- Skittles das Musical (Photo: Skittles / Susan Farley)
Lining up outside a theater to watch Skittles Commercial: The Broadway Musical, I was the most excited I’d been in months for a piece of theater. The artists involved are some of my favorites. I had no idea if a live candy commercial on stage would work but I was damn sure I was going to see it.
Happily it did work–it was a strange, funny, dark, and ridiculous show and it has a pretty dense text for an ad (or even for a play). With meta-layers and capitalistic brand self-awareness, the show exists at the crossroads of post-modernism and late stage capitalism. Is this hell? If it is, then take me sweet candy death. This production made me laugh and think, a lot more than some non-profit theater I’ve seen lately.
I should probably feel dirty about my complicity in this capitalist venture except the whole thing feels structured to make as little money as possible. It’s a one-night (well, afternoon) only performance, with a heavily comped audience, and it’s not supposed to be taped or viewed ever again. I know it is not about making money on the thing itself but through marketing buzz (which has a monetary value) and it’s a stunt. Rather than pay to create a Super Bowl advertisement, Skittles opted for this live show. It’s not even really on Broadway (sorry Town Hall, I love you anyway). Yet, I’m not bothered.
I’ve started to worry about how much I don’t care. But not so much as to distract from my happiness in being there.
I wanted to see the musical for one reason. They hired playwright Will Eno with his deathly dark, sharp-edged sense of humor to write it (along with copywriter Nathaniel Lawlor). Sarah Benson, who blew minds with her direction of An Octoroon and Fairview, directed it. Raja Feather Kelly choreographed it. Drew Gasparini composed the music, with lyrics and additional book work by Lawlor.
This is not a typical musical-theater team producers would put together on Broadway (much to my chagrin). No one has been clamoring for an existential dread musical set in a bodega and the afterlife penned by Eno. Yet, that is what Skittles made.
There’s something about the whole endeavor that feels liberated from the usual theater bullshit. Probably because it’s advertising bullshit. But it’s open towards the audience (inviting everyone up on stage at the start to visit the set and take selfies). It’s fun and self-deprecating. And I don’t think it’s just that everyone’s hopped up on fruit-flavored sugar. There’s no pretense of commerce masquerading as art or art masquerading as commerce because it’s quite literally and baldly both commerce and art.
Of course, I am thinking about the money spent on this project (oh I hope everyone got paid really well) and how that remains a struggle for most artists working in theater.
There’s a joke in the middle of the show about selling almost 600 bags of Skittles at the concession stand during the show which they note is less than half the audience of Town Hall. It’s supposed to be indicative of the low reach of the musical. It reminded me the challenge of selling theater. It’s live. Its local. It’s limited. It can only reach the number of people equal to the number of seats. Theater has an elitism problem which it could work on. It cannot however escape its supply problem.
Rather than a grab for the most eyeballs on television via a Super Bowl ad, Skittles the Musical went the completely opposite direction by making limited access theater and offering tickets as a fundraiser for Broadway Cares. Minimal eyeballs. Yet, they’ve enlisted all of us giddy over the novelty of it to tweet their message, #AdvertisingRuinsEverything. More eyeballs.
The show leans into these complications–the manipulation of advertising, brand identity, and the commercialism of it all. While ostensibly it’s a musical about making a Super Bowl commercial, it actually spends most of its time playing out the tension between advertising and its audience and in a way tries to address some of my doubts and suspicions.
In it Michael C. Hall is dressed like a Jellicle Cats cat about to star in an off-stage commercial for Skittles. He wanders morosely into the local bodega batting at cat toys for sale on the shelf and wondering why he agreed to do this (singing “This Might Have Been a Bad Idea”).
Eventually this part of the show breaks down and “audience members” revolt. A talkback-like attack begins with questions from the audience (“More of a statement, really. Or I guess first a statement, and then a two-part question…”). Hostile “audience member” characters start raising complaints and voicing their disappointment in the bodega-based “Skittles ad” such as it is and express a general sense of confusion over what is happening. Michael and these characters begin to question the point of it all.
In one moment, Michael says “Whatever happens, whatever was going to happen, is it. This, right here, right now, is it. This is all there is.” It’s pure Will Eno. Voices in the dark grappling with the weight of going forward towards the unknown or oblivion or maybe just home again.
- Hashtag Advertising Ruins Everything (Photo: Skittles / Susan Farley)
The “audience member” characters eventually learn they are not real and only characters in the musical ad. One disappointment morphs into another. Their rage at “paying” to see a bad show becomes rage at a capitalist machine they are cogs in. They lament targeted ads, spam, and spending money on things they can’t afford in the song “Advertising Ruins Everything.” Shouts of “Skittles betrayed us,” and “I don’t know if I could ever trust a faceless multinational corporation again” get spoken. Hall still manages to squeeze in a Skittles promo line amidst the chaos: “The perfect treat for this anti-capitalist uprising.” We are still watching a commercial after all.
Then one commercial musical crashes into another reality and a whole lot of Skittles fall from above and in the panic and confusion the audience/characters/mob kill Michael C. Hall (the character only–naturally because he’s going to need to sing a reprise in death).
In a number called “This Definitely Was a Bad Idea,” the ghost of Michael C. Hall bedecked in Jacob Marley-style chains continues to point out that maybe the worst thing is not advertising but being killed by it. Fear not, there are some tagline “taste the rainbow” mentions that are squeezed in for good measure.
Somehow the commercial is having its cake and eating it too. It’s telling us we don’t want to be controlled by advertising while still selling us. And do we trust it more because it cops to this? Or do we all live in a state of such skepticism and cynicism that to reach us they must tip their hat to our over-knowing attitudes. They are still somehow one step ahead of us.
Also, in this musical Winston Churchill, Amelia Earhart, and a bear play their part. The music is infectiously catchy (you can stream it on Spotify). The live sound could have been better but that’s a nit. Kelly’s choreography subtly incorporated football maneuvers (it was Super Ball Sunday after all). A Frozen-style quick-change into a Skittles rainbow dress worked well. There was a strange dead-air style sitcom feel to the start–like a comedy which had lost its laugh track making us all the more conscious of how we are conditioned for certain media. Expectations established and thwarted at various turns.
While in the moment you are laughing and sort of stunned at the insanity of it all, but like a good play it has planted deeper seeds. There’s a bit of a Möbius strip structure and things that make no sense at the start suddenly fall into place at the end. As one character says, “ If we could live our lives backwards, everything would be an omen.” Or hire a great playwright to make you think about what reality is anyway.
Every time I pick up the script I feel like there’s more to unpack. #UnpacktheRainbow, another critic tweeted at me. I’m doing it. I’m helping them spread the gospel and I don’t even like Skittles.