About every ten years or so, Broadway has a smash hit that blows us all away. In the Golden Age of course, this was happening every year, but by the ’80s, shows like The Phantom of the Opera only happened once. And following in its footsteps, Wicked made a similar splash in 2003, taking audiences by storm and making it the hottest ticket in town. Even after Hamilton came along in 2015, theatregoers made room for both, adding the $10 Founding Father to Broadway’s top five highest-grossing musicals of the 2010-2020 decade alongside Phantom, The Book of Mormon, The Lion King, and Wicked. Of these, the only one not to win the coveted Best Musical Tony Award when it was new in town was Wicked. In its place, Avenue Q took home the spinning medallion.
So how did the biggest smash since Phantom lose the coveted award to, well, anyone, but let alone a small, irreverent musical that had the critics but not nearly the audience appeal of Wicked?
One word, y’all: Marketing.
On the 15th episode of The Broadway Ginger Podcast, we reference the story behind the biggest Tony Awards upset of all time. Y’all, I took a personal deep dive into the story after recording the episode, and not only is it completely true, it is salacious.
The producers of Avenue Q ran an unprecedented campaign to Tony voters- complete with a song parody on a CD sent in the mail- but their main selling point was a total lie. They targeted their campaign mostly to the road presenters (venues that book Broadway tours), implying that Wicked didn’t need the “Best Musical” stamp on their publicity to sell tickets, whereas Q did. They reasoned that they were the underdog, but they had great reviews and were way less expensive to house than spectacle shows like Wicked. In spring 2004, they announced they would kick off their tour the following fall.
Whether or not they would have won without this campaign isn’t as interesting to me as the aftermath: not five days after taking home the trophy, they up and announced they would not hit the road after all. Instead, they had signed an exclusive deal with casino mogul Steve Wynn in Las Vegas to set up shop in their own private theatre on the strip. This timing would suggest they might or might not have known about this deal before announcing the tour, and it could have easily been a classic post-Tonys coup, but it turns out the Vegas venue was built specifically for them. This was months in the making. So in the biggest marketing scandal on Broadway, Q’s producers not only wined and dined while pushing the tour appeal angle, they made an official- but fake- tour announcement.
In an interview with New York Magazine the Q team did in character as Rod, they hardly denied the underhanded move, jokingly feigning ignorance that the road houses had a financial incentive to vote for a show that would tour:
“A lot of road producers were mad when you took off for Vegas. Do you have anything to say to those who feel duped into voting for Q?
Are you saying that some folks might have voted their pocketbooks if they knew we weren’t touring? I think I speak for the entire theatre community in saying I am shocked at your assumption! The Tonys are a church, my friend!”
It wasn’t losing money, but it wasn’t exactly the smash tourist attraction Wynn and co had planned. Part of the show’s appeal from the venue’s standpoint was its low operating cost, which ironically was one of the very reasons Q fared so poorly. Vegas audiences, attracted by larger-than-life glitz and glam seemed hardly riveted by the puppets next door. So after five months, this experiment that had all Broadway eyes on the puppets, with everyone wondering if this would be an industry-wide shift, the Little Q That Could closed in Vegas. Speaking of glitz and glam, Hairspray, followed by The Phantom of the Opera, immediately took its place, holding the spot for the anticipated Spamalot to slide in to take its place.
So what’s a show to do after lying to road presenters and crashing and burning in their triumphant if double-crossing Las Vegas run? Come right back to the road presenters, wagging their tails behind them. Picking up right where they left off with clever, Avenue Q-inspired marketing, they asked for their second chance by sending Valentines to the road presenters with a fitting note that read, “have a deeply satisfying moment of schadenfreude.”
So Wynn built an ambitious 1200-seat venue for the newly-crowned Best Musical winner. The thought was that the bawdy desert crowds would be all over the irreverent adult Sesame Street show and would sell it out just like its Broadway counterpart. Easy to say when the Broadway venue seats just over 700. With 10 shows a week, however, the huge venue dwarfed the puppets, who were playing to 50-75% of the theatre on a good night.
While denying them might have felt good, the road presenters would be allowing Avenue Q back into their good graces strictly by way of their ability to fill their pockets- no voting based on hearts or anything else extra. My speculation is that the tanked stint out West could not possibly have made them look appealing to road houses. However, they set out on a regularly-sized tour in 2007 and even stopped here in Atlanta.
I have heard the road houses held them at arm’s length and didn’t offer them enough money for Equity tours.
So what was the big deal with their marketing campaign? The fact is, at that time, outrageous campaigns like that were only seen in Hollywood where the trashy but rich movie executives went to every length to woo the Academy voters. Broadway had, up until 2004, enjoyed a classy Tonys season. But the Avenue Q team changed the game when they not only sent the regular Tony voter packages, but they made Tony appeal an entire marketing campaign. They threw parties, held special events, and had a whole theme centered around an election (guess what was happening that year to make that theme relevant?), urging voters to “Vote Your Heart,” even emphasizing the safe anonymity of votes. They went above and beyond and succeeded.
Avenue Q’s outrageous display, probably coupled with the deception, prompted the Tony Awards committee to seriously reconsider the rules for Tonys season. They pared down what you could do- a lot. They specified very clearly the four things producers are allowed to give Tony voters. So no more song parody CDs, and no more themed parties. While Avenue Q showed what was possible for the Tony Awards, ultimately the committee decided they wanted to maintain Broadway’s reputation for not being as crazy as Hollywood.
Now with new technology however, I do believe a Broadway cast can write a parody and post it on whatever social media platform they wish, as long as it’s not from the producers or the show’s official account. It will be interesting to see if the Tonys committee will- or can- do anything about that.