The witching hour

Presenters follow yellow brick road as 'Wicked' looks to tour

The 2004 Tony winner for musical took its chips and went to Vegas. The Tony winner for revival was a show about presidential assassins — and this is a nervous political year. A hit tuner called “The Boy From Oz” relied for its Broadway legs upon a very particular Aussie, but Hugh Jackman ain’t tourin’, mate. Therefore, neither is the show.

Do the math: This year’s big-show road season pretty much begins and ends with “Wicked.”

In between, there’s a revival of “Little Shop of Horrors” going out. “Fiddler on the Roof” might travel, but Tevye isn’t rushing to the bus any time soon. And there are a few touring-only products out there — most notably a new, tightly wrapped Disney show based around the Mouse’s hefty backlist of popular film ditties.

But that show, “On the Record,” which opens in Cleveland next month, remains an unknown to most presenters. And yet, they booked it without a clear idea what it’s going to be. “Don’t know about that one yet,” confirms Randy Weeks of Denver Center. “Haven’t seen it.”

Overall, the 2004-05 season looks like a tough one all around — especially in the larger markets.

Smaller cities still can hang their hats on blockbusters from earlier years, notably the holy trinity of “The Lion King,” “Mamma Mia!” and “The Producers.” But in a growing number of places where those shows have played out, new pickings are slim for the fall.

“The last season on Broadway was a bit frightening for us,” acknowledges Scott Zeiger, who runs Clear Channel Entertainment and its numerous road operations. “Other than ‘Wicked,’ there really are no other musicals going on tour this year. In a lot of cities, we won’t be able to spike the subscriptions by bringing in the barn-burner.”

How did this happen? You can choose from plenty of reasons.

The much-heralded new road deal between Equity and the producers came too late to have much impact on the fall; if it has any impact at all, it’s likely to be at least a year away. There are plenty of other lucrative options — Vegas, cruise lines, abroad — for hit shows beyond the usual immediate push to the hinterlands. And Broadway’s growing dependence on stars in tuners negatively affects the road when those names don’t want to tour (and usually they don’t).

There’s also the age-old worry about how much “edge” hinterland subscribers are willing to buy.

An initial reluctance from the road was partly — and only partly — what sent “Avenue Q” to Vegas, where they throw money at their worries.

Zeiger says he and his partners at Clear Channel looked very, very closely at a touring production of “Assassins.” “But at the end of the day we could only get five of six markets interested.”

What was lacking on Broadway last season were shows that become self-sustaining brands — a la “Lion King” or “Mamma Mia!” Only “Wicked” comes close.

Ergo, a lot will be riding on its back. Casting hasn’t yet been finalized for the road show — lead Kristen Chenoweth has been offered the gig in a few of the big early cities, but she isn’t likely to sign on.

“Wicked” producer Marc Platt makes it clear: “We have been very blessed with Kristen and (co-star) Idina Menzel on Broadway.” But as he says in the next breath, box office there has remained at 100% with or without the two actresses. “In advertising ‘Wicked,’ we’ve always sold the story and the characters. It has never been about any one element.”

Otherwise, Platt says the road version will be as close to the original as possible. “The footprints, the key magical moments, will be exactly the same.

“We’ll be flying. You can’t do the Wicked Witch without flying. There will be the dragon. Some of the proscenium design (at the Gershwin) will be adjusted and revised in order to be folded up and travel.”

“Wicked” will be traveling the old-fashioned way. Unlike the more current model of mixing smaller markets with longer stands, “Wicked” plans a first-national company playing the likes of Chicago and Los Angeles. First. But not for too long — merely seven or eight weeks.

“A lot of people thought we could do a lot longer in places like L.A.,” says “Wicked” producer David Stone. “But we’d rather sell out for all the performances we are there, and then come back quickly.”

In a happy scenario, the reliance on “Wicked” is a temporary phenomenon that lasts no more than a year. “All Shook Up,” with Elvis Presley songs, “Good Vibrations” (a Beach Boys songbook tuner), the Monty Python spinoff “Spamalot,” the movie-driven “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and “The Color Purple” are coming down the pike this season.

All have broad popular appeal. All don’t seem to need stars. All look like bankers for the road next year. “The material,” notes Eric Idle, who’s penning “Spamalot,” “is our star.”

But except in Chicago –where “Spamalot” and “All Shook Up” are doing pre-Broadway stands — that doesn’t solve anyone’s problems on a road this year that has to run with just one popular new hit. “We will really have to learn to promote this season,” Zeiger says, “very long and very hard.”

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