Standing in front of New York's Town Hall this crisp February afternoon, Danny Mefford is still processing.
A choreographer whose credits include Tony-winning fare like "Dear Evan Hansen" and "Fun Home," Mefford has seen his share of theater — both on and way, way off Broadway. But now he has just witnessed something truly challenging. "I certainly didn't come here expecting to question the nature of reality," he says.
He has just seen an ad for Skittles.
"Skittles Commercial: The Broadway Musical" made its debut on Super Bowl Sunday and, chances are, it will never be seen by another live audience.
Starring Michael C. Hall of "Dexter" fame, "Skittles Commercial" was a 30-minute musical in five fruity flavors, written by Pulitzer prize-winner Will Eno. It's a self-referential absurdist thriller — equal parts Beckett, Ionesco and Monty Python — that not only breaks the fourth wall, but shatters it beyond all recognition. With a timeline that folds over onto itself, "Skittles Commercial" offers some heady criticism of advertising itself: Its show-stopping number is called "Advertising Ruins Everything" and includes lyrics like "it ruins the web and it ruins TV and it fills our inboxes with spam."
It is also -- get this -- an ad.
On a day when big brands and feisty first-timers are coughing up an average of $5.2 million for 30 seconds of an in-game ad slot (not counting the first penny spent on production costs), Skittles is zigging where others zag. Not for the first time, either. In 2018, the candy brand made a Super Bowl ad for just one person. Last year's Skittles game-day commercial starred David Schwimmer and was only ever seen by a scruffy 17-year-old high schooler named Marcos Menendez. The brand streamed his reaction, live on Facebook, but no one else ever got to watch the spot.
That effort comes courtesy of DDB. Ari Weiss, the agency's North American chief creative officer, says that as successful as last year's ad was in terms of gaining the brand earned media, Menedez was tough to scale. "When we only showed Marcus the ad, there was only one person aware of the labor of love of involved," Weiss told Ad Age before the curtain went up.
With the Broadway one-act, Skittles gets to cultivate something that is earning significant buzz in the run-up to Super Bowl Sunday, doesn't cost $5 million-plus to air, and can be shown to more than just one person — all while still cultivating an aura of you-had-to-be-there-ness. "Last year unlocked the structure of a way to get unusual awareness," says Weiss. "This is more visible." (Case in point: this article.)
It probably wouldn't work at all if it wasn't as weird as what you'd expect from the brand. The play opens in a New York-style bodega. In walks Michael C. Hall, as himself, dressed in a cat costume. He is psyching himself to go on stage for a Skittles commercial. He's having some doubts about his recent career choices. When he explains that he's doing a commercial that will not be seen on TV, a shopper asks "Why doesn't Skittles just dig a really deep hole and have a celebrity stand in that for a couple days?"
Another shopper suggests: "I guess you'll sell a lot to everybody there."
"This isn't about selling a few bags of Skittles in a theater," says Hall.
"What's it about?" asks the local.
"You know what, I don't know."
Nor did anyone else by the play's end. But Skittles got its licks in. At one point the "play" breaks down entirely as several actors playing audience members shouted confused questions at an increasingly-beleaguered Hall.
Audience member: "Why are you dressed like a cat?"
Michael C. Hall: "Because my character in the Skittles play —"
Audience member: "Wait, isn't this the Skittles play?"
Michael C. Hall: "In our reality, yes. But in the reality of the play, there's a different Skittles ad."
Second audience member: "If I'm not enjoying the show, which reality is that in?"
First audience member: "When do we get to see the play with the cat in it?"
Well, audience member, you don't. But also you do. Kind of. It's complicated.
Ultimately the audience members (who are cast members) riot and, well, murder Michael C. Hall after he explains to them that they have no free will and are just puppets of Big Skittles, just like himself: "All of you are actors! Everything you think, everything you say and believe, it's all written by the Skittles marketing team to generate some PR buzz."
There's more: Winston Churchill makes an appearance. As does Amelia Earhart and, perhaps in reference to Shakespeare's "A Winter's Tale," a bear that saunters through, following a mass exit.
You get the picture. Or, more to the point, you don't.
Same goes for the 1,500 souls who filled Town Hall. In the audience were people from the advertising and Broadway communities as well as regular folks who bought tickets (costing $30-$200) to watch the live commercial, with proceeds going to the Broadway Cares foundation.
"I'm just a regular person. Wish I wasn't," joked Tyler Cicardo, who commuted in from Toms Ferry, New Jersey, after seeing an ad for the play on YouTube. Cicardo was there with his friend Alison Gleason. Both teach at the Algonquin Arts Theater in Manasquan. "The kids were more excited we were going to the play," said Gleason, "than they are about the Super Bowl."