A Theater Critic Reviews the Skittles Musical
If you’ve spent years following the endless debates over whether or not Broadway has become too commercial, you might bristle at the idea of a musical that’s literally an ad. But in defense of Skittles Commercial: The Broadway Musical, it’s not like you don’t know exactly what you’re getting.
That’s not the only reason to defend this unique one-day-only event, a live musical performed as a Super Bowl ad — without actually airing on television during the Super Bowl. It probably goes without saying that Skittles Commercial is not for everyone, but that has less to do with the fact that it’s technically an ad and more with its less-than-mainstream sensibilities. Instead of putting on a big, recognizably Broadway production, Skittles opted to go a hipper, more downtown theater route. That means a book co-written by the sometimes absurdist playwright Will Eno and music by composer Drew Gasparini. The biggest name attached (other than Skittles itself) is Michael C. Hall, recognizable to TV and theater fans but not quite a household name compared to the celebrities who usually appear in Super Bowl ads.
The result is a curious but ultimately admirable show that offers a surprisingly cynical take on advertising, selling out, and the “faceless multinational corporations” that pretend to be our friends. There are harsh truths here, truths that pair surprisingly well with the sweet taste of Skittles.
Skittles Commercial stars Hall as himself, dressed in full Jellicle attire like he just snuck away from Tom Hooper’s Cats set. The plot, insofar as there is one, concerns Hall’s anxiety about appearing in a Skittles commercial and the effect it could have on his career. But things take a turn for the increasingly meta, and a small audience revolt seems to shut the musical down. Suddenly the action moves to a recreation of the street outside the theater, with the patrons complaining (in song) that “advertising ruins everything.” And then: pure chaos. There’s a death, a Winston Churchill cameo, and a Frozen-inspired Skittles dress quick change. Let it go. Taste the rainbow.
That’s giving a lot away, but again, you’re never going to see this show. Besides, the real surprise of Skittles Commercial isn’t the plot but that it’s actually pretty damn good. Hall is fully committed, the songs (all three of them) are deceptively complex, and the book has Eno’s idiosyncratic humor without alienating the audience entirely. (It probably helps that he got an assist from copywriter Nathaniel Lawlor, who wrote the lyrics and co-wrote the book.) Director Sarah Benson, whose previous brand-unfriendly work includes Blasted and Fairview, does an exceptional job holding it all together even as the show threatens to collapse on itself. You get the sense that everyone involved takes silliness very seriously, and it pays off.
The success of Skittles Commercial exposes one of the most frustrating fallacies of the debate over commercialism on Broadway: Just because a show is built on a popular brand doesn’t mean it can’t be good. Sure, there are garbage cash grab shows designed to capitalize on brand familiarity, but there are also terrible original works that somehow feel more derivative than anything based on a movie. For its part, Skittles Commercial follows in the tradition of shows like SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical, which married a hugely successful Nickelodeon cartoon with real theater talent, resulting in one of the most innovative and exciting new musicals in years. Forget “purity”: Give creative people the opportunity to stretch their imaginations, and great art can come from the least expected places.
There is, of course, a key distinction here: The SpongeBob musical was not designed purely to sell SpongeBob merch, while the Skittles musical is ultimately an ad for candy. Despite the fact that Hall calls the titular snack “the perfect treat for this anti-capitalist uprising,” this entire enterprise is a (very good) marketing stunt for a company that has often embraced the unconventional in its ads. The jabs at consumerism might seem subversive, but there’s not much real risk to the brand here. While it’s worth noting that Skittles donated ticket proceeds to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, this is still a commercial. An ad is an ad, even when that ad is a live musical.
That’s not to diminish the achievement of Skittles Commercial — it’s just something you have to acknowledge. We’re all complicit in late-stage capitalism, whether we’re singing about Skittles or not, and it’s a credit to this production that it’s willing to engage with our collective hypocrisy rather than feigning authenticity. The show won’t undo the ills of advertising — or the damage done by changing the green Skittle from lime to apple — but at least it shows a real reverence for theater, and that makes the whole thing easier to swallow.
Louis Peitzman writes about theater, film, and TV. His previous work includes BuzzFeed News, Gawker, and the podcast AfterSmash about the NBC musical drama. @LouisPeitzman