MEL BROOKS had a plan-and Broadway listened, fans flocked

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No funny business here. Mel Brooks has proved himself a master marketer. During the early days of the development of "The Producers: The New Mel Brooks Musical," the man who set viewers howling with movies that pushed good taste aside and had them asking, "How does he get away with that?" while hoping he would never stop, had the foresight to assemble a team that was big on Broadway experience yet nimble enough to deal with an unexpected windfall.

"Mel came to New York with the creative team and put on a workshop for Broadway producers. People were leaping up and saying, `I'm in! I'm in!'" says one of the show's producers, Tom Viertel, of the Frankel Baruch Viertel Routh Group. Based on that initial interest, Mr. Brooks handpicked the behind-the-scenes team still in place today. "We were chosen by Mel, not the other way around," adds Mr. Viertel.

The show's marketing team includes staffers from Richard Frankel Productions, Frankel Baruch Viertel Routh Group, Clear Channel Entertainment Theatrical and Mr. Brooks himself. The show's ad agency is Serino Coyne, New York.

One of the team's most important moves came before audiences even had a chance to see previews. More than three months before the first curtain in March 2001, American Express Co. ran an ad in The New York Times offering gold cardmembers the exclusive chance to buy advance tickets. That ad, which might translate to $80,000 in sales in a normal non-"Producers" world, "sold in excess of $1 million," Mr. Viertel says. "It had a huge wanna-see from the outset." Between that ad, the overwhelmingly positive and copious media generated about the show and the "I've gotta see `The Producers"'-mania that swept the public, the team, which already knew they had something special, realized that the rest of the world was hungry for Mr. Brooks' take on Broadway. They decided to focus their energy on protecting the show and its creator from overexposure.

"We needed to rethink how Mel, in particular, would be presented in connection with the show," says Mr. Viertel, adding that Mr. Brooks "was a huge part of this decisionmaking. We took a lot of guidance from him." "We protect [the show] so carefully," says Ronni Mandel, national director of marketing and sales at Richard Frankel Productions.

"The Producers'" ad budget was left with a bit of a surplus thanks to the vociferous word-of-mouth about the show. The team spent less than $800,000 of the $1.3 million preopening budget. Weekly expenditures, estimated at $65,000 to $70,000, come in at under $30,000.

But that doesn't mean that Mr. Brooks and company have been snoozing in the seats of New York City's St. James Theatre. "Just because you can't buy a ticket to the show doesn't mean we're not working on the strategy every day," says Lauren Reid, director of marketing for Clear Channel.

As for the future, the team is focused on carefully expanding the brand-for "The Producers" has indeed become a brand-as it gears up to launch a production in Toronto in spring 2003, a national tour in September 2003 and, sometime, productions in countries including Germany and Austria. In New York, producers are planning for the show's second wave, with the original leads, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, last week handing the stage over to British actor Henry Goodman and Steven Weber, whose credits include a lead role on NBC's "Wings."

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