"I remember how excited my mother was when she said to me and my brother, 'I've got tickets to A Chorus Line,'" Adrian Bryan-Brown says. "The show had just transferred to Broadway. We sat in the second balcony. It was such an event. There was a sense of community spirit, of people really wanting to be there."
Adrian, as just about everyone in the business calls him, has been conveying that same Broadway excitement, and that same Broadway community spirit, for three decades. These days he is co-owner of Boneau/Bryan-Brown, the biggest and most successful public relations firm on Broadway. The more than 200 shows he has represented run the gamut from Tony Award-winning plays like Art, Copenhagen and The History Boys to other critically praised plays like Frost/Nixon, Skylight and Amy's View to popular musicals like The Who's Tommy, Sunset Boulevard, Titanic, Jersey Boys, Monty Python's Spamalot and Mamma Mia!
Other recent and current productions include Rock 'n' Roll, The Seafarer, The Farnsworth Invention, Is He Dead?, Sunday in the Park with George, Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps and Les Liaisons Dangereuses, directed by Rufus Norris. (Broadway also runs in his family — his wife is Joan Marcus, the theatre photographer.)
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Adrian Bryan-Brown talking with Mervyn Rothstein about his career as a theatrical publicist.
Adrian was born in Oxford, England, and even though his father, a physician, and his mother moved to New York in the late '60s, he remained in school in England. "I was very lucky," he recalls. "I had the opportunity — and was taken, sometimes kicking and screaming — to see some of the great stage performances of the day in the West End with the theatrical knights: Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud and Paul Scofield. In New York it was Broadway legends like Ethel Merman, Carol Channing and Jason Robards. My parents force-fed it to me. At the time, I would have rather gone to see the new James Bond movie — but that changed every time I sat down in a Broadway theatre."
All those experiences made him realize early on that somehow, he wanted to make his career in the arts. "I wasn't yearning to be on stage and my family didn't have a theatre background — though my grandmother was onstage with Paul Robeson in the original London production of Show Boat. When I started thinking about what to do with my life, I first thought I wanted to work in television or film."
Armed with a degree in biology from the University of London — "it was a deal with my folks, that I get a degree in something sensible, and then I could pursue a job in the arts" — he spent a summer studying film at UCLA, "to see what it was like out there. I quickly decided that theatre was more interesting. And I sort of fell into it."
He was doing odd jobs in New York — working in photo-copy shops and at a Carvel ice-cream store on the Upper East Side — when an acquaintance said that he should speak to a publicist named Susan Bloch, who was looking for someone for her office. "I met with her. It was the late '70s, and she was the queen of Off-Broadway — she handled the Phoenix Theatre, the Chelsea Theatre and the Roundabout [when it was a small, Off-Broadway company]."
He hung out for about three months, working essentially for lunch money before starting full-time. "And I realized that being a publicist was a great fit for me. I had always been someone who got the early first editions of newspapers to check what was coming in, not just in theatre but also in movies, music, TV and the other performing arts. And as I worked for those first couple of weeks learning what was going on, the process of public relations became very clear to me. You learn all you can about a show, or new project, and distill the most interesting information and write it down. You pass that on to 100 people, and they tell thousands or millions more people. It's a great thrill setting the story in motion and being able to say, 'I did that!'"
His first Broadway show was a Roundabout Theatre Company transfer, A Taste of Honey, starring Amanda Plummer, "which played at the Century Theatre in 1979, in the basement of the Paramount Hotel."
When Bloch died suddenly, he went to work for Roundabout itself. And when Roundabout's publicity was picked up by a major office, Solters Roskin Friedman, he went to work for the firm. "At the time it was the busiest PR office in town, and it was my first exposure to a big office." Its theatre publicity was led by Josh Ellis, a mentor to Adrian, and when Ellis started his own firm, Adrian went with him. And then several years later, when Ellis left New York theatre publicity, Adrian and some publicists in the office, including Chris Boneau, his current business partner, started their own firm. By then it was the early '90s, and they have all stayed together for 18 years. Boneau/Bryan-Brown now has 20 employees — "which is a lot for a company that specializes in theatre publicity — and they are the best in the business!" Adrian says.
"I have been so lucky to have been part of an extraordinary change in Broadway over the past 25 years," he says. "There has never been a better time to be a theatregoer or a fan of the theatre. There is more choice of the kinds of shows you can see and there is so much more information about them available to you. The synergy between television, film and theatre has never been more evident, and the quality of artist, from actor to designer to director, working on stage is more creative and innovative than ever."
The same is true, he says, for publicity. "The global reach of television and the internet has created so many opportunities for theatre coverage. The industry has grown up in a lot of ways. Marketing and advertising are way more sophisticated and interesting than they have ever been. There are so many more options in getting the word out. There is also challenging competition from new media vying for the audience's attention. We are better now at communicating that the theatre is here and what it's all about."
And that is his hope for the future. "I'm looking forward to creating even more ways to spread the word — to get the voice of the artist out there, to talk about the show in whole new arenas, to find even more interesting ways of conveying what's going on on Broadway, so people who don't know about it are jolted into thinking, 'Wow, that could be interesting.' To conquering the challenge of showing what's so important about the stage — that it's live every night, different every night, unique for that audience, that you cannot replicate that actual experience by downloading it on your iPod. You have to be in that room at that special moment."