The road looks bumpy

'Producers,' 'Hairspray' slow down at B.O.

CHICAGO — With a total gross just shy of $650 million , this year’s road take slumped 15% from last year’s banner year, pushing touring Broadway back to its weak 2002-03 levels.

Grosses in excess of $700 million — common in the late 1990s — suddenly looked elusive again.

The key reasons?

  • “The Producers” and “Hairspray” — which formed two of the four financial pillars of the 2003-04 season — began to slow down, especially “The Producers” in the spring. And nothing comparable was in place to pick up the slack.

  • Most of the new shows were fiscal slackers.

  • The presidential election sucked all the air out of the market in the fall and snagged all the available TV time, hurting presenters who rely on the boob tube to push their wares.

Detroit’s Al Lichtenstein, who runs touring Broadway for the Nederlanders in the Motor City, ticked off the multitude of 2004-05 road B.O. disappointments: “Evita,” “The King and I,” “On the Record,” “Little Shop of Horrors,” “Big River.”

Not a sell-out in the bunch.

“There were a lot of shows that didn’t do any business for people,” Lichtenstein says. “The problems out there this year were more the weak new shows than the blockbuster shows like ‘Producers’ that may have slipped 5% or 10%.”

“On the Record” was an especially sour experience, given the Disney pedigree and reputation for quality. The general verdict was that auds never figured out what the show was and thus stayed away.

And there was another problem. Due to rights issues, Disney couldn’t use all of the numbers in the show on TV commercials, meaning that it had to resort to talking heads yakking about the show’s pleasures.

“That was a bad idea,” Lichtenstein says.

And this was not a year that could easily stand bad ideas. Especially in swing states like Ohio, which made for rough theatergoing.

“The fall,” says Gina Vernacci of Cleveland’s Playhouse Square Center, “was like sticking your head into a wood chipper.”

There wasn’t much autumnal fun back East, either.

“Last fall,” says Lyn Singleton, who runs the Provincetown Performing Arts Center in Rhode Island, “some of us were thinking of getting into another line of work … There were too many revivals coming too soon. We were in a trough.”

And the good news? The spring was a lot better. Buoyed — and not hurt, as some predicted — by the Hollywood tie-in, “The Phantom of the Opera” proved to have all kinds of new spring in its step and a hefty advertising budget.

And proven shows like the astoundingly resilient “Chicago” and “Movin’ Out” kept turning in monster grosses.

Cathy Rigby also proved to be the new queen of the road, exceeding expectations with her perennial “Peter Pan.” “I wish we had more people like Cathy Rigby,” says Vernacci. “She’s willing to go out, looks terrific on stage and is a delight to work with off stage.” The other reason for 2005-06 optimism is “Wicked,” which has been doing capacity, $1.2 million a week, biz in Chi this spring and, says producer David Stone, looks set to go close to clean in L.A. “We came out on the road too late in the season to have had much of an impact on the figures,” Stone says. “But we will next year.”

Indeed, with a new Chi-based road company bowing within the month, “Wicked” is likely to have a big, positive impact on next year’s returns. The title could do $100 million all by itself.

Still, it’s hard not to guess the presenters’ Holy Grail.

“I call them the double S,” says Singleton of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” both road gold. “We’d all book ’em tomorrow.”

Better be careful Vegas doesn’t get there first.

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