As the musical says, ‘It’s time to take a shot’
That a hip-hop Broadway musical about the American revolution would be successful is, at a minimum, unexpected. That “Hamilton” would be the hottest Broadway ticket for the last three years and one of the most unobtainable theater tickets ever is about as likely as the Cubs winning the World Series — and hey, that happens every 108 years. So when “Hamilton” eventually matches the billion-dollar box offices of long-running hits like “Wicked” and “Rent,” perhaps its past as a surprise hit will be long forgotten, considering the musical has already established a number of short-term box-office records to go with its Grammy Award, 11 Tonys and a Pulitzer.
Guiding the marketing of what has become a cultural touchstone is “Hamilton” Chief Marketing Officer Laura Matalon, a theater industry veteran who has represented 13 Tony Award-winning musicals and six Tony Award-winning best plays. In her Times Square offices, Matalon discussed managing a hit property, and what top-level sports and theater have in common.
“My role as CMO is an evolving one. ‘Hamilton’ doesn’t advertise like other shows do. It doesn’t have to market itself in that way, but we manage everything regarding the use of this brand. I look at every single social media post we do, because it’s important that we maintain a consistent brand voice across all of our own platforms.
“I’m part of our brand police and ‘Hamilton’ has a lot of brand extensions, from a coffee-table book, to a mix tape with ‘Hamilton’ songs from contemporary artists. [Playwright] Lin-Manuel [Miranda] did a mix tape of ‘Hamilton’ songs done with contemporary artists and he’s doing ‘Hamildrops’ [of more Hamilton-esque songs by contemporary musicians] once a month. We’ve got the ‘Hamilton’ app, with all kinds of content and games, including ‘Hamilton’ karaoke, to keep our fans amused. But the most important function of the app is that it runs our ticket lottery.”
“What ‘Hamilton’ has in common with big sports events is rabid fans and tickets that are in high demand, so revenue management is a must. … In sports, you’ll have new players every year or teams doing new things each season. This is the same show — there’s not likely to be anything surprising, unlike going to a baseball game or whatever. Still, fan engagement, fan retention and audience development are things we absolutely share as imperatives with sports. We both need to bring in new audiences through hits and hope that builds bigger audiences for the business overall, beyond our biggest productions.
“Also, in both cases, we need to maintain the integrity of our pricing, and neither of us will be able to do that if we dilute the waters.”
In Good Company
Among the Broadway and touring productions for which Laura Matalon has worked
The Book of Mormon
The Sound of Music
Motown: The Musical
West Side Story
We Will Rock You
Billy Elliott: The Musical
“Starting in January, we’ll have five separate companies doing productions of ‘Hamilton,’ which is unprecedented. When I worked on ‘Rent,’ we had three companies; ‘Wicked’ had four. I do believe there is a point of maximum capacity, as far as audience interest, but I also believe we haven’t reached that.”
“We’ve just started to look for corporate sponsorships through Paragon Marketing (Chicago) for a 25,000-square-foot, 19-room tented ‘Hamilton’ exhibit that will open in Chicago late this year and then travel to L.A. and San Francisco. Tickets will be $35, but every Chicago public school student will be invited to come for free. [‘Hamilton’ producer] Jeffrey Seller believes in education, and the traveling exhibit is an opportunity for him and our fans to dig deeper. It’s a brand extension that takes history and contextualizes it even more. It’s being designed to attract the same wide range of ages and do some things, like take you to St. Croix and show what it’s like to be on a trading ship from that time.”
“I worked on ‘Book of Mormon,’ which became relevant when we had a Mormon running for president. That show turned down a lot of promotional and partnership opportunities. At ‘Hamilton,’ we aren’t allowing much of that, either. … We’ve had a lot of companies pursuing partnerships, and we’ve turned them down, mostly because what they want is access to tickets, our talent or our intellectual property, that we’re not prepared to give them right now. Agencies for United Airlines, the agency for Bank of America and the accounting firm Grant Thornton all approached us. There was a small relationship with American Express to fill some of their experiential offerings, and Lin-Manuel also has a relationship with them. The tourism agency for the city of Chicago wanted to put us in their ad campaign and we turned that down.
“So, I would say we haven’t dipped our toes much into the commercial waters. But, ‘Rent’ was on Broadway for 12 years, and we really didn’t start partnership marketing in earnest until year five or six. The partnership we are looking for is something that funds our educational program, which is large and ambitious.”
“What sets ‘Hamilton’ apart is that it’s authentic. It entertains, educates, inspires and illuminates. Lin-Manuel didn’t write ‘Hamilton’ because he wanted to make history interesting to kids. He was inspired by the story of this man. … It happens to be very relevant right now, but it’s authentic, because it wasn’t created to do that.”
“I worked on ‘Rent’ for 20 years. That was another Broadway show that was attracting younger audiences for the first time since ‘Hair.’ The commonality for all of those shows is they all inspire and they all do that across age groups. In a way, they are all connected; if there wasn’t a ‘Hair,’ there might not have been a ‘Rent.’ And without ‘Rent,’ there’s probably no ‘Mormon’ and no ‘Hamilton.’”
“Ticket demand has not lessened, but this producer’s goal is to get tickets in the hands of regular people. … What we try to do is manage the inventory so that when the show goes on sale in a particular market, 50 percent of the inventory is available for the general public. It’s hard sometimes to have 50 percent available, because we have subscription buys, which have grown exponentially, just because of ‘Hamilton.’ So it’s an interesting dance, from city to city.
Fan engagement, fan retention and audience development are things we absolutely share as imperatives with sports. We both need to bring in new audiences through hits and hope that builds bigger audiences for the business overall.
“One of the biggest challenges for us when it comes to tickets is counterfeiting. Some people get so excited about finally getting their tickets, they put photos of them online and there have been cases where those bar codes have been stolen.”
“What hasn’t changed in 20 years is so many people still don’t know how to buy a [theater] ticket, which is unlike sports. It’s not an easy enough process in the theater business, and I think it’s gotten easier in sports. Over the years, we’ve looked at what the airlines were doing with demand pricing and maximizing revenue, and it has really evolved.
“For the theater business, that’s been the real change over the past four or five years; dynamic pricing and revenue management are a really important part of the marketing mix for us now, and I assume that’s true in sports as well.”
“Any successful show has to speak to a wide range of audiences. The reason ‘Cats’ continues to be successful is there’s new youngsters every year to introduce to the theater and that’s a great way to do it. For ‘Rent,’ there’s new people every year who are the right age to go, and by now, their parents are introducing them to it.
“The other thing among some big shows, and ‘Hamilton’ is one, is that there’s so much happening on the stage, you really can get a lot out of it the second time.
“And of course, it has to be entertaining. Why, for God’s sake, is ‘Mama Mia!’ still successful? Just because it makes people feel good. So many of these big shows take you on a journey across a wide range of emotions — that’s what keeps people coming back. The most interesting thing about ‘Hamilton’ is that it actually lives up to the hype. Not every show does that; not every show can.”
“We should do trading cards. There’s already a fan gathering for our industry called BroadwayCon that’s a few years old, and it’s no different from a fan convention for any team. ‘Hamilton’ is already a part of that, but we could probably have our own.”