Road rallies despite ‘Full’ stop

Clear Channel talking about salvaging tuner's truncated tour

When the first national tour of “The Full Monty” announced last month that it would wheeze to a premature halt in Chicago, it was widely seen as a casualty of a Broadway road still in free-fall after the events of Sept. 11.

But with the benefit of a little distance, some now are arguing that the problems of “Full Monty” had more to do with a neophyte road producer’s over-enthusiasm and lack of experience rather than industrywide malaise.

Judging by its actions, at least, Clear Channel Entertainment takes that view. The road giant is negotiating to pick up the pieces of “Full Monty” and streamline the show so it can return to the road in 2002. It will be designed to do single-week stands.

Certainly, the overall economic and political climate contributed to the touring tuner’s initial problems. These are hardly boom times, and weak product has been hit hard.

Last week, for example, it was announced that “Cookin’,” a touring show based on the antics of Korean chefs, was canceling the rest of its U.S. tour (including planned L.A. and Chi engagements). The press release said the stars wanted to go back home — but insiders say the show wasn’t selling many tickets anyway.

But that was an exception. The vast majority of road product already has returned to near-normal levels.

“Contact” has been doing strong business for the last month in California — including $900,000 during a week in Sacramento and $600,000 from eight Bay Area performances.

“We’ve proven to be very durable,” says Bernard Gersten, exec producer at Lincoln Center Theater, originator of “Contact.” “We never really showed any kind of significant blip.”

Barry Weissler, who has “South Pacific” on the road and is readying “Chicago” for another Las Vegas stand at the Venetian Hotel, also says business has returned to pre-Sept. 11 levels. “We are hitting our numbers,” Weissler says, after exiting a two-week Chi stand with close to $1.25 million. “Florida looks particularly good.”

Alan Wasser says the road versions of “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Les Miserables” have recovered much more quickly than the Broadway companies. “We are bringing in at least 90% of our expectations,” he says, “if not more.”

And if advances took a knock in September, Wasser says, patriotic week-of-performance sales have tended to make up the difference.

“Our touring business is healthy,” says Chris Boneau, spokesman for Walt Disney Theatrical Prods., “and future engagements for both ‘Aida’ and ‘Beauty and the Beast’ look promising.”

“People are interested in doing things in their hometown,” explains Randy Weeks of the Denver Center.

That has proven to be good news for most hinterland road shows — especially in medium-sized markets hospitable to homespun revivals like “South Pacific” and “The Music Man.”

So what happened with “The Full Monty”?

“I think those producers thought they had something a little bigger than what it turned out to be,” says Weeks.

Although they are reluctant to criticize a show on the record, many insiders think this one was chronically overbooked for a tuner that was a modest but hardly spectacular Broadway success.

Marketing studies have noted that road auds often thought the show was a live version of the Chippendales dancers rather than a musical comedy.

“Monty” was booked in the classic “first national tour” tradition that worked so well in the 1980s. The number of cities was limited to major centers such as Washington, Boston and Toronto, each slated for stands of multiple weeks.

Many of the deals were four-wall engagements and the show was organized with a load-in time that took four days. Single weeks were not in the initial picture.

“They were just plain dead wrong,” says one presenter who negotiated with the producers of the tour.

Those producers — Fox Searchlight, Lindsay Law and Thomas Hall — disagree with that assessment. Spokesman Michael Hartman notes the show opened in Chicago right after the terrorist attacks, and its next booking was in jittery Washington. In the producers’ view, “Full Monty” was a victim of extraordinary circumstances.

But it might have been the same story any other fall — and for many other shows.

“Except for megahits, the days of the first national doing only eight or nine cities for multiple weeks are long gone,” says Wasser, who sent such shows out in the good ol’ days. “The essential challenge now is to design a Broadway musical so that it can play single weeks and longer engagements on the same tour.”

Speaking from Cleveland, where his non-union tour of “The Music Man” had just opened, Dan Shur of Big League Theatricals agrees. “It’s just so hard to do those traditional first nationals,” he says.

The trick now is to strike the balance — both financial and creative — between sufficient gloss for major markets and easy-to-move viability for single-week stands. Money doesn’t always solve the problems. (The pre-Broadway megahit “Mamma Mia!” is proving a major exception, with long sellout runs across the country.)

“You have to apply real discipline,” says one road producer, “to be able to do the single weeks.”

When it resurrects “Full Monty” (as it did with “Ragtime” a couple of years ago), Clear Channel doubtless will try to strike the only balance that seems to work for the new road in these tough times. And maybe its rivals will have learned a thing or two.

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