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One woman stands behind Broadway's best

Nancy Coyne, who runs Broadway's largest advertising and marketing agency, can sell and cheer on the shows she represents, turning them into well-known brands.
Nancy Coyne, CEO of Serino Coyne Inc., poses with theatrical posters of some Broadway shows she has helped turn into well-known brands
Nancy Coyne, CEO of Serino Coyne Inc., poses with theatrical posters of some Broadway shows she has helped turn into well-known brandsRichard Drew / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Nancy Coyne knows the art of selling Broadway shows. "The Phantom of the Opera." "The Lion King." "The Producers." "Hairspray." "Wicked." And more.

Talk to her about getting people into theater seats, and you will get the passion of a true believer, a woman who can sell and cheer on the shows she represents, turning them into well-known brands.

Not that the woman who runs Serino Coyne, Broadway's largest advertising and marketing agency, really likes the word. "Branding is simply the promotion of a product through unique design and advertising, publicity and marketing," she says.

Branding didn't start with Coyne, and there certainly are other big advertising companies on Broadway, such as SpotCo. But Coyne and her company, which is now part of Omnicom, Inc., dominate the New York theater business — with clients ranging from the Walt Disney Co. to Cameron Mackintosh to the upcoming Nathan Lane-Matthew Broderick revival of Neil Simon's "The Odd Couple," already this fall's impossible ticket.

"We all have a circle of people we trust, and I trust Nancy," says Thomas Schumacher, president of Disney Theatrical Productions. "She has vast experience — more than 20 years in fact —and a vast knowledge of Broadway and advertising, and she has wisely guided me."

It was Coyne, Schumacher says, who figured out that Disney's three Broadway musicals — "Beauty and the Beast," "The Lion King" and "Aida" — could be sold together and referred to as "Disney on Broadway," a clever positioning that enhanced the Disney name as well as the individual shows.

Coyne, a friendly woman with a sunny smile and a startling resemblance to actress Marsha Mason, exudes an enthusiasm about what she hawks. Sit down with her in the hushed confines of an upscale Theater District hotel, the kind of establishment where power breakfasts are served, and, over coffee and scrambled eggs, she will hold forth enthusiastically about theater.

"We are the original reality art form," says the one-time child performer, delivering a pitch that is equal parts persuasion and cheerful sermonette. "There is a live person performing for you at 8 o'clock tonight. By 11 o'clock, it's going to be over. You can't rewind. You can't listen to it over and over again. Therefore, you have to stay engaged.

"A part of your memory is on that isn't on when you are watching a movie or television. People remember Broadway shows in an unbelievable way. They save their Playbills. It's still a special occasion in a world where there are no more special occasions."

How much to spend on advertising
The rule of thumb for what a Broadway show should spend each week on advertising is about 10 percent of a production's weekly potential gross. For "Wicked," which has a gross potential of more than $1.15 million each week, that would translate into more than $100,000.

The show, according to producer David Stone, is actually spending a bit less — about $90,000 — much of it, these days, on outdoor ads. Coyne suggested the billboard approach, he says, because "Wicked" is "such a powerful title and image. You don't need to convince people to see `Wicked.' You need to remind them that they can."

Serino Coyne, a joint venture with business partner Matthew Serino, was born in the late 1970s, when the advertising of Broadway shows was much more conservative. It was only earlier in the same decade that TV ads first became a reality — when Bob Fosse created a TV spot for "Pippin" and extended the life of the show by several years. A new way of selling shows had arrived.

Theater has lagged behind other industries in tapping ways to attract audiences.

"The reason it is slow is because there's a ceiling on how much money we can make," Coyne says. So she has to be careful about where she places ads — print, TV, radio, billboards. For example, she explains, a show in a 1,000-seat theater with eight performances a week can only sell 8,000 tickets for that week's performances, regardless of demand.

"You can't sell a ticket for a seat that's not there," she says. "How many tickets do you think I could sell for `Spamalot' tonight? As many as possible. But there are only 1,500 seats in the theater."

Shows become brands
Still, certain shows, buoyed by their success and creative ads, have become brands. In the 1980s, Mackintosh turned such long-running behemoths as "Cats," "Les Miserables," "Miss Saigon" and, of course, "The Phantom of Opera" into brands. These shows have a national awareness, according to Coyne, so that when you say the title of a show — for example "Wicked" — certain attributes immediately click in.

"It means large. It means spectacular. But it also understands the outsider, and that's what makes it powerful," she says, referring to the musical's story: the friendship between two young women, one blond and popular, the other green and shunned.

What "Wicked" did, according to Coyne, was create two great roles for women that were not romantic. "Think about that," she urges. "When has there been a great role for a woman in a musical where it wasn't about getting the guy?"

No wonder the show is attracting a young female audience that is coming back again and again to see the musical.

The show-biz bug bit Coyne early, around age 5. "I was the Shirley Temple of Washington, D.C.," she says, recalling her days in the early 1950s on local television and in talent shows. Growing up, she loved "Gypsy," the classic Broadway tale of a stage mother and her daughter.

She attended Catholic University because it had a good drama department, married a CU graduate and came to New York. After her first audition — and her first rejection — she thought, "I've got to find something else where I am deeply appreciated." She ended up in advertising, writing spots for a small jazz radio station and later working for Blaine Thompson, which, at the time, handled most of the advertising for Broadway shows, before branching out on her own.

Right now, she is preparing for the fall and beyond. Besides "The Odd Couple," the upcoming season will have Coyne selling "Jersey Boys," a musical celebrating Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, opening in November, and Disney's "Tarzan," arriving next spring.

Coyne's biggest obstacle with "Jersey Boys," the show that will put such pop classics as "Sherry," "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Oh, What a Night," "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You" and more on stage?

Making sure the audience "knows it's not just a roundup of the songs. ... It's the story of these guys and how they came to write these songs," Coyne says. Radio will play a big part in her campaign.

Coyne also is formulating a campaign for "Tarzan," Disney's first big musical since "Aida," five years ago. "I think one of the things we're going to be trying to emphasize is the athleticism of the experience, sort of the extreme sport of the show," she says. "But it's hard to say. The show is only in workshop right now."

Whatever the final ad campaign looks like, it will emphasize the immediacy — and uniqueness — of the experience. There is no substitute for live theater, Coyne reiterates, a fact that underlines all her ad campaigns.

"You can't put it on television. You can't put it on film. You can do a good movie version of a Broadway show, like `Chicago,' but it is totally different."