just before this year’s Tony Awards. “People love the posters, and they really excite them, but they don’t know all the other [versions that came before the final product]. Frankly, they are all sitting in my computer files. They’re almost like bits floating in space, so we wanted to pull them all out and print them.”
What exactly is the science behind creating the perfect look for a Broadway show? After all, the artwork is typically displayed on the theatre’s marquee, throughout Times Square on billboards, the show’s Playbill, the poster, its merchandise and more. “The best thing that goes into them is figuring out what a show needs, honestly,” said Hodges. “To figure out how a show will be perceived with almost no help. … Some shows you get, there’s a lot of priority. You could tell what you’re going to get [as an audience member]. Bette Midler is going to do Hello, Dolly! You can imagine already what that show will be. In that case, the poster just needs to support what you already think, but in a lot of cases, you don’t know enough, and the poster has to tell you what you might be getting. It has to make an emotional promise. It has to tell you not really what’s going to happen, but how it’s going to feel to go.”
In On Broadway: From Rent to Revolution, readers can peruse through show artwork from Rent, Chicago, Annie Get Your Gun, The Vagina Monologues, Bat Boy, Avenue Q, Doubt, The Color Purple, The Drowsy Chaperone, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Kinky Boots, Rocky, Fun Home, In the Heights and Hamilton, among dozens of others.
What’s the biggest challenge for Hodges and his SpotCo team? “Bad, bad titles,” he says, “like Drowsy Chaperone or Omnium Gatherum, where no one understands what it’s going to be about.” Another hurdle Hodgest must clear is the desire for the poster to reflect the onstage aesthetic of the show. “The shows get so caught up in the literal way the show is going to be done—the sets, the look—so they want the poster to reflect that, and that’s often not very helpful to the poster. … A better poster would be to add more information because people self-select. They decide what’s right for them, and if you do a good job, then more people have the sense that your show is going to be the one they’re going to want to see.”
Aside from Drowsy, Hodges explained that one of the first challenges in his career was creating the perfect look for the long-running revival of Chicago.
“[Gossip columnist] Cindy Adams wrote a column that said, ‘No one is going to pay full price for a Broadway show that is just a glorified concert’ because [the production of Chicago] had come from Encores!,” Hodges explains. “We knew we had to find a way to own the really minimalistic look, so everyone would understand that that was the only way the show should look even if we had all the budget in the world, so we decided to use fashion photography because when you do that—Calvin Klein does a black-and-white fashion ad—nobody says, ‘Oh, you didn’t have the budget for color?’ That was a really early example just looking at what some of the potholes might be and trying to fill them in right from the beginning.”
And, just when the SpotCo team thinks they’re done, the Tony Awards come at the end of the season—and the marketing campaign switches instantaneously after nominations are announced, depending on what shows get honored.
“First of all, the whole office gets in and sits around the big table,” he said. “This year, we had 96 Tony nominations, so the moment that they’re announced, people leap up out of the room and run off to start making their ad because they come out on Tuesday morning. The New York Times ads are due at two o’clock that day, so every single show that’s in the office has to release a new ad campaign that day, and as much as you try to prefigure what it’s going to be, it changes. What people thought they were going to get nominations for, they get a different one. And they get more, and they get less. So that day, almost every ad campaign changes for every show we have, so it’s just a huge, overwhelming day.
“After that, everyone gets to step back and say, ‘Who are we in the marketplace? Who are we competing against?’ So we spend a lot of time thinking about how to remind people the best thing they loved about your show. And that’s what it’s really about—reminding people why they liked that show.”