CHICAGO — After Gary Griffin’s Broadway-bound production of “The Color Purple” closed at the Alliance Theater in Atlanta earlier this year, producer Scott Sanders at Creative Battery was left with a choice.
Clearly, the show needed work, and the Alliance production had been scaled at a relatively modest level. To a large extent, the Broadway version would be a whole new show.
But that wasn’t enough to persuade Sanders to book a theater in Chicago, San Francisco, Boston or any of the other American cities traditionally seen as centers of the de rigueur pre-Broadway tryout.
“I told Gary he could have either a New York workshop or an out-of-town tryout,” Sanders half-jokes, knowing the former choice was the operative one.
And just what was the reason for not taking “The Color Purple” to, say, Chicago (Griffin’s hometown)? Cost, pure and simple. Sanders calculated a stop in the Loop would add “another $2 million or so” to his budget. He did the necessary revisions to the show at the workshop, and now he’s going straight to a December preem on Broadway.
These days, there are as many views on the overall viability of out-of-town tryouts as there are producers. But if you discount arrangements with nonprofits and colleges (still a popular way to get a show off the ground), the trend seems to be moving away from the traditional hinterland stand paid for entirely by the producers.
Aside from ballooning costs, other off-cited reasons include the availability of Web reviews from local critics, the wide dissemination of Broadway chatrooms (which love to gossip about the details of out-of-town snafus) and the general sense that there’s not really any such thing as out-of-town anymore, in the traditional sense of the term, at least. In fact, negative buzz generated at another locale can do a show harm in New York.
Given those risks, the hassles of trying to find a theater to match a Broadway house is probably not worth the hassle. “The Woman in White” axed its Chi tryout (initially announced for fall) to open instead in Gotham.
There’s also the matter of the growing complexity of most new Broadway tuners. Take Disney’s upcoming “Tarzan.” It’s going straight to Broadway even though “The Lion King,” which tried out in Minneapolis, went the familiar route.
Disney Theatricals prexy Thomas Schumacher says the decision was prompted mainly by the complexity of the show, which involves copious amounts of sailing through the air. “We needed to do our work inside the theater,” says Schumacher.
Instead of the out-of-town method, Schumacher is instead “taking a leaf out of the ‘Billy Elliott’ playbook from London” and offering a reduced number of performances during an extended preview period. This will allow for rehearsal and revision between shows.
In the case of a predictable megahit, out-of-town stands don’t have to be money-losers. Even after figuring in transportation, “Monty Python’s Spamalot” and “The Producers” made money in their Chi stands, which pretty much went clean.
“If you’re going out of town, you add an extra million or so in capitalization,” says “Spamalot” producer Bob Boyett. “You have to budget for it. But if it goes well, you come home with money.” And lots of buzz.