Broadway playing to African-Americans

They thought it was about Elvis.

That's what a focus group of black women concluded about the musical "Memphis" last summer when they were asked to assess the show's tagline, "The Birth of Rock 'n' Roll."

But after seeing artwork featuring Felicia, the black R&B singer in the show, and after hearing about the turbulent romance between her and a white DJ, the women said the show was up their alley. So the producers changed the tagline before opening on Broadway to: "His Vision, Her Voice. The Birth of Rock 'n' Roll."

The use of focus groups is one of several diversity strategies on Broadway - a common approach in politics and marketing, but aggressive by theater standards. Groups also were used by the new musical, "Fela!"; the new play "Race"; and the revival of "Fences" - all centered on black characters

While "Memphis" producers say about 30 percent of their audience is black, the producers of "Fela!" and "Race" say black theatergoers make up 40 percent of attendees.

Broadway shows about black characters often draw black theatergoers, but producers are targeting African-Americans, given that Broadway's overall attendance has been on the decline, down 3 percent for the 2009-10 season.

The R&B flavor of "Memphis" and the serious treatment of African-American life in the segregated 1950s, sold Willie Anderson of Atlanta, who took a group of 11 relatives and friends to a performance. Each paid $94 a ticket.

"We wanted to see something with some African flavor, and what we heard in Atlanta was that 'Memphis' was a show worth seeing," Anderson said.

"Memphis" producers acknowledge that African-American support is not enough to sustain a show: "Memphis" grossed $835,071 in the week ending June 20, but the show is far from turning a profit.

"It takes time," producer Randy Adams said. "We just have to keep faith that our fans will continue spreading the word."