Will shows hit the road?

After 'Avenue Q's' detour to Vegas, producers promise this year's Tony contenders will pound the pavement

To paraphrase an infamous Oscar speech, Broadway producers “really, really love” the road presenters. And wouldn’t you know? This Broadway season, each and every one of the Tony-nommed tuners is “really, really going out” on the road. And that even includes the high-brow “The Light in the Piazza.”

No wonder producers stressed their honesty when showing current wares during the Spring Road Conference (May 10-16) in Gotham.

Last year, road presenters voted their pocketbooks, their support proving instrumental in landing “Avenue Q” the Tony, then cried that the integrity of the awards had been compromised when “Q” quickly dumped them to play Vegas.

It was expected that the tuner’s winning campaign (“Vote Your Heart!”) and aggressive promises (“We’re touring!”) would transform the 2005 awards landscape into a free-for-all battleground of hype and hubris.

Curiously, the drama has remained onstage this season, and anxious producers were really, really careful when pitching presenters at their annual meet-and-greets.

“Actually, it’s been pretty clean,” says road presenter Al Nocciolino, president of NAC Entertainment.

“Everybody is behaving well,” says marketing guru Nancy Coyne. Serino-Coyne’s client was last year’s big surprise loser, “Wicked.”

Ironically, “Wicked” producer David Stone now finds himself holding the “Avenue Q” card with his new tiny tuner, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” In a repeat of last year, some road presenters are saying that, like “Wicked,” the juggernaut “Monty Python’s Spamalot” doesn’t need the Tony.

Whatever the current odds, “Spelling Bee” is definitely not taking the puppet-show route and going to Las Vegas anytime soon. Stone & Co. made that abundantly clear at their lunch on May 12.

In an oblique reference to the issue of “Q” being too small for traditional road venues, “Bee” director James Lapine told the assembled presenters, “We can be adapted to any space.” And to prove it, his cast of nine performed a shortened, pared-down version of the already tech-lite tuner on a small makeshift stage in the drab Hilton meeting room.

Whether “Spelling Bee” translates well for the road’s biggest theaters, Nocciolino doesn’t find it such a problem. “Many complexes have more than one stage today,” he says.

A year ago, the “Avenue Q” people held intime pizza parties designed to assure presenters that the show’s X-rated lyrics could be softened to PG levels. Lapine made a more convincing pitch for the adaptability of “Bee.” “We would encourage each presenter to personalize the show in his own way,” he says, and suggests that the audience volunteer speller portion of the show could include local inside jokes.

Elsewhere at the Road Conference, other Tony-nommed producers also did their best to counteract any “Avenue Q” fallout. “If there was an aggressive element, it was people saying they weren’t going to Las Vegas,” says Pat Halloran, president of the Orpheum Theater in Memphis, Tenn. “That was verbally committed. But it was done tongue-in-cheek, and everybody laughed.”

For example, at the “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” lunch on May 11, producer Marty Bell gave 10 reasons why the show would tour.

“We’re going to have a very aggressive Tony campaign,” Bell told Variety before the presentation. “The press has created a real false sense of the strength of ‘Spamalot.’ ” Out of the 758 Tony voters, he said, each of the four nominated musicals gets “150 votes right off the bat, and it all comes down to the last 158” (85 of the voters are presenters-operators).

But “Spamalot” might have the edge there with its 13 producers, which include the multimembered Independent Presenters Network. Even so, at its May 12 cocktail party, Mike Nichols dazzled and Eric Idle felt the urge to make funny about the show’s unwillingness to play Vegas.

Road presenter Jeff Chelesvig found the reassurance unnecessary. “With Clear Channel and IPN producing it, who ever thought ‘Spamalot’ would do anything but tour?” says the prexy at the Civic Center of Greater Des Moines, (Iowa).

Tom Gabbard heads up the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center in Charlotte, N.C., and has been attending the annual Road Conference for over 12 years. He rejects the Rialto buzz that producers were much more upfront about asking for votes this year, especially regarding their nommed actors.

“We were back to parties that were fundamentally less about the Tonys and much more about getting shows out on the road. This year’s musicals look great. But we’ve been devastated,” he said, referring to lackluster product now playing the road.

And the 2005-06 season out there looks bleak since the expected “Avenue Q” and “Bye Bye Birdie” tours never materialized. Not that Gabbard holds last year’s big Tony winner responsible.

“I’m one of those Tony voters who voted for ‘Wicked’ and thinks ‘Avenue Q’ did the right thing,” he says. “It would have been lost in a big theater.”

Likewise, some presenters find “The Light in the Piazza” too big operatically for their Broadway subscription series, and find it a better fit for the nonprofit world. “It belongs in LORT theaters,” says one road presenter.

If there was any surprise at the 2005 Conference, it came from Lincoln Center Theater, which did not wine-and-dine to promote its “Piazza,” but nonetheless announced a tour, if a tad belatedly.

Indeed, the booker AWA Touring Services had already printed its Road Conference brochure (which included “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” “The Pillowman,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”) when, three days before the confab kickoff, AWA’s Steven Schnepp saw the new Adam Guettel/Craig Lucas musical.

Duly impressed, he contacted LCT, and possibilities immediately started spinning. “We’ll get a tour out at some point. Too early to say when exactly,” says Schnepp.

During Road Conference week, optimism has a way of always taking center stage.

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