Urban Appeal

With Sean 'P.Diddy' Combs on stage, Broadway's pulling in a hip-hop audience.

May 24, 2004|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

NEW YORK - When he takes the stage, the place swells with applause and deafening hoots and hollers - especially on the upper level where most of the young folks sit.

By the way, you're not at a rock concert.

This is a matinee show at Broadway's Royale Theatre on a bright, warm Wednesday afternoon. The production is Lorraine Hansberry's classic A Raisin in the Sun - featuring the refined veteran of stage and television, Phylicia Rashad, three-time Tony winner Audra McDonald and the Yale School of Drama-trained actress Sanaa Lathan.

But the "real" celebrity, the one who excites the house before he utters a word, is the hip-hop heavyweight currently known in the music world as P. Diddy and formerly known as Puff Daddy. Since this is his first major acting job (that short part in Monster's Ball really doesn't count) and since he is in the play's most pivotal role (Walter Lee Younger, which the great Sidney Poitier originated), the rapper, fashion entrepreneur and entertainment mogul is being billed on Broadway by his birth name: the more respectable-sounding Sean Combs.

His presence in the revival, which ends July 11 and is directed by actor-producer Kenny Leon, has attracted much media attention. And the performer's star power has drawn long lines to the box office. In the week after opening on April 26, the production grossed $570,020, breaking a house record at the Royale. More impressive has been the change in the audiences, which on Broadway traditionally have been predominantly white.

"At this point, [the traditional Broadway audience is] not diverse at all," says Eric Schnall, the show's associate producer and marketing director. "The audience [for this play] has become overwhelming African-American, which is great," he adds. "Now, it's well over 80 percent black."

For the last eight years or so, Broadway has made a concerted effort to attract more urban people - blacks and Latinos whose faces are irregularly seen on the stages and in the house seats of the Great White Way. Starting with the massive success of George C. Wolfe's Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk, an edgy, hip hop-dusted musical that stormed onto Broadway in 1996, marketing directors have gone well beyond the traditional means to promote shows with urban or black appeal.

"Noise, Funk was the first production to speak to the hip-hop audience in a very real and exciting way," says Marcia Pendleton, founder of the Brooklyn-based Walk Tall Girl Productions, who worked on the marketing for the Tony Award-winning show. "It put Broadway on notice that something new and exciting was here and [blacks] weren't going anywhere."

That promotional campaign included educational outreach programs in black churches around New York. Study guides for the production were sent to schools. Spot commercials were placed on hip-hop and R&B radio stations, and ads were printed in black newspapers like the Amsterdam News. Masters programs with dancers from Noise, Funk were offered at local colleges. And show tickets were discounted.

The largely successful efforts practically established an audience for the Pulitzer Prize-winning Top Dog/Underdog and the highly acclaimed Russell Simmons' Def Poetry Jam when they opened on Broadway in 2002. Top Dog starred underground rapper-actor Mos Def; DPJ boasted a cast of unknown performance poets heavily influenced by hip-hop.

"Those shows gave producers a heads-up in a really big way that the hip-hop audience is a viable audience," says Pendleton. "We want to see our life experiences reflected on stage. One of hip-hop's icons, P. Diddy, is on Broadway and his audience wants to see that."

Set inside a rundown flat on Chicago's South Side in the 1950s, Raisin centers on the dreams, hopes and disappointments of a black family looking for a better life. The play first appeared on Broadway in 1959 and made it to the silver screen two years later. Schnall is emphatic that casting Combs in the revival was not a calculated move to draw more urban crowds to Broadway seats and, consequently, more dollars to the box office.

"[Combs] went through a series of auditions," Schnall says. "He did not get this job easily. Obviously, if you have Sean Combs in a show, it is going to bring a non-traditional audience to Broadway. If it were a marketing ploy, we wouldn't be calling him Sean Combs. We'd bill him as P. Diddy. We've promoted the play as an ensemble cast with four huge names: Audra McDonald, Phylicia Rashad, Sean and Sanaa Lathan."

Although in the playbill Combs' name is listed above those of his more seasoned acting partners, Schnall says, "We have always marketed the play with four big names."

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