Backstage: Broadway promoter finds audience at historically black churches

March 4

Theater marketer Marcia Pendelton believes going to church on Sunday should be a mountaintop experience. If having a Broadway veteran sing “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” helps parishioners climb to a spiritual high, she’ll say amen and sell more tickets.

Walk Tall Girl productions, Pendelton’s Brooklyn-based marketing firm, coordinates outreach visits to churches featuring Broadway performers and choreographers. This past Sunday, she sent singing evangelists out to churches in Baltimore, Washington and Richmond, spreading the gospel of “Motown the Musical.”

“It’s very effective,” Pendelton said. “The black church is still a key gathering place of hope and restoration, and provides resources for people that they serve. Theater can be one of those resources.”

In Washington, parishioners who came to Mount Lebanon Baptist Church on New Jersey Avenue got a pre-sermon serenade from Curtis Wiley, a singer on the “Motown” promotions team. In Baltimore, “Motown” tour cast member Trisha Jeffrey sang at Pennsylvania Avenue AME Zion Church. And Richmond’s St. Paul’s Baptist Church welcomed Marva Hicks, who currently plays Gladys Knight and several other icons in the musical’s Broadway cast. She treated that congregation to “I’ll Be There,” “Ain’t No Mountain” and “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand).”

Hicks’s “Motown” medley evolved into a call-and-response sing-along, Pendelton said, and even though temperatures that day hovered around freezing, members of the choir grabbed half the “Motown” fans she brought along to pass around.

After each service — and it was a first-of-the-month communion Sunday, so these were some long services — the singers greeted parishioners, and Walk Tall Girl team members passed out promotions materials and discount codes. At Mount Lebanon, Wiley encouraged churchgoers to sign up for one of two planed bus trips to see the show in New York.

“We track the promotion codes,” Pendelton said, “And we know this works.”

If these promotional efforts sound too profiteering for a Sunday morning, remember that many recent musicals at least touch on stories of the 1960s civil rights movement in which black churches were active, including “Caroline, Or Change,” “Memphis” and “Fela!” To Pendelton’s knowledge, no one has tracked whether African Americans who go attend church regularly are more likely to go to the theater, but anecdotally, she says, that seems to be the case.

“It’s a study worth doing, so we can have that kind of data,” she said.

She said her evidence does show that theaters can hang signs at bus stops and play around with social media all they want, but people are most likely to by tickets to a show when they feel a personal connection to a production. Sending performers to churches guarantees that will happen.

Marketing efforts to historically black congregations began in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Pendelton said, with shows such as Shelly Garrett’s “Beauty Shop.” But tapping into houses of worship as a way to get bodies in seats is hardly limited to African American marketing. Locally, Theater J has strong ties to synagogues, and many mid-Atlantic churches coordinate bus trips to Sight & Sound, the evangelical theater complex near Lancaster, Pa., that adapts Old Testament tales into musical extravaganzas such as “Moses” and “Jonah.” (A spokeswoman for Sight & Sound said the theater’s performers don’t typically do promotional appearances, but they are encouraged to sing at their own churches.)

The shows that Pendelton markets need to pass a basic litmus test of promoting family ties and uplifting messages. Her outreach efforts also include offering free master classes in liturgical dance by Broadway choreographers, and writers’ workshops taught by notable playwrights such as Daniel Beaty.

“Church visits are so important,” Pendelton said. “Artists need to take time to be of service to the community, and establishing that relationship with the community are very important. . . . It’s a win-win situation that allows people a point of entry.”

Ritzel is a freelance writer.

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