Thursday, September 25, 2008

News from the road

Do touring productions need Broadway? That's the interesting question raised by a Variety article. In between trips to New York City, I've started to see more and more road shows, so I'm always looking for news and trends.

I guess the conventional wisdom is that theatergoers like the cachet of seeing a show that's been on Broadway. If you're trying to build up a base of subscribers for your performing arts center, Broadway is a brand name that consumers recognize. And judging from the size of the audiences at shows I've attended, there's a lot of interest on the part of theatre fans who can't make it to New York City.

In Variety, Chris Jones writes that some shows do a healthy business without ever making a stop on the Great White Way.

(Reading stories in Variety can be particularly challenging sometimes because of the weird terminology it uses. I mean, I get that "prexy" is "president" but who's the "presenter?" I think it's the theatre that presents the touring production.)

Anyway, from what I could figure out, while the big Broadway blockbusters have the name recognition, the road-only shows make a lot of money for the venue operators. As an example Jones cites a show that I've never heard of, Tuna Does Vegas, which is in the midst of a 21-city tour and is apparently very popular. Tickets for Tuna Does Vegas, currently making its way across Texas, range from $20 to $45.

These road-only productions, Jones says, "like the Beatles-themed show Rain or Troika Entertainment's intensely successful Jesus Christ Superstar tour starring Ted Neeley, are also emerging as crucial potential profit centers for presenters squeezed by the terms demanded by the blockbuster titles."

Another example Jones mentions is a new, non-Equity tour of The Wizard of Oz, based on a British production, that fills a niche for family oriented entertainment. "You need some motivating factor for people to know they are getting their money's worth," says producer Ken Gentry. "But when it comes to a title like The Wizard of Oz, you have to remember there is always a new generation of people who have never seen it before."

A second Variety story that caught my eye was about the impending national tour of Young Frankenstein, which kicks off in the fall of 2009. Instead of staying in one city for an extended period of time, producer Robert F.X. Sillerman says the musical will play mostly two- to four-week stints.

The article makes the point that that shorter stays are a way to encourage people to subscribe for an entire season, lest they run the risk of getting shut out of a show that they really want to see. I guess you should always leave them wanting more.

"Even a potential behemoth like Disney's Mary Poppins, which kicks off its national tour in March 2009, does not plan a sit-down production for the road. And more significant, its longest engagement clocks in at 13 weeks, in Chicago, the tour's first city, followed by much shorter stays in St. Louis, Cleveland and Los Angeles."

Disney Theatrical's marketing director, David Schrader, says, "We're being a little conservative and not stretching it out to the max. The way we book is we learn the appetite before we lock into the second season."

Here's something else I learned from Variety: "Traditionally, 15% of all road grosses come from just three shows. Thanks to Wicked, The Lion King and Jersey Boys, that percentage more than doubled in 2007-08 and could approach, according to some producers and bookers, nearly 50% in the current season. Translation: more shows vying for less of the pie."

Finally one of this fall's shows - Spring Awakening - turned out to be a tough sell, both because of its subject matter and the fact that it's not based on a popular movie. Variety raises the question: "If the road found The Producers too edgy, how will Middle America respond to a story of teen pregnancy, abortion and homosexuality?" (The Producers is edgy?)

Simma Levine, president of On the Road Booking, tells Variety that she has tired of presenters telling her, "I don't know how my subscribers will like it. We've got a lot of blue-haired ladies. Right now, most tour theaters are booking Spring Awakening for one week only. But it's a start. As one top-of-the-line presenter put it, 'My subscriber base is old, but this will bring in a younger audience.' ''

Well, I'm much older than the target demographic, but I loved Spring Awakening and I was in tears at the end. The 2007 Tony winner for Best Musical is one of the shows I'm most looking forward to seeing on tour. If you're wondering whether or not it's appropriate for you - or your teenager - there's a special section, Spring Awakening for Parents, on the show's Web site.


Amanda said...

Have you seen any of the other Tuna productions? I have yet to see Tuna in a big theatre production - I've only seen the community theatre in Platteville, WI - but I loved what I've seen. Generally, I prefer off-broadway to broadway, just as I prefer non-musical to musical productions. Spring Awakening sounds interesting.

Sarah B. Roberts said...

The "presenter" is not necessarily the theatre but the producer - anybody can be a presenter if they can afford to rent the theatre. Sometimes the presenter and the theatre are the same or a specific production company, like Celebrity Series in Boston, etc.

Linz McC said...

The shows I generally want to see on tour are ones I wasn't able to make a trip to Broadway to see. I already have my Spring Awakening tickets and bought them the day they went on sale because I was so sad I haven't made it to NYC yet for it. Actually, every show I have seen on tour lately has been a hit on Broadway first.

Except Tuna, but those tickets weren't really my idea...

Esther said...

Amanda, I've never seen any of the Tuna productions, sad to say. But they do sound like fun. Maybe someday I'll get a chance to check it out.

I know some people might be turned off by the subject matter in Spring Awakening, but I loved it. I didn't think I'd care that much about a bunch of teenagers in 19th century Germany discovering their sexuality, but I was moved by their stories. I loved the music and the energetic staging.

Esther said...

Thanks Sarah!

Esther said...

Linz, you'll have to write about Spring Awakening on your blog. I'm interested to hear about the tour. I'm sure it'll be great - you'll feel the same energy. Sometimes I felt like I was in a club listening to a hot new band. And like I said, the ending made me cry. I was lucky enough to see it with the original Broadway cast and meet them at the stage door. They're wonderful!

And of course I want to hear about Tuna, too.