When producers decided to transfer the new comedy The Play That Goes Wrong from London’s West End (where it was a hit) to Broadway (where it was completely unknown), they decided to buck the recent convention of producing straight plays as limited engagements.
“People thought I was crazy,” says Kevin McCollum, one of the show’s four lead producers and a man who has brought such hits as Rent, Avenue Q, In The Heights, [title of show], and The Drowsy Chaperone to Broadway. “People thought, ‘What are you doing? No one does that. It’s a limited run, right?’”
But McCollum stuck to his guns and opened The Play That Goes Wrong in an open-ended run at Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre April 2, 2017. “I believed it would take time,” explains McCollum. “We are still a word-of-mouth business. I needed people to see the show and build critical mass.”
Generating buzz is the specialty of a successful advertising campaign. So the producing team behind The Play That Goes Wrong turned to SpotCo, one of Broadway’s premiere advertising agencies and the agency McCollum has collaborated with on nearly every one of his previous 23 Broadway endeavors, to establish a strategy. “My job is to not get distracted by cynicism,” says McCollum of doubters. “My job is to create vocabulary and an environment where we execute a plan.”
“There were challenges,” concedes SpotCo Senior Creative Director Jimmy McNicholas. “It’s not a known entity. It’s totally original. It had very humble beginnings in London” as part of the amateur theatre company Mischief Theatre, prior to its bow on the West End, and it doesn’t boast a star name.
SpotCo needed to transform The Play That Goes Wrong from an unknown into a hit.
Luckily, the show’s title was a helpful starting point. “This title tells ticketbuyers exactly what the play is about. It’s a brilliantly funny, clear, useful title,” says McNicholas. And SpotCo’s design team created show art just as simple and bold: an upside down title with the “G” falling off—an idea from the play’s original producer Kenny Wax.
But what’s become crucial to the success of any show is the creation of a full brand identity—a core philosophy that can be communicated across traditional billboards and bus signs to GIFs on Twitter.
“What’s happening in the theatre, what people are saying to each other and what people are seeing and engaging with in the world,” he says, “if those three things are aligned, I think that goes a long way towards creating a hit.
“It’s about finding that language and finding that voice, sticking with it and never breaking it,” says McNicholas. And that’s proven an effective approach for past unknown shows on their roads to smash hit. Little engines that could like A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder established and adhered to its brand of madcap gallows humor to the tune of the 2014 Tony for Best Musical, and Avenue Q never strayed from its brand of risqué relatability to beat out heavy favorite Wicked for Best Musical in 2004.
So what is The Play That Goes Wrong’s hook? From its London beginning, the comedy—portraying a troupe of amateur actors who can’t get anything right in their production of a British murder mystery—embraced a self-deprecating style of humor.
“I’m a member of SOLT [Society of London Theatre] and I got this announcement [years back] from a young producer named Kenny Wax saying, ‘We really don’t want you to come see The Play That Goes Wrong. We are embarrassed that you have to see it as part of your [SOLT duties]. Please, whatever you do, do not nominate us,’” McCollum recalls. He immediately latched onto that cheeky London humor and McNicholas incorporated it into the tone that surrounds the Broadway campaign.
“At every point we tried to make people laugh,” says McNicholas. “We tried to make people look twice. When you’re selling comedy, you need to find a way to be funny—not just tell people that you’re funny, but show people that you’re funny and prove it.”
One of the show’s earliest television spots—internally called The Shoot That Goes Wrong—did just that. The commercial centered around a motley crew unable to create a good ad campaign. “I remember the DP saying to me, ‘Is it OK that I can see that light in the shot?’” McNicholas remembers, “and I said, ‘Roll camera. Hey, Chris Bean, is it OK that we can see the light in that shot?’ Of course he said, ‘What? Who did that? How did that happen?’”
Even the show’s earliest late night television appearance with big-name producer J.J. Abrams stayed true to its excellence at clumsiness in “The Interview That Goes Wrong.”
Read More: WHY DID SCI-FI MASTERMIND J.J. ABRAMS PICK THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG FOR HIS BROADWAY DEBUT?