At a recent performance of “Next to Normal,” the Broadway musical at the Booth Theater on West 45th Street, Alice Ripley, who won a Tony for her portrayal of Diana, a suburban mother with bipolar disorder, was reaching to answer a cordless telephone when she knocked it off the stage. Fourth wall broken, Ms. Ripley asked, with a smile, “Could you hand that to me?”
Audience members were suddenly on all fours, but when they could not find the prop, a woman in the front row held up her cellphone, which Ms. Ripley accepted and spoke her lines into before tossing it back, to laughter and applause.
It is, it turns out, strangely fitting that a theatergoer’s cellphone should play a role in a “Next to Normal” performance, since many people have been introduced to the musical by the devices. In early May, six weeks after opening, the production began what is by all accounts a Broadway first: over Twitter, the social networking site, an adapted version of the show began to be published in the form of short text messages, or tweets — just a line from a character at a time. Several times daily over 35 days, followers of N2NBroadway eagerly awaited the arrival of the tweets on their cellphones and computers.
On May 12, about a week into the serialized Twitter performance, “Next to Normal” had 30,000 followers; when it ended on June 7 with the last line of text and audio from the final song, “Light,” about 145,000 had signed up. Then, as the cast began text messaging back and forth with followers, their numbers continued to grow, recently topping 550,000.
Damian Bazadona, president of Situation Interactive, an online marketing and advertising firm that conceived of the Twitter performance, said that text messages have avoided marketing the play explicitly by, say, offering ticket discounts.
“You wouldn’t go to a social event and start selling someone something,” said Mr. Bazadona. “The content itself was doing the selling for us, so we didn’t need to bang someone over the head and say, ‘Here’s how to buy tickets.’ That would have smelled so advertising.”
Brian Yorkey, who wrote the book and lyrics and — with the composer Tom Kitt — won aTony Award for the score, said that when first approached about adapting his play for thumb-typers, it sounded like “a bit of a chore.”
Mr. Yorkey grew to view it as a creative challenge, though, since the adaptation entails characters sending Twitter messages during moments they deliver no lines. During the first scene, for instance, when Diana makes sandwiches on the floor, her husband, Dan (played by J. Robert Spencer), humors his manic wife onstage, but in the virtual version tweets, “Do all wives end up sprawled on the floor making sandwiches for no one?”
In the performance, Mr. Yorkey said, “we didn’t know what Dan the father was thinking when she was on the floor making sandwiches. But this is what they would say if they were tweeting, so it’s telling the story of the show but telling it from a lot of different perspectives. It was the show — but a new multiangle way of thinking of it.”
Adam Chanler-Berat, who plays the character of Henry, knew nothing of the Twitter version until an encounter with a fan after a spring performance.
“Someone at the stage door asked me if I was Twittering while I was on stage,” said Mr. Chanler-Berat. “I guess they got a Twitter message from my character while I was actually performing.”
While marketers resisted selling the show on Twitter, followers bought tickets on their own steam.
“I saw the show because of the tweets,” Janet Aguhob wrote in a message to the Twitter group. “I read/heard great things abt N2N but was nervous abt the subject. Tweets broke the ice.”
Ms. Aguhob, who lives in Astoria, New York, and works for a pharmaceutical company, said in a phone interview that she had known people in “similar situations” to that of Ms. Ripley’s character and was “afraid it would bring back memories.” But less than halfway through the Twitter performance, Ms. Aguhob bought tickets.
“It was like Twitter was the appetizer and then I got the main course, and it was great,” Ms. Aguhob said. “I’m going again when a friend comes to visit in November. On Twitter they’re really nurturing the show — they’re not doing it in a gimmicky way at all.”
The Twitter adaptation ended June 7, the morning of the Tony ceremony, with the hope that followers would tune in to CBS that evening to see the cast perform. The entire Twitter transcript is available at www.nexttonormal.com/twitterperformance.pdf.
The show, which sold $226,000 in tickets and filled 72 percent of its seats in the week before the Twitter production began, made $363,000 and reached 99 percent of capacity the week it ended, according to the Broadway League, although that bump is largely attributable to its 11 Tony nominations. On the week ended Aug. 9, the production made $480,000, selling 95 percent of seats. (The average ticket price over the four-month run has climbed to $82, from $51.)
“They’re selling to 90 percent-plus audiences. I think Twitter has something to do with that,” said Mr. Bazadona, of Situation Interactive.
Since the end of the Twitter performance, which often included links to audio clips from cast recordings, tweets between the production and fans have included a monthlong question-and-answer period.
When a follower asked what actors did between performances on the days of two performances, Saturday and Wednesday, Mr. Chanler-Berat responded, “Eat until I have to unbutton my pants.” Asked by another for their favorite aspect of the show-staging process, Jessica Phillips, the understudy for Ms. Ripley, wrote, “seeing people backstage in their underpants.”
Mr. Kitt and Mr. Yorkey recently invited followers to suggest ideas for a new song for the production, and will collaborate on lyrics with them over Twitter. While they will not incorporate the song into the production, they are planning to stage a public cast performance of it and make the song available as a digital download.
“In the process of this I became a Twitter convert, and I don’t say that lightly,” Mr. Yorkey said. “I’m always a little skeptical of whatever next new big thing comes out. I know that all of the half million followers are not equally engaged, but to think that we can have a relationship with an audience this size — far more than will ever see the show live — feels really new to me.”