Credit finally given to road promoters

Producers realize the power, support tours lend a prod'n

CHICAGO — When Broadway producer Richard Frankel was lining up investors for “Hairspray,” there were more takers than spots. So Frankel started looking not for cash, but for people who would help his show in the future by booking a tour.

“There are loads of sources for money,” Frankel recently said. “But it’s always better to put together a long-term team. That way everyone has a stake in the show. You get to know people. And it’s a comfortable way of doing business.”

As veteran producers like Manny Kladitis point out, there’s nothing new in road presenters getting involved in Broadway investing. “That’s gone on for years, they just never got billing.”

But these days, Broadway producers are paying more and more attention to getting highly visible financial involvement from road presenters in new musicals.

“It’s huge support for a show when you have a tour already set up for the future,” says Michael Leavitt, a producer of “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” “It makes other investors feel good when they know you’re looking at the future beyond Broadway.”

Clear Channel is the most obvious example of a road presenter morphing into a major Broadway producer. It invests in a slew of Broadway shows — it led the way on “Sweet Smell of Success” — often with a contractual eye on future road rights.

But the Independent Presenters Network, a group of 45 road presenters representing some 70 hinterland markets, put $1 million in “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and is getting a lot of pitches these days from indie producers. The IPN mainly is composed of nonprofit venues — some of which, like the Weidner Center in Green Bay, Wis., compete directly with Clear Channel.

This coming season, the IPN is highly involved in “Flower Drum Song” on Broadway. The group’s chairman, Pat Halloran of the Orpheum Theater in Memphis, Tenn., says the group is talking to Disney about future projects.

Some of the IPN’s past investments — like “Barry Manilow’s Copacabana” — were not Broadway productions but shows designed exclusively for its own members on the road. The IPN is going to have a piece of the U.S. road production of “Oliver!,” and there’s likely involvement in the upcoming productions of “Starlight Express” and “Little Women.”

Of course, the usual price for IPN involvement in a Broadway show is a guarantee that its members will get the product when it plays their markets (rather than, say, the local Clear Channel house). Getting what they call “decision rights” makes the group members feel less isolated.

“We’ve become a powerful force,” says Frank Young, the founder of Houston’s Theater Under the Stars. “Now we don’t have to go to New York and beg for a show. And we’re able to bring new, cutting-edge product to our home cities.”

Most road players see the IPN as a good thing for the biz.

“They’re making a lot of new shows happen and taking some control of their own destiny,” says Susan Weaving of William Morris. “They know what’s going to sell in their own markets, and by investing in the original production, they also have control over the cost factor.”

Halloran notes that the group often works with Clear Channel on shows (Clear Channel was an investor in “Millie,” for example). So the group’s emergence is not just about responding to Clear Channel’s booking and investment clout.

“We have to invest in Broadway shows to secure shows for our markets,” says Clear Channel’s Scott Zeiger. “But we also frequently partner with our competitors. That’s what makes this a peculiar business.”

In some cases, IPN shows like “Flower Drum” will go to the highest bidder in a market, whether or not that investor is a member of the network.

Still, in most cases, the IPN guys are in it for the product rather than the cash. After all, many of the constituent halls are nonprofits with directors interested in serving communities, not snagging cash.

“Our boards aren’t investing to make money,” says Robert Freedman of the Ruth Eckert Hall in Clearwater, Fla., “so much as to make sure that the shows will come to our hall.”

And, in turn, that means the producers will get some guarantees of future biz.

“Disney doesn’t need our money,” says Halloran of his conversations with the mighty but savvy producer. “But they need us to take a role in committing to future tours.”

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