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EntertainmentColumnistsLinda Winer

The new hard sell of Broadway shows

Matthew Broderick and Annaleigh Ashford in A.R. Gurney's

Matthew Broderick and Annaleigh Ashford in A.R. Gurney's comedy "Sylvia" at Cort Theatre. Credit: Joan Marcus

As usual, the selling of theater has been in full tilt again this autumn. We have seen the eye-catching print and TV ads, the familiar mailings about discount subscription series and the billboards screaming the titles of upcoming and long-running shows over the crowds in Times Square.

But there has also been something else -- I hesitate to call it something new because, except for the participation of the Internet, these lotteries, discounts and marketing promos are a throwback to the days when barkers stood outside the circus tent or promised prizes to get folks into the fair.

The most insistent campaigns, in honorable yet extremely cuddly ways, are spreading the word about "Sylvia." The comedy, which opens Oct. 27 at the Cort Theatre, is a revival of A.R. Gurney's 1995 modern shaggy-dog treat about the impact of a rescue dog named Sylvia on a married Manhattan couple's equilibrium. Annaleigh Ashford, who won a Tony for her virtuosic funniness in "You Can't Take It With You" and has a central role in "Masters of Sex," has the title role created by Sarah Jessica Parker, while Matthew Broderick, Parker's own husband, now plays the canine-smitten spouse.

The past two months have been full of Sylvia tie-ins -- including donations and promos for nonprofit shelters and a special doggie bag, complete with Sylvia's name on a pop-up drinking bowl, to celebrate National Dog Week. Timed to National Pet Adoption Week, the Oct. 18 matinee included puppies for adoption from Bideawee. Earlier in the marketing campaign, an open audition for a dog "model" was held for the fluff ball featured in the Sylvia photo shoots.

I'm afraid you missed the deadline for an opening-night sweepstakes, which included an overnight stay at a fancy dog-friendly hotel. But there is still time until the end of October to get a $35 Petco coupon with every full-price $135 ticket. More traditional rush discounts are available everyday.

"Any place we can connect, we get our name out," says Daryl Roth, one of the co-producers with Jeffrey Richards. If you visit the show's website, you can find real dog paws sort-of tapping a keyboard to buy online tickets. That's Richard's most recent rescue, named, yes, Sylvia. And eight selected photos of theatergoers' dogs, submitted on Instagram, will be projected on a screen after every performance.

Of course, not all the marketing hustles come from the heart. If you were near the Walter Kerr Theatre on 48th Street a few weeks ago, you might have seen a mock funeral procession, complete with a glass-sided horse-drawn hearse, to celebrate the 6,000th death of star Jefferson Mays in "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder." Mays, who was laid in state, plays eight characters, each of whom dies, in the comic thriller.

"We don't shy away from the word 'stunt,' " jokes Andy Snyder, creative director for the long-running Tony-winning show's publicists, O&M Co.

He proudly considers this an "old-school press stunt," something that, producers agree, is coming back in style as newspapers, magazines and other outlets cut back on free coverage. O&M also is responsible for the most recent shamelessly silly marketing ploy from the irreverent comedy, "Hand to God," which includes a hand puppet named Tyrone who is most likely the devil.

Called "Hand to Pope," the late-September stunt offered "special Papal discounts" to people turned away from Pope Francis' appearances at Madison Square Garden and Central Park. Tyrone even issued a statement that said, in part, that the Pope is "into forgiveness. I'm into doing stuff that needs to be forgiven. . . . Consider it an unholy indulgence."

Snyder well knows that such stunts won't work on most Broadway shows. "A show has to be irreverent and comic and really fun to play with," he says. "It has to be the right fit for what we're selling."

There isn't a stunt to sell "China Doll," David Mamet's new play that stars Al Pacino in a dark comedy about a billionaire who buys an airplane for his young fiancee. No free airline tickets. No toy airplanes.

But there is, surprisingly enough, an opening night sweepstakes. You have until Nov. 1 to go to the play's website or its Facebook page (Mamet and Pacino on a Facebook page?) to try your luck for the grand prize -- two tickets to the opening night and the party, two nights in a luxury hotel and a pre-theater dinner.

"China Doll" is the 10th Mamet play co-produced by Jeffrey Richards, who is also lead producer on this fall's 50th anniversary revival of "Fiddler on the Roof." The day the box office opened Oct. 9, tickets were available for $50. "We have to reach out," says Richards. "There's a very different theatergoing public today. While it's expanding, it is changing."

Then there is the audience willing to dive into 350 pounds of paper "spaghetti" in the plaza of Madison Square Garden, which was held earlier this month in a promotion for the holiday return of "Elf the Musical." The objective was to find Buddy the Elf's missing snow globe and win opening night tickets and gift card to Carmine's. In exchange, the restaurant donated 1,000 pounds of pasta to the NYC Department of Homeless Services and delivered it on Oct. 17, which, naturally, was National Pasta Day.

Hundreds of fans of "Hamilton," the smash musical, don't need a special day to gather outside the theater before every performance and enter the lottery for $10 tickets. And three or four times a week, the lottery includes a Ham4ham event, in which cast members or actors from other shows appear outside the theater to perform and be silly and make a terrific experience even better. (You can watch many of them on YouTube.) Sam Rudy, publicist for the show, calls this "the phenomenon within the phenomenon."

The people behind the show volunteer to do this without benefit of shredded paper noodles or a horse-drawn hearse. This, too, may qualify as a marketing stunt, If so, it may be the least desperate one in the history of Broadway.


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