Great White Way Getting Big Boost From Chatter on World Wide Web

Shows' Facebook Pages Can Create '360-Degree Experience' for Fans and a New, Younger Audience for Broadway

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SAN FRANCISCO ( -- "Allegiance," a Broadway play from producer Lorenzo Thione, has attracted 46,000 Facebook fans known as "Allegianites."

Not bad, considering the play won't even be staged until 2012.

It's all part of a grand plan from Mr. Thione, a successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur turned theatrical producer, to bring social networking to Broadway. "On Broadway people say that shows live or die by word-of-mouth," Mr. Thione said. "Nothing multiplies word-of-mouth like social media."

While "Allegiance" won

On the Facebook page for "Allegiance," a musical starring George Takei ("Star Trek," "Heroes") and Lea Salonga ("Miss Saigon," "Les Mis,") about a Japanese-American family during the years of the World War II Japanese-American internment, people can earn points by answering questions based on American history surrounding the show's plot; complete real-world tasks such as visiting sites mentioned in the play; and watch YouTube videos of the cast performing songs from the play. Mr. Thione is also promoting on the page a traveling screening of the cast reading of the play that Facebook fans can earn prizes and points for attending.

"The idea is for the audience to have a digital and a physical experience," said Mr. Thione, whose company, Powerset -- a natural-language search engine -- was bought by Microsoft for a reported $100 million. "Prizes can include insider-type things like meeting with the cast at the theater."

What's unusual about Mr. Thione's strategy isn't that it's using social networking, but that it's using social networking so well. "It's quite common now for shows to set up Facebook pages and Twitter accounts before a show opens," said theater critic Jonathan Mandell, who tweets as @newyorktheater. "A lot of them don't know what to do, though, afterwards. Those that figure out what to do can succeed."

He called out as the best example "Next to Normal," which, he said, "tweeted the entire show over the course of 35 days, got a following of more than a million people, and kept interest going by creating a new song from the suggestions of thousands of their followers."

Mr. Thione, who helped get "West Side Story" and Green Day's "American Idiot" onto the Broadway stage, said the goal is "to create a 360-degree experience from the moment [theater fans] hear about the show, until they actually go to the theater, to when they come home and tell all their friends that they went to the show."

So far, it seems to be working. The 46,000 "Allegiance" fans equal about one-quarter of the 200,000 tally for "The Lion King," which has been on Broadway since 1997.

Jen Namoff, Broadway producer of "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," said Facebook and Broadway are a natural fit. "The main reason that Facebook and Twitter succeeded is because they make people feel like a part of something," she said. "'Rent' fans are 'Rent-heads.' So if people are a part of the Facebook page and see who is commenting every day, they are excited about it constantly and make it their duty to push the show forward."

In a sense, Mr. Thione is building a Broadway loyalty program that rewards a show's greatest fans -- and hopefully sparks interest among younger audiences that might have a hard time splurging on a $180 show ticket when they can go see a Justin Bieber concert for about $40.

"I'm going to make this show more affordable," Mr. Thione said, adding that the tickets and pricing will also be part of the game on Facebook. "If you can get two of your friends to come with you, then your ticket will be free." That's key for the Great White Way, which tends to attract an older generation of theatergoers. "The main idea is to create a new audience for Broadway," said Deborah Taylor, producer of "La Cage aux Folles."

"We are trying to approach that audience from the tools that they use -- their phone, Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare. ... We are trying to make it accessible and easy to people who are used to having things be accessible and easy."

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