By Michael Paulson –
THE intense global and commercial nature of contemporary pop culture fandom is catching up with Broadway, and with it comes people like the 19-year-old Helen Fredstam, who arrived from Sweden this week to meet face to face with those who share her passion.
Ms. Fredstam has been to Broadway just once, to see “The Phantom of the Opera,” but she can discuss the implications of using deaf actors in this season’s revival of “Spring Awakening” and the significance of diverse casting in “Hamilton.” She has found like-minded fans via social media, follows theater news on websites, and downloads recordings of shows. And she has come to New York for the first BroadwayCon, a theater-themed variation on Comic Con, which, depending on the winter weather, is expected to draw several thousand people, many of them young, many of them female and more than a few dressed as Elphaba (“Wicked”), newsboys (“Newsies”) or colonial Americans (“Hamilton”).
“I could talk about Broadway shows with someone for hours,” she said by email from Stockholm. “I generally don’t get to do that, though, since most people would just get sick of me.”
Broadway has always relied on word of mouth to sell tickets, but the industry — like film and television before it — has come to see special opportunity in loyal fans who come early (and, in some cases, often), share their enthusiasm on social media and ultimately persuade friends and family to shell out big dollars for seats.
“Every show now launches a campaign with an eye toward not just the 55-year-old theatergoer who makes up 60 percent of the ticket sales, but toward nurturing relationships with the fans,” said Tom Greenwald, chief strategy officer at SpotCo, a leading theater advertising firm.
That may mean specially tailored emails or the recirculation of fan art, whether it’s cartoon-style drawings for “Fun Home” or sign language GIFs for “Spring Awakening.” Damian Bazadona, the president of Situation Interactive, a digital marketing firm, said his company monitors social media sites, looking for people who check in multiple times at a show or otherwise identify themselves as fans, and does everything from tailoring advertising their way to offering goodies to repeat attendees.
“Fan culture is much more an important part of the business because it’s much more visible,” he said.
BroadwayCon, scheduled to feature such stars as Lin-Manuel Miranda (“Hamilton”) and Jeremy Jordan (“Newsies,” now on TV’s “Supergirl”), was the brainchild of a fan and an actor who met years ago at the “Rent” stage door. But it has been embraced by the theatrical establishment, and many producers and power brokers will be mixing with adolescents belting out their favorite songs from Disney musicals. Nearly 80 percent of the registrants are female; 75 percent are from outside the state of New York; and 50 percent are 30 or younger.
“There is a generational divide in understanding what BroadwayCon is aiming to be,” Mr. Bazadona said. “Some think it is a bunch of theater nerds in a room, but some think this is the future of audience development.”
The convention, at the New York Hilton Midtown, is not cheap — a full weekend pass costs $250 — but does not feature the pay-for-autographs-and-photographs experience that characterizes other fan cons. Instead, it is dominated by singalongs, workshops and a “Rent” reunion.
“People are going to take a million thousand selfies — that’s going to be the biggest commodity of this thing — and that’s good for Broadway, because it’s excitement, it’s interest, it’s increasing the sense of adventure and access to these glamorous people and how it all works,” said Melissa Errico, a Tony-nominated actress and singer who will be leading a workshop on building a career in theater at BroadwayCon. “More talk creates more heat.”
Especially since the advent of the rock musical, certain Broadway shows have had fervent fan bases. But the handful of “Rentheads” who slept by the stage door overnight, seeking cheap tickets to that show two decades ago, have become the 50,000 people who tried to win a digital lottery for $10 “Hamilton” tickets, causing a website crash that forced the show to return to drawing pieces of paper from a pail outside the theater.
“Fans got Charles Dickens to change the ending of ‘Great Expectations,’ but, in general, the paradigm has been that producers produce, fans consume, and it all flows in one direction,” said Katherine Larsen, principal editor of the Journal of Fandom Studies and a professor of writing at George Washington University. “Fans have more of a voice now than they did in the past.“
BroadwayCon was created by Melissa Anelli and Stephanie Dornhelm and their company, Mischief Management. Ms. Anelli was a Renthead who saw that show more than 50 times, and befriended one of its stars, the actor Anthony Rapp, at the stage door. The company runs two other fan conventions, LeakyCon, for fans of the Harry Potter stories, and GeekyCon, for a broader array of fans; Ms. Anelli and Ms. Dornhelm were texting each other about the Tony Awards when they hit upon the idea for BroadwayCon, and reached out to Mr. Rapp, who agreed to help.
“We all do this not just for our own amusement, but to try to connect to an audience,” Mr. Rapp said. “We’re depending on fans, not just to pay our bills, but to have the communal experience of sharing our work.”
They announced the plan a year ago, and the news spread online; they have since partnered with Playbill, which put out the word. Some fans who are coming are looking to meet their favorite actors; some to collect merchandise; some to get career tips, to make friends, or to cosplay (role-play in costume). The events include a “Family Feud”-style game (with stars and fans), a panel on lighting design and a new musical number created for the opening night.
“I just look forward to spending a long weekend talking about Broadway with people that love it,” said Meg Smith, 35, of Manhattan. “I’ll participate in the singalongs,” she said, as well as the dancing in the workshops, “and cry as I attend the ‘Rent’ Reunion workshop.”
Theater fans come in all ages — the singer-songwriter Christine Lavin, who describes herself as a “secret theater fan,” has seen “The Drowsy Chaperone” 68 times — but fan culture is dominated by young women who seem particularly fond of Tumblr, and who also use Twitter, Facebook and other sites to exchange information and opinions about their favorite shows and stars.
“When I would see Raúl Esparza at Jamba Juice, I didn’t have anybody to call,” said Laura Heywood, explaining why she started tweeting as @BroadwayGirlNYC. “It occurred to me Twitter would be a place I could nerd out on Broadway.”
Many of today’s Broadway producers are particularly interested in fans because they started there themselves. Barbara Whitman, a producer of “Fun Home,” saw the original production of “Pippin” 135 times. Jeffrey Seller, a producer of “Hamilton,” went to his local library to find books about “Annie.” And Ken Davenport, a producer of the “Spring Awakening” revival, recalls going from “Falsettos” to “The Phantom of the Opera” to “The Secret Garden,” seeking autographs.
“When I used to stage-door, in 1991, it was just me and a homeless person, and the only place I could talk about it online was with whatever bulletin board there was,” Mr. Davenport said. “Now, every single day it gets easier and easier in this world to meet people that have the same interests that you do.”
BroadwayCon runs through Sunday at the New York Hilton Midtown; broadwaycon.com.