Playing straight on the road can be big biz

Presenters looking for more, say auds don't 'fear' plays

NEW YORK — Maybe it’s time to rethink the conventional wisdom that straight plays are death on the road.

Although it’s long been an article of faith that audiences won’t turn out for anything but the big musicals, Broadway-vetted nonmusical attractions are doing good business — in some cases, exceptionally good. And now that road presenters have gotten over their surprise, they’re in the market for more.

“Our audiences have no fear of a straight play, as long as it’s something current and exciting,” says Richard Lewis, managing director of the California Musical Theater in Sacramento, which has a subscription base of 13,000 and expects to extend its play runs to two weeks by the time “Stones in His Pockets” arrives in January.

‘Proof’ positive

Although Lewis usually budgets 65% of capacity for a straight play, “Proof” exceeded those expectations this past season by hitting 88.2% (12,000 subscribers, 500 group sales, 5,000 single tickets) over the eight performances of its five-day December run.

“I hadn’t counted on that,” he says.

“Sacramento is a perfect example of how an inexpensive straight show can be very profitable for a theater with a big subscription base,” says Meredith Blair, who handled the “Proof” tour through the Booking Group. With its huge subscription base, the theater was able to gross $698,000 on a show that cost about $250,000 to bring in. “You do the math,” she says.

“Proof” is not the only hot road ticket. “Copenhagen” recently came off a successful national tour, and “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife,” which opened in L.A. in June with Broadway transplant Valerie Harper, is booked through April.

Looking down the road: “Topdog/Underdog,” which astounded legit observers by recouping its original investment of $1.5 million on Broadway, will be going out next summer. Carole Shorenstein Hays plans to start the tour of the 2002 Pulitzer Prize winner at Seattle Rep, have a sit-down at the Curran, her theater in San Francisco, and take it from there. As a nice little coda to its solid run at the Lyceum, “Morning’s at Seven” will play the main stage of L.A.’s Ahmanson, from Dec. 3-Jan. 26, as part of the theater’s regular subscription season.

Other shows remain tantalizingly out of reach. Theaters waiting for “Noises Off” will have to wait a bit longer; there’ll be no plans made for a national tour of Michael Frayn’s high-energy farce until an upcoming Japanese tour is in place.

And what about “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?”? Is Sacramento ready for Edward Albee’s droll philosophical views on interspecies love? “I might do it,” says Lewis, “but it’s easier to sell funny than serious, so I’d be more likely to do ‘Noises Off.’ ”

Which brings us to another bit of received wisdom about plays on the road — no theater will book more than one per season, no matter how attractive the offerings.

“In some buyers’ minds, a straight show with a big star equates to a musical,” says Blair, explaining the added mileage she got with Faye Dunaway in “Master Class” and Harper in “Allergist’s Wife.” But such exceptions are rare, she admits.

Just too big

One reason why this isn’t likely to change soon, according to “Goat” producer Elizabeth I. McCann is “theaters across the country are just too big for plays. With the exception of a few houses in Boston, and Philadelphia they don’t have the mix of theaters that we have in New York.” (Indeed, Lewis won’t book a play into his 2,452-seat house unless the actors agree to use mikes.)

So, where would that leave “The Goat” should McCann decide to send it out? “Oh, I don’t know — maybe we’ll rent a tent.”

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