NEW YORK — Until now, I had never thought of Skittles as brain food.
But a radical swing in my perception of a confection whose main ingredients are sugar, corn syrup and hydrogenated palm kernel oil occurred in the opening minutes of the buoyantly irreverent “Skittles Commercial: The Broadway Musical.” As a result, I’m convinced that the Skittles marketing department is a hotbed of disruptive promotional fervor. The Skittlers know you know all the tired tricks of the branding trade. They’re fully versed in how steeped we all are in the dark arts of mercantile persuasion.
And “Skittles Commercial: The Broadway Musical” is Exhibit A of their up-to-the-minute cheekiness — and respect for the American consumer’s savvy. Staged for one live showing only at Manhattan’s Town Hall — on Super Bowl Sunday, no less — “Skittles Commercial” is Skittles’s answer to the deluge of advertisements unveiled during the game and analyzed ad nauseam after.
It was envisioned as such a kooky wink of a gambit that the company declared that the only way you could see it was to buy a ticket to the Sunday afternoon performance, before the football game. The bet seems to have been that firsthand reports of the event — which starred Michael C. Hall as a character named Michael C. Hall — would swirl on social (and mainstream) media. The use of Broadway as the advertising platform did indeed feel fresh, even if technically, the show wasn’t staged in a Broadway theater. And whether this unique, zero-airtime approach would generate a substantial buzz remained up in the air.
(Then again, there is an article about it in The Washington Post, among other outlets.)
Being in Town Hall for the 40-minute show, directed by Sarah Benson, from a book by Will Eno and Nathan Lawlor, lyrics by Lawlor and music by Drew Gasparini, felt like a joyful giving up of oneself to accessible absurdity. Taking as a given our collective grasp of the tenets of American salesmanship, “Skittles Commercial” lampooned our tortured relationships with sitcoms and celebrities and in the process turned an actor’s decision to plug a product into an existential cataclysm. The best of the handful of songs, “Advertising Ruins Everything,” was a nifty reality-twisting production number in which actors played members of the audience complaining that they’d been manipulated into buying tickets to a Skittles commercial.
“It stalks me online like some sad lonely ex/ Tracking my every move,” sang a “theater usher” of his discomfort with modern advertising. “It knows what I eat and the size of my feet/ And it’s inside my brain, and I do not approve!”
Hall proved to be a thoroughly game and charming foil for the musical, arriving in a cat costume because, he explained, he was supposed to be in a Skittles Super Bowl spot later in the day. I stopped counting the Skittles mentions at 28, many of them self-consciously funny; one of the mentions took place at the “meta” moment when an actress, rejecting Hall’s insistence that Skittles was responsible for every word of dialogue in the ensemble’s mouths, defiantly says something derogatory about the candy.
“Skittles wouldn’t write that,” she said.
“And yet weirdly,” Hall replied, “they did.”