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Appealing to the 'South Park' demographic with free tickets to 'Book of Mormon'

July 1, 2011 |  3:54 pm

NEW YORK --“Free stuff! Sweeeeeeeeeet!”

That’s how So Cartman, the irreverent bad-boy of “South Park,” might have characterized the mood at a special free matinee performance Friday of “The Book of Mormon,” the hit Broadway musical, at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre.

“A fantastic idea, I feel really lucky,” said Lauren Portigiano, who came into the city from Long Island and who at 25 was the dominant age group in the line that snaked for blocks just before the theater opened for general seating.

Portigiano was the beneficiary of an idea by the “Mormon” producers and creative team — including Matt Stone and Trey Parker, whose other franchise is “South Park” — to reach young people who can’t afford tickets that are going as high as $477 for premium orchestra seats. (Tickets bought through brokers can cost as much as $1,000). The show’s advance is reportedly well over $20 million. Some reports have it much higher.

“The biggest challenge, given the constituency of Matt and Trey, is not to have the success of the show exclude the people who got them to year fifteen of ‘South Park,’” said Scott Rudin, who with Anne Garefino, are the lead producers of “Mormon.”

“This is just one of many fan initiatives,” said Garefino, noting that “Mormon” also had entered a promotional partnership with “Glee” as well. “We never want people to think that it’s impossible to get into the show. And if this is one way to do that, great.”

Broadway shows occasionally have added a ninth performance to their regular eight -per- week, usually as a benefit. Years into its run, “Chicago” gave a free performance for its fans. But, in the case of “Book of Mormon,” the free offer came much earlier and only weeks after it won nine Tony Awards, including best musical.

The audience members for the free performance were chosen out of a pool of more than 13,000 names culled over a 30-day period from those entered in a daily lottery at which 20 “Mormon” seats are sold at $32.00 each.

Those tickets have been offered since “Mormon’s” first preview. That drawing has attracted around 400 to 600 people per day, just a fraction of the 148,000 Facebook fans of the show or of the nearly 32 million Facebook fans of “South Park” on the Comedy Channel. (By comparison, the long-running “Phantom” has 114, 513 Facebook fans.)

Mark Etheridge, 46, had failed at the daily lottery 37 times before he received an e-mail a couple of weeks ago informing him that he had scored two tickets to Friday’s performance.

“It almost got to be a joke but it turned out to be more than worth it,” Etheridge said. His girlfriend, Alessandra Gagliardi, 42, agreed, even if she, with arm in a sling, had to come directly from a from a blood transfusion. “I wouldn’t miss it,” she said.

Given the jubilant atmosphere, the performance itself was a raucous affair even though Robert Lopez, the show’s composer and co-book writer, told the audience to “lower your expectations” in a pre-show speech. “We can’t all fulfill each other’s fantasies,” Lopez said.

But from the first note downbeat, the audience was — as the character of Elder Cunningham might have said — “totally stoked,” cheering wildly after every musical number. And for those who had lost out on yet another lottery Friday, the performance was taped for the New York Public Library of Performing Arts.


'Book of Mormon' sees ticket demand surge, raises prices

'Mormon,' 'War Horse' Ride High at Tonys

Theater review: 'The Book of Mormon' at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre

--Patrick Pacheco

Above: Andrew Rannells and the cast of "The Book of Mormon" performning at the Tony awards last month. Credit: Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images