'Hairspray' holds up strong in rain
NEW YORK — Ever since “Hairspray” producer Margo Lion sang the praises of Seattle, people are wondering if that rainy city, perched on the edge of the civilized world as we know it, might be the next hot tryout town for big musicals.
Although geographically out of the East Coast corridor loop (and equally removed from L.A., existentially speaking), its very remoteness constitutes the essence of its appeal. Neither media-saturated nor swarming with professional industry gossips, Seattle seems strategically safe and culturally congenial.
“I kept telling them that this was the perfect town to do a tryout in,” says David Armstrong, producing artistic director of the 5th Avenue Theater, where “Hairspray” spent 10 weeks getting its act together.
“What a tryout musical needs is an audience you can collaborate with. Not only do we have numbers,” he says of his 25,000-subscription nonprofit house, “but we also have a very sophisticated, theater-savvy, theater-loving audience here in Seattle.”
The city is also a bustling theater center, with a history that goes back to the Klondike days, when early theatrical producers gave the saloons and brothels a run for their money with lusty stage productions of Shakespeare.
Nowadays, besides the 2,200-seat 5th Avenue — a gilded Chinese palace modeled after Beijing’s Imperial Palace and built in 1926 as a vaudeville house and silent-movie showplace — Seattle is home to a major roadshow house, the 3,000-seat Paramount, established nonprofit theaters like Seattle Rep, the Intiman, ART and the Empty Space, as well as dozens of fringe theaters. All of which translates into receptive audiences, a local workforce of skilled stage actors, writers, directors and tech talent — and lower wage scales.
Given the booster job that “Hairspray” has done for Seattle, it’s only natural that people should be mulling over the city’s selling points.
“First you have to consider the economics,” points out Alan Wasser, general manager of “Les Miz” and “Phantom.” “Increasingly, it’s getting too expensive to do tryouts in traditional cities like Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington and Toronto due to a combination of bigger advertising and other costs and stagehands’ rates.”
On the other hand, he says, “One key purpose of an out-of-town tryout is to get the reaction of an audience whose responses are reliable — and that can be tricky.” In his view, there are no more reliable audiences than seasoned theatergoers in traditional tryout towns, “because their expectations are realistic. They fully understand that what they are seeing is a show that is still in development.”
The polished shows produced by regional houses and Broadway touring companies can color expectations about a big musical in the messy birth process.
“There are certain cities,” he says, tactfully, “where you might have a misleading reaction.”