With huge numbers of Midwesterners now gobbling up touring Broadway shows with lip-smacking abandon, the regional fortunes of the road have transformed swiftly. In 1991, there were only 8,000 single-week subscribers in Cincinnati and 6,000 in Columbus. Cleveland was struggling to find a stable series. Lethargic Indianapolis was a presenter’s nightmare.
Back then, promoter Brad Broecker, whose Louisville-based Broadway Series Management Group was the dominant player in the region, was bemoaning cancellations, the lack of decent product and the loss of hard-to-replace subscribers. “This has been a year of consolidation,” Broecker told Variety at the time. “Nothing is striking people as a must-see.”
Four years later, it’s a whole new world. Cincinnati now has more than 21,000 subscribers (a 250% increase) and a brand-new theater. Some 13,000 people now regularly attend an expanded season of touring Broadway shows in Columbus. When “Grease” stopped through Cleveland, it sold out every seat for the entire run. Even Indianapolis has a new Broadway season in a renovated downtown theater. And Broecker is a much happier man. “There’s a whole lot of new vitality,” he says. “Now we just want to maintain everything that we have accomplished.”
What accounts for this turnaround in such a short time? Most of the region’s Broadway seasons have become better organized and more reliable and have placed a greater emphasis on customer service. Broecker’s group regularly asks subscribers what shows they want to see in the future and makes it easy to exchange tickets.
The nonprofit Cleveland Playhouse in the Square Foundation, which started to present touring shows a couple of years ago, has instigated a variety of consumer-driven innovations this fall. The typical mail-order form has been replaced by a toll-free telephone number, and customers can now reserve their seats with a deposit of $99 and pay the balance in installments – an attractive convenience when road subscriptions can cost more than $300.
“We’ve made things easy and friendly,” says the Playhouse Square’s Gina Vernacci. “And that’s helped us gain a renewal rate of over 87%.”
Smiling reservations agents aside, there must be product the audience wants to see. The main reason for the sudden upswing in Midwestern road fortunes is the continuing availability of several reprise-happy shows that are guaranteed sell-outs. Back in 1991, presenters were relying entirely on “Les Miserables” to propel whole seasons. Nowadays, that perennial is but one of a crowd. “The Phantom of the Opera” does massive multiweek business wherever it haunts and rehaunts, even during once-dead weeks in July and August.
The masked man earned in excess of $7 million during a seven-week summer sojourn in blistering temperatures in Columbus, and helped pull in new subscribers for the whole 1994-95 season. The bus-and-truck “Miss Saigon” is the propeller of many upcoming Midwestern occupations, typically hovering for as many as seven weeks and attracting sellout crowds.
Presenters know that yet another return visit from “Cats” means box office cream, and Andrew Lloyd Webber also draws financial blood with the popular revival of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream-coat.” And you can add “The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber” and “Grease” (which grossed $653,000 last season in a single Cleveland week) into the bankable mix.
In most markets, subscription levels are now so high that presenters don’t have to worry so much about single-ticket sales anymore. Last year’s Cincinnati season was so heavily pre-sold that even less certain fare like “Jelly’s Last Jam” and “The Sisters Rosensweig” returned respectable grosses.
In Cleveland, “Crazy for You” enjoyed a boffo single week, dancing its way toward $617,000.
“I feel like I should quit while things are this good,” jokes Vernacci, adding that the 1996-97 season will probably consist entirely of runs of two weeks or longer. Multiweek blocks already are reserved for “Show Boat” in spring 1997 and “Beauty and the Beast” in the 1997-98 season.
All of this success means that presenters are becoming a touch more adventurous. “Jekyll and Hyde” will play in Cincinnati this fall. Cleveland has “Kiss of the Spiderwoman” for two weeks. Last year, Broecker told Variety he wouldn’t consider presenting “Angels in America” in his massive Midwestern venues. He’s changed his mind: The touring Tony Kushner epic is a subscription option next season in both Columbus and Louisville. Cleveland’s Playhouse Square also has booked the two-part play.
Although Indianapolis has had trouble supporting Broadway shows in recent years, Broecker is showing renewed interest in the market now that the downtown Meurat Theater is being renovated by Indianapolis-based Sunshine Promotions – the two groups are combining to present a short subscription series this fall.
Meanwhile, Indy’s Clowes Hall has its own exclusive touring Broadway agreement with Robert Young Prods. – Young’s four-show season at this venue on the Butler U. campus is spearheaded by “Phantom,” arriving in early January for a scheduled five-week run.
To some people’s surprise, the Indianapolis visit of “Phantom” also appears on the rival Broecker/Sunshine subscription series at the Meurat. But in these heady Midwestern days for touring tuners, it seems that everyone’s in the mood to cooperate.