New book reveals how Broadway producers paved the way for ‘Grease’ to become a hit
Fat would not have become the word without playing with certain words.
In a forthcoming book titled Grease, tell me more, tell me more, original producer Ken Waissman reveals a trick he invented to keep the show from shutting down before it even hit Broadway. It helped build “word of mouth” [marketing]which, ultimately, is what makes or breaks any show,” he said.
When the musical opened on Broadway on February 14, 1972, “we felt devastated,” Waissman admitted.
“Business had increased every preview week, but we were still below the weekly break-even point,” the producer recalled. The losses had put him and his producing partner in debt about $20,000, and they were both praying for positive reviews in local newspapers.
The director, Tom Moore, was pacing the theater, worried about what would happen with the new show. “I was only twenty-seven and three and a half out of Yale Drama, and it was my first major New York production,” Moore recalled. “My whole future could be changed the moment the curtain comes down,” he said.
Her future in the acting industry doesn’t look too bright after The New York Times published its opinion.
“When the newspaper arrived at the [opening night] party, and began to spread, a heavy funeral weight descended,” recalls Waissman. “Nothing interrupts an opening night faster than the moment when the Time the review is coming in, and it’s mixed to negative,” he said.
The newspaper’s drama critic, Clive Barnes, wrote that “[t]here’s a hushed aggressiveness to the show, a deliberately loudmouthed and facetious insipidity that will appeal to some, especially, I imagine, those who were teenagers in Central America in the late 1950s.” “It’s supposed to be funnier than it sounds. is,” he continued. “But, the show is a joke,” Barnes said.
Jim Jacobs, who created the series with Warren Casey, was outraged at Barnes and wanted to “punch” him.
With an unfavorable opinion of The New York Times, “it was going to be very difficult to get the press,” Waissman thought. “It seemed that at that time, if The New York Times didn’t give you a good review or at least a respectable review, so nobody wanted to make a fuss nationwide,” he explained. The producers would have to pay big bucks to push the show, going deeper and deeper into debt.
After allowing tensions to simmer overnight, “we met at [the advertising agency] to see the other critics and decide what action to take,” Waissman recalled. The producers wanted to see all the cards on the table before taking action.
The drama critic of Daily NewsDouglas Watt, had given Fat a rave review, describing as “a lively and fun musical, as well as the most danceable in town”. “He’s a winner,” he proclaimed.
However, Richard Watts at New York Post didn’t like the show at all.
He complained that Fat was “the loudest show in town”. The tone was too cynical, Watts wrote, and “Boys and girls, with a few exceptions, struck me as unattractive and looked as though they had not gone beyond about seventh grade.” .
Reading the reviews, “my attorney and my managing director, both listening to us, thought we should issue a notice of closure immediately, so we could close this Sunday,” Weissman recalled. “Cut your losses, [and] shut down the show,” his attorney advised.
But, the producers refused to throw in the towel.
“Since we can’t pay the $20,000 debt tonight, we also can’t pay it in three weeks,” Waissman explained. Besides, “[p]posting the notice would go around town in the blink of an eye, calling the show a flop,” he said.
The producer sensed that the struggling show would soon be able to pull itself together and turn a profit. “[S]Since box office gross increased for each of the preview weeks, Waissman thought “the ‘night light’ was burning, which meant word of mouth seemed to be driving it. Audiences were dancing in the aisles, and all the show needed was a boost to overcome any reluctance by viewers to buy tickets now after reading Barnes’ review.
Waissman had an idea.
” Since Daily News critic Doug Watt and New York Post reviewer, Richard Watts, had names that sounded alike, I suggested that we take the rave review from Doug Watt, pitch it to look exactly like a review by Richard Watts, and buy ad space on the New York Post‘s theater page, reprinting the Daily News rave in the exact New York Post format,” Waissman recalled. “We made sure that Doug Watt’s repackaged review for the To post arrived exactly five minutes before the next day’s ad deadline… [hoping that] it would be too late for anyone to figure out what we were doing and stop advertising,” he continued.
The ad “aired the next day and looked like the New York Post gave us a rave,” recalls Waissman. “We got so many comments from people saying ‘I saw you had a great review in the To post“, he said, adding”[t]the following week we made a profit.
The gimmick was similar to a publicity stunt Broadway producer David Merrick had invented 11 years earlier in which he invited people with the same names as top theater critics to his musical. Subways are made for sleeping, and published their favorable comments in a newspaper advertisement. “I was a big fan of David Merrick,” admitted Waissman.
But unlike Subway cars are made for sleepingwhich closed after 205 performances, Fat became the longest-running Broadway show of its time, closing after 3,388 performances in 1980.
“It’s a fascinating story that I’ve never heard before,” admitted actress Adrienne Barbeau, who starred as “Rizzo” in the original Broadway production, adding that current Broadway producers should take note.