Sunday, January 27, 2013

Sleeper Hit

Remember 1962? Those were the days when the general public still paid attention to Broadway on occasions other than when the production is dangerous to the point of comedy.

Subways Are For Sleeping, based off a Harper's article in 1956 about subway homelessness, and a subsequent book of the same name, was set to open as a Broadway play in 1962. There was just one problem: advertising. The New York City Transit Authority was not about to put up any ads for a play about homeless people living in subways. It might give people ideas. Besides, the play sucked. Opening attendances were poor, and the reviews weren't great.

Producer David Merrick, thus, decided to go get his own reviewers. It's not the first time and it's far from the last. Anything and everything that can be reviewed these days is going to run the risk of seeing fake positive reviews. Yelp has recently cracked down on them; so has Amazon. Check a movie box sometime and see all the movies with positive reviews on them. Sources that actually carry credibility will be prominently mentioned; it was a given that anything Siskel and Ebert gave two thumbs up to would proudly display that fact. Less reputable sources will give you a prominently-placed blurb and have the source hidden in the bowels of the other side of the box. (If you see a movie box without any positive reviews on it at all and it's not a collection or a re-release of an obviously quality film, that means they couldn't find anyone to say anything good about it. Run.)

Clearly, the best way to go was to see which of New York's most prominent theater critics- there were seven of them- liked Subways Are For Sleeping and then plaster their names on ads. But of course, that runs the risk of them... not liking it. And given the reviews already in, there was every risk of that. But Merrick really wanted their names attached to the play.

So he got the names attached to the play.

Not by pleasing the critics, silly. That would be hard. What Merrick actually did was go through the phone book and find seven New York residents who had the same names as the critics. They were brought in, shown the play for free, and then fed and plied with booze until all seven of them had nothing but good things to say about these nice people who gave them a free surprise night on the town. ...well, okay, there was one price extracted. They did all have to permit Merrick to use their names and pictures in an ad promoting the play.

So that was that handled. But before the producer of a crappy play was able to run a technically-accurate ad in the New York papers blaring "7 Out Of 7 Are Ecstatically Unanimous About Subways Are For Sleeping", he still had to sneak himself past the seven papers that employed the actual same-named critics. This would be a tad difficult, as the ad contained the likenesses of the seven random people from the phone book. Six of them busted him and blocked the ad; one was particularly easy, given that the critic Richard Watts was white and the phone book Richard Watts was black. The seventh, though, the New York Herald-Tribune, failed to check with their critic, Walter Kerr, or remember what his face looked like. So not knowing what one of their more visible employees looked like, they ran the ad. They only ran it in the morning edition, and it was caught before the evening edition (remember when newspapers still ran more than one edition a day?), but it was enough to get out to the people of New York... few of which took the time to memorize what theater critics looked like, some of which went to see the play, and all of which heard about the subsequent, widely-printed controversy. Now, of course, people HAD to go see what all the fuss was about.

This still wasn't exactly Cats. Subways Are For Sleeping was still a bad play. But it took more time for that news to circulate back in 1962, and as such, it hung on for 205 performances, enough to turn a profit, and enough for actress Phyllis Neuman- the wife of co-creator Adolph Green- to swipe a Tony out of the hands of Barbra Streisand.

In 2009, a revival of the play was launched. This time, it got the reaction it should have gotten the first time: swiftly panned and swiftly pulled.

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