Chris Boneau was an eager theatrelover and performer from Port Arthur, TX. Adrian Bryan-Brown was a biology graduate from London University with a dream of making movies. Somehow the two ended up in the same office in the early ’90s, and a long-lasting collaboration began.
Boneau retired from the stage sometime after college when he was encouraged to pursue a career in Broadway publicity, bridging the gap between the production’s producers and the theatregoers (getting the stories out to mass media and being the direct “in-between” for artists and journalists).
In the late ’80s, he was hired by press agent Joshua Ellis; Bryan-Brown, an established press rep at the firm (after deciding film was not for him), served as Boneau’s mentor. Boneau, who comes from a family of small-business owners, also did freelance press on the side at his own office in the city, and when Ellis’ firm closed, Bryan-Brown moved in.
“Adrian and I were just beginning our partnership,” Boneau explains from inside the Boneau/Bryan-Brown offices in Times Square, “and I had a little office. He was down the hall, and he buzzed and said, ‘[Producer] Rocco Landesman wants to talk to you. There’s a Broadway show coming that I don’t think that I could handle, but I think you should do it.’ So the phone picks up, and it’s Rocco Landesman, and he says, ‘Hi Chris. We haven’t really met. I’ve heard a lot about you guys. But I’m wondering if you want to work on Angels in America.’
“I remember standing up—those days you just can’t sit down because there’s a lot to do—and you realize that your life has been changed, and it was that moment. I knew about Angels in America. I had no idea it was going to take the path it was going to take, but it was the day that truly changed my life, and I think the beginning of our business, too. There were things right before, but that was the big, big moment. Guys and Dolls was happening right before that, so there was this year when it was all happening.”
The partnership formed organically.
“Adrian was working in the space I had rented,” Boneau continues, “and people didn’t know Adrian was there, so [we thought], ‘We should change how we answer the phones. How about Boneau/Bryan-Brown?’ Then I went to a friend [Frank ‘Fraver’ Verlizzo] and said, ‘Can you design some letterhead if we decided to do this?’ I showed Adrian a bunch of letterheads, and before you knew it… We didn’t even legalize our partnership—formalize it—until years later, but we were sharing resources. People who worked for me were working with him, and we were becoming this little agency.”
It was a different time back then, when Broadway was an integral part of popular culture. Representatives like Boneau and Bryan-Brown were in high demand. Theatre was thriving, much like it is once again with the musical sensation Hamilton conquering the city, and Guys and Dolls redefined the Broadway “revival.”
Guys and Dolls “kind of changed the perception the way revivals were done,” says Bryan-Brown, “but we didn’t know it at the time. We just thought, ‘Oh yeah, we love that musical,’ and then it grew to be … a game-changer. [We thought,] ‘Musical revivals, now, are not going to be thought of as these things that come in for a few weeks, and they’re rather tacky. This is going to be seen as a really important part of Broadway again.’ And that was really exciting.”
Boneau adds, “I remember Guys and Dolls and Angels were around the same period of time, [and] you would have opening-night coverage on all four TV stations, live usually. [Television anchors] would come dressed in tuxedos. I remember seeing Pia Lindström standing on top of a truck being held by her crew because it was so windy they figured she would fall over. [For] Guys and Dolls, we were doing a live special for Channel 5—the first half hour and the last half hour were live, and the middle section was all taped—and [during] the last half hour, [press representative] John Barlow and I came running back from the New York Times with the rave review that was on the cover of the New York Times. The review started on the cover. Those kind of things don’t happen as much anymore.”
Since the 1992 revival of Guys and Dolls, Boneau/Bryan-Brown has represented hundreds of productions, which have garnered over 200 Tony Awards and nine Pulitzer Prizes. For 16 years, they served as Walt Disney Theatrical Productions’ publicist and public relations strategist before Disney on Broadway was formed. Their current roster includes An American in Paris, The Book of Mormon, Chicago, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Jersey Boys, Matilda, Motown, Something Rotten!, The SpongeBob Musical, Waitress and the Broadway-bound production of The Wiz, among many others.
But, it’s not always behind-the-scenes glitz and glamour for Boneau, Bryan-Brown and their team. Most time is spent in meetings, in which they strategize how best to publicize their projects, and advising producers and clients. Their efforts are constant. Unlike press for a movie, which focuses on its opening weekend at the box office before going onto digital platforms, theatre publicity is live and continuous. To stay afloat, Broadway houses must remain full.
The press representative must find the best avenues to deliver the news; with good press (hopefully) comes good ticket sales.
“I think publicity has to fit two of three buckets,” Boneau explains. “It has to sell tickets, it has to raise awareness, or [it’s done because] the person just wants [to] do press to support their project.” Conversely, he adds, “some people don’t like doing publicity, so sometimes you really have to coax people and say, ‘No, no, no, you have to do a little more because we aren’t there yet.’ That’s why it’s such an organic process. Publicity doesn't stop. You can’t buy the ad and go, ‘We’re done.’ Publicity continues.
“You can never know going in if a show is going to be a hit or a flop. You just don’t know. And I can tell you that a hit show takes as much time as a flop does. It’s the ones that are the ones in the middle that feels like you’re climbing through quicksand. … There are times that you have a show where it’s like, ‘Oh gosh, are we going to make it to Sunday?’ I like the challenge; I live for those challenges.”
The announcement of closing is another matter entirely. Usually, cast members are the last to learn that their job is coming to an end, so a press representative aims to protect the show without lying to journalists.
“There are times when we say to the producer, ‘This news won’t hold until you could meet the cast at 7 or 6:30 because too many people are aware of it, so it may mean you may have to call people,’ which is hard because it’s logistically impossible, and you really want to gather people,” Boneau explains. “If you say to a reporter, from a human-interest [standpoint], ‘Please let the producer be the one to tell them. They don’t want to read this online or in a paper first,’ it gives people a chance to go report the news. It’s [about developing] that relationship with the press…where there is trust.
“If you don’t have the trust—if you lie to a journalist once, maybe you’ll get away with it, but if you do it again, you’re never getting away with it again. It’s the same thing with people in shows—they have to trust you. They’re trusting you with their investment, they’re trusting you with the life of their show, they’re trusting you with their personal stories they’re going to tell you—they’re going to tell the press why they wanted to do a show, why they wrote it… There has to be trust there.”
Sometimes, though, an announcement can be thrilling.
“Finding out that Topdog/Underdog had won the Pulitzer the day it was going to start previews and running over there and organizing how to tell [playwright] Suzan-Lori Parks, how to get the cast together, have this party and then [say], ‘Oh, you’ve got to go do a show’, those are fun days,” Boneau recalls. “Being able to call people and say, ‘You’re not going to believe this, but guess what? You have to put the next two hours of your life on hold while you roll calls and do publicity.’”
“Look, we have revisionist memories a lot of the time,” Bryan-Brown adds. “But I think one thing that really strikes me is that we do crazy things that you then completely forget about. Like, the other day I was thinking, ‘Holy sh*t, I remember asking Helen Hayes to step into cement, so that her footprints can be immortalized outside the Helen Hayes Theatre.’ You’re thinking, ‘Here’s the first lady of the American Theatre,’ and you’re saying, ‘Step in cement.’”
In 2015, Bryan-Brown received a Special Tony Honor for Excellence in the Theatre. He’s worked in the industry for over 25 years, and with over 400 plays and musicals under his belt, Broadway keeps surprising him.
“It’s very hard to pin down [your favorite moment over 25 years] because you’re always thinking about, ‘I’d love to have that experience again of when that was so fantastic,’ and inevitably that does happen. Something like when Spring Awakening comes [back] to town and becomes a media darling—it may not be a big commercial hit—but it becomes this thing, you feel really good, and it’s exciting. It makes you realize that why we love theatre is because it lies in ‘reinvents.’ It’s not that I’m hoping that an even greater thing is to come. I know it will come.”