'Boheme,' 'Poetry' hoping to score on the road

While the hale and hearty “Hairspray!” will undoubtedly march from sellout to sellout this season, some of the other road shows are likely to huff and puff their way to profits.

Their producers are hopeful, however, citing differences between road and Broadway auds. And they are finding creative ways to keep costs down as they seek to expose their shows to more people regardless of risk.

Broadway mavericks “La Boheme” and “Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam” didn’t recoup their costs despite raves and Tonys, but their producers were planning on touring even before the first Broadway receipts were in.

“The thing for me is to give this art form a chance to flourish, to water a good seed in our culture,” says producer Russell Simmons. “I can afford it and I think it’s important.”

“Jam’s” North American tour, which begins Oct. 2 in Richmond, Va., will play just a few performances in each city, usually with a local educational component. Arizona State U.’s Gammage Auditorium will host a lecture by Simmons on Feb. 11, followed by four shows in two days, including two high school student matinees priced at $2 a ticket.

Dash for tix

To help “Jam” stay afloat, Simmons is exploring possible foundation grants and corporate sponsorships. In addition, Atria Books recently published the hardcover “Def Poetry Jam on Broadway,” which will promote the tour and vice versa.

“La Boheme” will proceed at a more relaxed pace, since three unwieldy sets require a week to load in (most shows take 16 hours) and reblocking its enormous cast on an unfamiliar stage takes another week. The Baz Luhrmann-helmed opera will perform just two to four runs a year in major U.S. and international cities for six to 12 weeks, with plenty of prep time in between. Its first stop, at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles Jan. 9-March 7, will be typical.

“Knowing people only have nine weeks to see it, it’ll be a dash for tickets,” says producer Kevin McCollum. “It’s an event, and like so many things that are event status, we’re here for a set amount of time and then we’re done.”

Producers perhaps learned from the Broadway run’s tentpolelike B.O., which bolted to $1,013,000 its fourth week after opening, before rapidly declining and spending the final 17 weeks around its breakeven point of $600,000.

As with the Ahmanson stop, the Broadway producers will license Luhrmann’s production to a local presenter, who will produce and capitalize the individual run. In this arrangement, the presenter takes much of the risk but can cut costs by using local performers, choruses, technicians and equipment, and by inviting a local opera company to put “Boheme” on its subscription series or lend its venue.

Tour will conveniently use the show’s original set, which after L.A. will move to London for a 20-week run beginning in late May.

Lower-profile shows are also finding ways to spread cross-country while minimizing costs. Pasadena Playhouse a.d. Sheldon Epps hopes to bring Matthew Barber’s play “Enchanted April” to four to eight regional nonprofits, beginning with the Playhouse’s run from April 23 to May 30.

“It’s a way to give life particularly to straight plays in smaller, more intimate theaters than the big road houses,” Epps says.

He is negotiating with San Jose Repertory, Arizona Theater Co., Coconut Grove Playhouse and the Intiman Theater to join his consortium, which will split pre-production costs, allowing for more elaborate sets and costumes, and a longer rehearsal period.

For “Say Goodnight Gracie,” which didn’t recoup despite 363 Broadway performances, Gotham was just another tour stop. Rupert Holmes’ one-man play about George Burns closed at the Helen Hayes on Aug. 24 and jumped right to Hartford Stage on Sept. 2 to begin a 26-city jaunt.

“To me this was always a show that would do better on tour than on Broadway” since Gotham usually frowns on lighter fare, says producer Bill Franzblau, who used the unexpectedly high Broadway revenues to capitalize the tour.

Another show whose gentle charm perhaps makes it better suited for the road is “A Year With Frog and Toad,” which Jeffrey Finn has licensed for next season.

And though talk of touring the critic-razed tuner “Urban Cowboy” might provoke titters in Gotham, Ken Gentry of Networks Presentations is talking to local presenters and “Cowboy’s” Broadway producer Chase Mishkin to gauge interest in a 2004-05 road venture.

“It may have more appeal to people in the heartlands and the country than it may have to the New York critics,” Gentry says.

If anyone can put “Cowboy” back in the saddle it’s Gentry, who took Broadway flops “State Fair,” “Victor/Victoria,” “The Civil War” and “Seussical” and turned each into a long-running tour.

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