After Tonys, tuners get ready to hit the road

Who doesn’t love an underdog?

It might seem ironic in hindsight, what with all the repeated shout-outs and standing Os, but last fall, that was the situation for this year’s best-musical Tony winner.

“Jersey Boys,” a jukebox tuner about (what else?) scrappy little guys who go on to make it big, arrived on the Broadway scene just as producers seemed ready to pull the plug on the troubled genre.

Not only did the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons defy a tottering trend, building momentum over the course of this season, but the show also fended off the likes of Oprah Winfrey-backed “The Color Purple,” New Line-produced “The Wedding Singer” and “The Drowsy Chaperone,” a Canuck import that nipped at its heels up until the moment when the final Tony was announced June 11.

The win confirmed what auds had been cheering for months — the show is an undeniable hit.

The producers and creatives behind “Jersey Boys” have used the awards momentum to build anticipation on the road, both nationally and internationally. Other tuners are similarly turning the Tony attention to their advantage, too — even one that went home empty-handed.

“Jersey” already has lined up the start of a national tour, with a December bow in San Francisco. Bookers are firming up subsequent stops. Beyond that, “we’ll play London, but we’re not sure where yet,” says producer Michael David of Dodger Theatricals. “And we’ve been talking on and off with the Dutch” — i.e., former biz partner Stage Entertainment — about other international prospects.

Director Des McAnuff (a.d. of La Jolla Playhouse, where the production began) has hinted at his interest in taking the hit show to Australia and in working on a film adaptation. Since it opened on Broadway in November, “Jersey Boys” has grossed $30.5 million and has racked up a $25 million advance.

“I think people come expecting to love the music, but then they get wrapped up in the story,” McAnuff says when asked to try to explain the tuner’s broad appeal.

Since hitting Broadway, the show, which wrapped an impressive $622,000 the day after the Tonys,has built into a B.O. bonanza, recently rising into the ranks of productions that habitually top $1 million per week.

A visit to the show on June 13 — the first perf after its Tony win for best musical, as well as trophies for lead actor John Lloyd Young and featured actor Christian Hoff — made clear that auds have embraced the spirit of the rags-to-riches tale about a bunch of ordinary guys from a blue-collar neighborhood.

Applause reached curtain-call levels throughout the show after hits like “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” while the finale’s standing ovation from the packed house was as instantaneous and unanimous as any Broadway show could hope for. Even folks with walking canes jumped up.

The musical’s themes of family, friendship and loyalty and the deep connection of its unpretentious characters to their roots stand to bolster its appeal across the U.S. — red states and blue.

Like “Jersey,” “The Color Purple,” which scored a single Tony for lead actress LaChanze, has emerged as one of the season’s big moneymakers, and a national tour is already set to begin in Chi in April 2007.

Both “Jersey” and “Purple” have the benefit of opening in the fall and gathering strong B.O. momentum over the course of the season.

On the other hand, the strongest competish for “Jersey,” “The Drowsy Chaperone” (which took home five awards including book, music and featured actress Beth Leavel), came late to the table — it opened May 1 — and certainly benefited from the accumulating buzz of the Tony ramp-up.

Thanks to its five wins, plus a segment that aired during the first half-hour of the telecast, “Drowsy” saw wraps shoot up to $700,000, four times the normal take, the day after the award. No specific tour plans have yet been made, but producer Kevin McCollum is confident the show’s family appeal will help sell it nationally.

The fourth tuner nominee, “The Wedding Singer,” came away without any trophies, but nonetheless got goosed by the Tonys.

The show, which pundits expected to go home empty-handed, cannily planned other national TV appearances for the week leading up to the kudocast, including visits to “Today” and “The Early Show,” to build national profile.

The day after the Tonys, wraps were triple what they usually are, and grosses from that pre-Tony week were up a hearty $170,000.

“It was one of those cases when we didn’t mind being the bridesmaid instead of the bride,” says Mark Kaufman, exec VP of production and theater for New Line, a co-producer of “Singer.”

The “Wedding Singer” tour kicks off September 2007 in Minneapolis.

As for the winner of the tuner revival award, “The Pajama Game,” “It looks very strong that there will be a national tour in 2007-08,” says commercial producer Jeffrey Richards.

A Broadway return, following the end of the Roundabout run June 17, seems less certain, thanks in part to a continued theater logjam at musical houses.

“If you could find me a theater that would be available, I would gladly move into it,” Richards says.

Besides, legit insiders are questioning the viability of bringing the show back to New York without leads Harry Connick Jr. and Kelli O’Hara, who only committed for the limited run. In his Broadway debut, Connick in particular has been a significant draw.

“Sweeney Todd” nabbed Tonys for direction of a musical and orchestrations. But it lost the revival prize to “Pajama,” a shock to many prognosticators.

But producer Richard Frankel isn’t convinced the revival prize would have helped enormously, and the production’s low running cost will help extend its life at least through year’s end.

“Come next January, we’ll give it some thought,” Frankel says.

Stars Michael Cerveris and Patti LuPone will remain with the show through late fall, with Judy Kaye filling in as Mrs. Lovett during LuPone’s brief vacation. A tour is planned to go out in the 2007-08 season.

Amid all the kudos hubbub, it’s easy to forget that many legiters will tell you that in the long run, Tonys don’t sell tickets. But the bump in visibility can still get the ball rolling for a long-term lifespan or energize sluggish sales.

As Kaufman, a producer of “Wedding Singer,” says: “I feel like somebody just pushed us over the hill.”

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