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Saying Goodbye to Gigi and Realizing the Limits of Social Media

06/18/2015 08:35 am ET | Updated Jun 18, 2016

What makes a show fail? Many in the industry have pondered that question. If we knew the answer, shows wouldn't fail. Even veteran producers with a string of hits sometimes stumble. For there is really no magic key. I thought Gigi and An American in Paris would do equally well during the start of previews, with Gigi perhaps having the edge as the more sentimental favorite. I was wrong. Despite a financially successful out-of-town mounting, Gigi never gathered a large advance and then came the reviews, which were not supportive.2015-04-09-1428601563-713769-198.jpg

The community was not exactly welcoming to the show's first-time producer, Jenna Segal, or the casting of its Disney star lead, Vanessa Hudgens. I get that from people who saw the show. I don't get it from those that didn't. I didn't like High School Musical either, that is no reason to judge her performance in this show sight-unseen, but I'm moving on. I've already written about that topic.

Looking back on it, even the haters have to give a begrudging, if muffled, hand to the two, who both clearly believed in their Gigi. Segal kept it alive for longer than most people would have advised, hoping package deals and more television appearances and social media contests would help the show catch on. In doing so, she kept employed many theater veterans, both on and off stage. Hudgens did more to sell a show than basically any star I've ever seen. I frequently joked that she did everything but offer to date ticket buyers. It was an incredible effort, and I'll forever be impressed by it. It didn't work to attract enough ticket buyers, but I think it showed an amazing commitment to the show. She also frequently spoke about other cast members in her appearances and showed up at Stars in the Alley just to introduce Corey Cott, so it wasn't all in a vain attempt at glory. (Yes, there are those that argue that the show being a bomb reflects badly on her, and it does indeed reflect on her ability to carry a show in terms of ticket sales. But I don't think these things were grabs for personal credibility. I choose to think they represent a true belief in the show and a representation of the real joy she felt being on Broadway. If it was something else, she has a bad team.)

During Stars in the Alley, she appeared onstage with Darren Criss. And I think they both represent something we need to come to terms with as an industry -- social media followings and excitement don't necessarily equate with ticket sales. Countless producers beg for those with large followings to tweet about their shows. Just last week, a producer said to me: "Well, the advance isn't huge, but [celebrity name omitted] is coming and he's going to really promote it to his social media followers, so I'm not worried." And, listen, that's great. Anytime you're getting the name of your show out there is a win, especially in this competitive, high-stakes environment. But let's all face the fact that Madonna tweeting once about your show is wonderful, it just isn't going to necessarily mean your show is a hit; it's probably not even going to help your Broadway show that much. Now this seems obvious. You may wonder why you're even reading this -- I swear to you though that this is an actual misconception.

Some Broadway shows reach out to churches. I'm not just talking about putting Michael Riedel in a van with church ladies from Virginia coming up to see The Color Purple. I'm talking Marva Hicks from Motown going to get the word out before previews. Amazing Grace is doing the same, sending cast members to sing at churches. There are those that argue that these old-school outreach attempts are a lot of effort for not much reward. After all -- if someone who had 5 million Twitter followers could sell only 1 percent of their followers, it would easily get more butts in seats than you could with one church visit, without as much effort. But that theory takes into a lot of "ifs" and also ignores the built-in "word of mouth" machine that is the church circuit.

The #DarrenisHedwig Twitter campaign is massive. There is even a special @darrenlshedwig Twitter account, though it is not that commonly used. The night he started, I saw so many posts about his performance, or posts expressing sadness that the poster could not be there for his performance. If you checked Twitter for his name, you would think the Belasco would be sold out. He's also genuinely really good according to everyone I know who has seen him. However he's not selling tickets.
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Likewise, Hudgens has an amazing following on social media. When I wrote a story supporting Gigi, two fans tracked down my email and sent me crazy messages. (That day I gained two fans in Argentina and lost the respect of at least six people in the industry who emailed to ask if I lost my mind.) She has 5.3 million followers on Twitter -- as a comparison, recent Tony winner Kelli O'Hara has 23,500. Criss and Hudgens have both tweeted a ton about their respective shows. Hudgens even does weekly short videos with the cast.

There is of course no telling how much worse Gigi would be doing without Hudgens. She's clearly sold some tickets. (I sold tickets to people based on her -- à la I said: "You know, I think your niece would love to see...") With Criss on the other hand, we have a comparison, and he's not doing well. The show has been playing for a long time though, so arguably any comparison to past stars isn't 100% fair. But it can safely be said that neither of these performers have proved to be huge draws. Criss did very well ticket-wise in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying but that was during the height of Glee's popularity, was a very limited three-week engagement and How to Succeed was simply a more family friendly show. (Nick Jonas, Criss' How to Succeed replacement, had problems filling his large shoes.)

Both Hudgens and Criss have large international followings. I would honestly think, if it was still open, Gigi would have a slight uptick during the summer with tourists buying same day tickets. It seems like a show older teens could convince their parents to see. Hedwig, on the other hand, is obviously a tougher sell to families.

The issue is that a huge chunk of their "fans" are sadly made up of people embarrassed that they once loved High School Musical and/or Glee or people not able to afford Broadway tickets or people honestly so used to seeing the stars for free, they don't think they should have to pay $150 to do it. (I've written frequently about the community pricing out young theatergoers, so I will not go into it here.) And neither has the magic juice needed to attract a broad base on name alone. They each need more to sell out a Broadway house. Gigi didn't get near money reviews, Criss didn't get reviewed.

I'm going to say this though -- I hear Criss is good. So go see him if you're on the fence. You have until July 19. As for Hudgens, if you're in town this week and want an enjoyable night at the theater, go see Gigi. You have four days left. I get the complaints about it, but if you don't go in with rigid ideas of what you want Gigi to be, you'll have a good time. The score sounds glorious and the production is lush. There are a lot of great performances on that stage -- Dee Hoty and 2015 Tony nominee Victoria Clark were for a while this season my favorite onstage duo. Hudgens really has an enthusiasm about her that I think is infectious. It's not genius theater, it's not making an artistic statement, it's not completely true to the Colette novella or as French as that or the movie, but it's a fun night. I was happy to see it was up $106,697 to $508,643 last week. At least that is a sign people liked the Tony Awards number or maybe even that they heard it was closing and wanted to catch it before it did. Listen, I'm not going to tell you that you'll regret it years from now if you miss it. I so rarely say that though, I doubt that should be the standard for anything. I am going to tell you, when my mother heard it was closing she said: "Is there enough time to go again?" She paid a shiva call yesterday and Gigi came up (don't ask me) and another family there said: "We had so much fun! I couldn't believe it was closing!" Obviously the word-of-mouth in the crowded spring season never rose to "go right now," but that doesn't mean if you have time you shouldn't check it out.