How Skittles Merged Theater and Advertising to Create a Weirdly Wonderful Super Bowl Musical

Inside the brand's one-night-only Broadway show, starring Michael C. Hall

Michael C. Hall set to star in Skittles Broadway musical on Super Bowl Sunday. Photography by Dianna McDougall for Adweek
Headshot of Katie Richards

Michael C. Hall is on all fours. He’s dressed in black, head to toe, save for his ruby red socks and a pair of grey mittens. A woman comes up behind him, stroking his back and running her hand along an imaginary tail. Hall picks up a gloved hand and mimics a cat cleaning its face, swooping a paw behind its ear and through its whiskers.

It’s nine days from Super Bowl Sunday and Hall is on the ground inside The Gym at Judson, a rehearsal space for the arts community by New York City’s Washington Square Park. He’s preparing to star in a new Broadway musical that will run for one day and one day only, on Super Bowl Sunday. A mere 1,495 people will see this Broadway show starring the actor known for his roles in Dexter and Six Feet Under, but also for on-stage performances in Chicago, Cabaret and Hedwig and The Angry Inch.

It will be unlike any show in the history of NYC’s glistening Theater District, because this Broadway show (which is set to be performed at The Town Hall in Manhattan) is actually a 30-minute-plus advertisement for Mars Wrigley Confectionary brand Skittles. The exclusive extravaganza, titled “Skittles Commercial: The Broadway Musical,” is opening (and closing) on Super Bowl Sunday in lieu of the brand running an ad during the game, which this year is costing companies more than $5 million for 30 seconds of airtime.

Confusing, we know.

How it all began

Skittles worked with creative partner DDB Worldwide on this ambitious non-Super Bowl project—one that if you know Skittles, you know isn’t wholly out of character for the brand. While Skittles has run several Super Bowl spots in the past, including one where Steven Tyler sees of portrait of himself made entirely out of Skittles, a Big Game ad isn’t always the most strategic move.

“Skittles’ big sell-through window is the three weeks leading up to Super Bowl,” explained Ari Weiss, chief creative officer of DDB North America. “So what actually happens on Super Bowl Sunday is in a way less important to them than the conversation and the rhythm of awareness in that moment, because that is when all their sales are.”

With that in mind, Skittles decided to shake things up in 2018. The brand worked with DDB to create a 60-second Big Game ad that wouldn’t actually run during the game, and no one would ever see, save for one kid from Canoga Park, Calif., named Marcos Menedez. Of course, to build excitement for the campaign, Skittles released a teaser for the ad ahead of the Super Bowl (as many Big Game advertisers are wont to do) and enlisted actor David Schwimmer to star in four bizarre yet hilarious teasers so that it truly felt like a Super Bowl ad. Skittles’ non-Super Bowl, Super Bowl ad was one of the most talked about of the year. It even won several Cannes Lions.

With that as the benchmark for success, DDB knew it had to do something totally outrageous and never done before by a brand in order to win the Super Bowl in 2019, without buying ad space in the game.

“This idea was really just written down as a scribble, a side note,” Weiss said. “We had a bunch of other ideas that we were working for about a month or two,” but the Broadway show really stuck out to Weiss and Skittles brand director Debbie Litow.

“When you are blessed to work on brand like Skittles, you’re looking for ideas that really resonate with the brand,” explained Litow. “We’re all about disrupting things that are predictable so I think when I first heard the idea it just felt like we had struck gold.”

Once Skittles gave DDB the green light, Weiss and team immediately reached out to production company Smuggler to see if it could actually pull this thing off. Was it possible, Weiss wondered, to create an entire Broadway production complete with choreographed musical numbers and a cast album of four recorded songs, with the Super Bowl a mere six months away?

Finding the right crew

A key to making this show a success would be building a cast and crew with legitimate Broadway experience. This Super Bowl show couldn’t just be something that a group of advertising creatives and execs threw together. It needed to be authentically Broadway, but still capture the spirit of the Skittles brand—bringing a mixture of brightness, dark humor and a twinge of awkwardness to the big stage.

After brining Smuggler on board, DDB hired Pulitzer finalist and playwright Will Eno to write the show. “His sensibilities and all his shows are very self-aware, they’re very comedic. There’s a little bit of a bizarre undertone in everything he does and it just gelled really well with the brand voice,” Weiss said.

After Eno came director Sarah Benson, artistic director of Soho Rep, to bring the words to life, and composer Drew Gasparini of NBC’s Smash to score the show. Next came casting, and of course, finding that star with celebrity appeal who also had a history on Broadway. That led the team to Michael C. Hall. The Dexter actor previously worked with Eno, starring in the one-man play, “Thom Pain (based on nothing),” and everyone agreed—if Hall was up for it—he would be the best man to star in advertisement disguised as a Broadway show, where he would sing about the perils of consumerism and how starring in said show could ruin his entire acting career.

"Hall delivers a remarkably authentic performance for a guy singing about how being in this Skittles musical is totally destroying his life."
Ari Weiss, CCO, DDB North America

“He was such an obvious choice for this and we couldn’t have been luckier. Most people who aren’t theater people will think, ‘Wow, I had no idea he could sing like that,'” Weiss said. And it’s true, Hall delivers a remarkably authentic performance for a guy singing about how being in this Skittles musical is totally destroying his life.

A little more than a month out, the team nabbed choreographer Raja Feather Kelly to add movement to the musical numbers. From there, it was crunch time. There were just about 40 days to launch this Broadway show, something that most get years to plan and perfect. Not to mention the fact that to pull this thing off, DDB and company needed to seamlessly merge two totally different worlds—advertising and Broadway—to create something no one had ever seen before (and something no one had any experience creating before).

“It’s very interesting coming from these two universes and making one thing with two different mindsets,” Gasparini said. “The ad world and theater world, they come from two very different spots. In the ad world you can focus on a 3-second gag just for the visual, for that detail. In theater you get to sculpt that gag for years to make sure it’s right and you actually get to test that out in dress rehearsals and previews and with an audience. None of that happens with the ad world.”

Just two days before the show is set to open, choreographer Raja Feather Kelly is still working the cast to block the show on The Town Hall stage. The crew is testing mics and lights (which include every color of the Skittles rainbow, as well as your traditional stage lights). It’s down to the wire for this cast and crew, but they’re working long days and nights to make the show as authentic, funny and wacky as possible.

What you’re missing out on

For those not lucky enough to see the only performance of the show, it goes a little something like this:

Michael C. Hall (again dressed like a cat) goes into a bodega on Super Bowl Sunday. He’s on his way to Broadway to star in “Skittles Commercial: The Broadway Musical,” because his agent Brian told him it would be a good career move. He soon breaks into song and begins to dissect the decision; was starring in a Broadway show that’s really just a marketing ploy from Skittles really a good idea?

He sings: “Have you ever been asked to make a Skittles ad? Dressed like an animal, not sure if you feel angry or just sad. And your agent Brian urged you to say yes. It’s for the Big Game after all, and it could be a big success. But you get out on the stage and you realize what you’ve done. This ad will not be on TV. This ad will not be number one. And you’re sweating off your tail because you’re dressed up like a cat. Have you ever felt like that?”

The song, “This Might Have Been a Bad Idea,” continues on with Hall questioning whether he’s possibly just ruined his entire career by selling out and starring in this show that could totally tank. “Thank you Skittles for ruining my entire life,” he sings as an upbeat Broadway score plays in the background.

What’s truly surprising about this show is that it does really feel like a modern Broadway musical—from the costumes and music, right down to the choreography. The songs are designed to feel like those you would hear on just about any stage today—they’re upbeat, dramatic and full of hope. Gasparini said his approach was to “write something that felt like it came from the ground, something super earnest that if you just changed all the lyrics you could put it on a Christian rock album. Something that over-the-top and earnest kind of makes the humor land a little harder.”

Humor plays a big part in the show, and a lot of it is directed at the advertising industry. In a way, the entire show is sort of an in-depth look at how marketing infiltrates our lives and how we interact with brands and corporate America. Again, an interesting move for a brand, but one that fits for a company like Skittles.

In a later scene, theatergoers who have just seen the show spot Hall on the street. The backdrop on stage is meant to look like the outside of The Town Hall, where the real show is actually taking place, complete with the real posters Skittles has been using to promote the show. The ones that currently hang outside of the The Town Hall theater. When the crowd of men and women see Hall they’re enraged. They’ve seen the show and they feel cheated. They sing that they “were duped once again by a marketing stunt” and Skittles (along with Hall) is to blame.

Hall argues that the crowd should have known better. They knew what they were getting into when they purchased their tickets (something that the 1,495 people attending the actual show had to do as well, with proceeds from ticket sales going to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS) for a show that has the word “commercial” in the title.

“You see ads everyday,” Hall sings. “They’re all over the place, so I don’t know why this time it should sting.”

“I don’t know if I can ever trust a faceless multinational corporation again,” one of the cast members responds.

The cast is singing “Advertising Ruins Everything,” a track that examines advertising, from the spam you get in your inbox to the random ads that pop up on your Instagram feed. But advertising, Hall argues, is a necessary evil in this capitalist society that we’ve all chosen to participate in and live in. The subject matter gets strangely deep for a musical that’s really just a giant ad campaign.

“The whole show is actually about interrogating the very thought that, on the biggest marketing day of the year, what is and isn’t an ad? How do we feel about consumerism in America? Is it an intrusion? Is it a value? We do it in a very Skittles, self-reflexive and somewhat self-deprecating tone of voice, but something that was very important to us was if we are going to take you on a 30 minute journey, we have to address some real issues,” Weiss said.

Whether those topics will land with the audience and truly make them think about their relationship with advertising is questionable, but the effort that Skittles and team (including digital partner Tribal Worldwide, Smuggler and more) put into creating this show and the other campaign assets—from the cast album now on Spotify, to shirts and pins—can’t be denied.

“I think, had we known what we were getting into when we originally sold this, I don’t know that we wouldn’t have done it,” Weiss says, “but we would have brought a lot more people on board to do it with us.”

@ktjrichards Katie Richards is a staff writer for Adweek.
Publish date: February 3, 2019 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT