Behind the Curtain

Adrian Bryan-Brown Chris Boneau
Adrian Bryan-Brown Chris Boneau
Adrian Bryan-Brown
Chris Boneau

By Roger Sands

The lights dim and the rich rubato of the orchestra begins. It’s a goose-bump moment for lovers of the theater. Nowhere else, neither sporting events nor the movies, can such an overwhelming feeling of anticipation fill a venue.

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Theater aficionados, especially those who frequent Broadway, often wait months or more in order to see a much-ballyhooed play. The pre-play hype that draws people to the performances work its intended magic by creating a media buzz that can’t be ignored. It’s all part of an intentional public relations effort by influential publicists who can help propel a play to big box office numbers. And because a Broadway musical can often cost upwards of $10 million to produce, while dramas can be staged for $3 to $4 million, the pressure on publicists to deliver is immense.

Bradley Cooper’s appearance on “The Tonight Show” to promote the highly anticipated “Elephant Man” was not happenstance. On the contrary, Cooper and other stars often receive their marching orders from their publicists, who capitalize on an actor’s star power. Because 80 percent of Broadway shows fail in terms of financial success, it’s incumbent upon savvy publicists to generate every smidgen of publicity possible.

In addition to pitching their product to theater critics and talk show bookers, publicists also advise producers during casting on which actors may help generate the most publicity for a play. In effect, they work with all aspects of a production, whether it be on Broadway, off-Broadway, a national tour, or European production.

Veterans of the Craft
Chris Boneau and Adrian Bryan-Brown, founders of the highly respected New York City theatrical press agency Boneau/Bryan-Brown, have been among the leaders in this very competitive industry for more than two decades. They’re of the philosophy that public relations can’t simply be bought, but it must be organic.

As opposed to representing the stars – who almost always have their own publicists – Boneau and Bryan-Brown work with the play itself, advising producers on everything from soup to nuts. Quite literally, if the need arose, they would suggest which soup to order for lunch during a production meeting if they felt it would benefit their clients.

Their present and past client list reads like a Who’s Who in American theater, and includes such blockbuster shows as “The Book of Mormon,” “Jersey Boys,” “The Lion King,” “Stomp,” “Honeymoon in Vegas” and “Mamma Mia!” Since 1991, the plays and musicals they have represented have won 189 Tony Awards, eight Pulitzer Prizes, 162 Drama Desk Awards, and 120 Outer Critics Circle Awards.

Boneau and Bryan-Brown are the first to shy away from any direct credit for these awards, but don’t be fooled by their modesty. Public relations does wonders for a play or musical both in terms of box office numbers and awards garnered, and a lack of publicity can quickly sink even the best production.

“We need to analyze where the strengths and weaknesses are for each play that we represent,” says Texas native Boneau, “so it’s important as publicists to get involved with the production as early as possible.” Bryan-Brown, who hails from England, adds, “We always look for every possible intriguing or interesting angle in order to help publicize the play.”

A favorable review in The New York Times is still the Holy Grail for publicists, but the Internet has somewhat altered the media landscape. “Today’s media is so different from our early days, and we now look for ambassadors, such as influential bloggers, to help spread the word,” explains Bryan-Brown. “It’s also important for us to work hand-in-hand with the star’s personal publicist in order to ensure that everyone is [sharing] the same message,” says Boneau.

New Kid on the Block
Rick Miramontez faced a dilemma all publicists would welcome. Last year, the president of O&M Co., an eight-year-old New York City theatrical press agency, represented three musicals that were nominated for the coveted Tony Award – “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” (winner of Best Musical), “After Midnight,” and “Beautiful” (winner of Best Performance by an Actress). To further add to his considerable portfolio, he also consulted with Disney on “Aladdin,” the fourth nominee.

“It was our job to not only do everything possible to enhance the profile of all nominees,” explains Miramontez, “but also to promote Broadway itself. “This is easier said than done, says the almost 20-year PR veteran, who believes today’s national media pays less attention to Broadway than in the past. “Certainly the media has an effect on the public’s appetite,” he says.

“Beautiful”  the musical about legendary singer/songwriter Carole King, initially presented several unique challenges for Miramontez and his enthusiastic staff. “Carole King herself stayed away from the production in the early stages, but I viewed that as an opportunity,” he says. “It allowed the show to speak on its own terms.”

Miramontez, who grew up in Los Angeles, moved to New York in 1996 as a publicity assistant. He dabbled in singing, but eventually returned to his true calling of squeezing every inch of publicity from a production. His gregarious approach works wonders for his clients.

This fall, O&M Co. will be transatlantic with productions of “Kinky Boots” and “Beautiful” opening on the West End, and “School Of Rock” opening on Broadway. Other projects that will be playing around the country, en route to NYC, are new musicals “Moonshine: That Hee Haw Musical” (Dallas Theatre Center), “Gotta Dance” (Chicago), and a unique collaboration with Carole Shorenstein Hays and San Francisco’s iconic Curran Theatre. 

According to Miramontez, “Wherever there is theater, we’d like to be.”

tidbit: Broadway press agents receive a minimum base salary of about $2,000 a week per show – although producers usually pay more – according to a New York Times report.

Broadway, Backstage

Theatrical publicists receive a behind-the scenes-look at an industry most people only view from a seat in the audience. However, rubbing elbows with stars, who can often be eccentric by nature, isn’t all lollipops and roses.

“Backstage Pass to Broadway,” a fascinating book by New York City publicist Susan L. Schulman, chronicles her personal involvement with theatrical history on the Great White Way. It’s a must-read for theatergoers, told from the vantage point of someone who’s “been there and done that.” According the Playbill Magazine, the book contains just enough backstage glitz and dirt to be compulsively readable.