Are tryouts worth the trouble?
Following the sour initial reception for the Broadway-bound “Movin’ Out” in Chicago — in particular a Chicago Tribune review that caused a mild ruckus when it ran in New York’s Newsday — there was speculation that the era of the tryout could soon be over, victim of the Internet age and the expense.
But traditions die hard on Broadway, and even Twyla Tharp, whose show was the victim of the Newsday flap, is singing the praises of the process.
Tryouts are “not passe,” says Tharp, choreographer-director of “Movin’ Out,” which underwent major changes in the course of its Chi run. “They’re essential for anyone who is serious about the work.”
She’s not alone in her cheerleading.
“I really don’t wish to do a major piece in New York without taking it somewhere to work on it first,” says helmer Jack O’Brien, who took “Hairspray” to Seattle and “The Full Monty” to his home base, the Old Globe in San Diego, where he is now trying out “Imaginary Friends.”
And Disney’s Thomas Schumacher insists no show under his watch will forgo the pre-Gotham experience.
“Going out of town is not about being away from the watchful eye of the wag. You’ll always have gossip,” he says. Rather, it is “getting a chance to see the show with an audience and making the big architectural changes” in the physical production before the show techs in New York.
” ‘Aida’ would not be running today if we hadn’t gone to Chicago,” says the Disney prexy. The original production of that musical, first seen in Atlanta, was virtually scrapped after savage notices; had it opened cold on Broadway, the show would scarcely have had a second chance.
Up next for the House of Mouse, “Hoopz” workshops at Trinity Rep next spring, with “The Little Mermaid” getting a full production (city TBA) prior to Gotham.
The upcoming musicals “Wicked” and “Never Gonna Dance” have made out-of-town plans. Even proven warhorses like “Man of La Mancha” and “La Boheme” are getting the shakedown in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, respectively. Set for Broadway in December, both shows utilize complicated physical productions.
“There isn’t a mechanism in place for bringing opera to Broadway, so it seemed a good idea to go through that process before we got to New York,” says “Boheme” director Baz Luhrmann. Scene changes have been “drastically reduced,” he says, and the show’s supertitles have been “adjusted from performance to performance.”
There are only a few exceptions to the rule this season.
The Shuberts’ Gerald Schoenfeld considered taking “Amour” out of town, but director James Lapine’s tight sked kept the show in Gotham. Producer Bob Boyett will preview “Dance of the Vampires” in New York to “maximize” Michael Crawford’s one-year contract. There’s also the show’s huge set, costly and time-consuming to move.
Money, of course, is why out-of-town fell out of favor for much of the past 20 years.
“David Merrick and Cy Feuer always took their shows out of town,” says book writer Peter Stone, veteran of a dozen musicals. “Suddenly, out-of-town is de rigueur again. It is a production expense, like scenery. You have to spend it.”
Conservative estimates put the cost of the process at $250,000 for a revival’s run in a subscription house, with new titles costing multiples thereof depending on the size of audiences.
But the alternative can be more expensive, in its way.
“Not trying a musical out of town?” exclaims Stone, who had a notorious time with “Titanic,” for which he supplied the book. “I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy. You can’t make changes here in New York. You’re in a fishbowl in full view.”
Although today’s producers and creatives don’t discount the Internet, its effect on shows out of town may be overblown.
“It’s a club of about 1,000 people,” opines ad guru Nancy Coyne.
And contrary to current mythologizing, no production ever came to Gotham wrapped in a cocoon of privacy.
“Even as a 12-year-old, I knew ‘Subways Are for Sleeping’ (1961) had been trashed in Philly,” says the Times’ Frank Rich. His autobiography “Ghost Light” chronicles a childhood of tryout perfs in Washington, D.C. “Word always got back about out-of-town reviews,” he recalls.
New York’s seven dailies routinely published weekly reports of a show’s progress on the road. A quick perusal of the Times archives reveal a four-graph article on “Embezzled Heaven” (1944) with Ethel Barrymore in Wilmington, Del., complete with audience reactions and quotes from local critics. Ditto the Times’ take on “Mr. President” (1962) in Washington, D.C.: “Most first-nighters agreed that the show dragged.”
Then as now, privacy may never have had much to do with it.
“If you want to do something quietly, you don’t go to Chicago or Boston or Washington, D.C.,” says David Stone, producer of the “Man of La Mancha” revival. He recommends Chattanooga, Tenn.: “That can be quiet.”
“Gypsy” with Tyne Daly actually did try out there, and it was quiet. Word is that Barry and Fran Weissler, who happened to produce the Chattanooga “Gypsy,” are in negotiations with the equally out-of-the-way Charlotte Rep in North Carolina to do a Hilary Swank-led revival of “The Miracle Worker.”
Oddly enough, the media-saturated West Coast appears to possess at least two quiet zones, according to O’Brien.
“There has never been much scuttlebutt from San Diego when we’ve tried out there,” says the director, “not on ‘The Full Monty’ and, so far as I know, not yet on ‘Imaginary Friends.’ I know for certain we got completely under the radar for ‘Hairspray’ in Seattle.”
And at least out-of-town tryouts provide yet another all-important element: critics.
Long after they retired, Elliot Norton of the Boston Record and Richard Coe of the Washington Post continue to be revered for their constructive reviews that often help creatives to make the necessary changes. Chicago’s present-day crix corps get similar raves, but some producers and creatives give thumbs-down to their Boston counterparts.
Peter Marks, newly ensconced at the Washington Post, is considered a big plus for shows previewing in the nation’s capital.
“You’ve got those reactions, use them,” Tharp says of reviews. “Just take out the poison.”
Sources close to the “Movin’ Out” production credit Tharp’s reaction to critical brickbats with her effective revamp of the show. In fact, the choreo-helmer made a song-by-song grid and input each Chicago critic’s reaction to every segment. “Did they get it?” she asked. “Or didn’t they?”
So despite the reviews, Tharp remains upbeat about the pre-Gotham process.
“But next time,” she jokes, “I’d like to do it in Reykjavik.”