Road stuck in the slow lane

Touring shows falter, but biz banks on next season

CHICAGO — Looks like another bump in the road.

Buoyed by premium tix and a relatively healthy slate of populist tuners, Broadway has thrived this season. But the road — its interdependent twin — has continued to slump.

Both the number of playing weeks and the total net receipts showed significant declines in 2005-06, with net receipts down more than 15% from the year before.

And it’s not like 2004-05 was some kind of banner season. In fact, road takings have declined some 30% in the last two years. One more year like this one, and we might see some serious structural consequences.

There’s cautious optimism about the road’s future due to some Tony-lauded fare that’s on the horizon. Some are hopeful that the fresh shows can offset the recent slump that is attributed to one key factor: A lack of shows that hinterland folk actually want to pay good money to see.

The 2005-06 slates around the country suffered from a slew of under-performing shows, including “Little Shop of Horrors,” “Bombay Dreams,” “Little Women” and (both with and without topliner Tommy Tune) “Dr. Dolittle.” Even Broadway hit “Hairspray” had some money-losing weeks: A recent $411,855 at the Fox Theater in St. Louis wasn’t making anyone rich.

“There were a lot of shows out there that were real easy for people to feel indifferent toward,” says Gina Vernaci, who books Broadway for Cleveland’s Playhouse Square Center.

” ‘Little Shop’ was a bloodbath,” says Al Lichtenstein, the Nederlander’s man in Detroit.

In general, few of those B-list titles were able to generate many weeks above the $300,000 mark, which meant they either barely made it out of the water or they cost presenters money.

“It’s fall behind, catch up, fall behind,” says Denver Center Attractions’ Randy Weeks. “I’m looking forward to getting off this rollercoaster.”

Totalling up the number of weeks that shows were on the road, this season saw a drop in the neighborhood of 25%.

There were bright spots, of course. Without the boffo “Wicked,” which had a record-breaking $2-million week in St. Louis back in January, these figures would look even more depressing. Producer David Stone says he has no current plans to close the Chi sit-down, which contributes a steady $1.1 million or more a week to road totals.

And a few of the grand old ladies of the road retain their oomph. “Business for ‘Chicago,’ honestly has never been better,” says road vet Barry Weissler.

Not to mention “The Lion King,” which currently has two companies out on tour, each more than hitting the weekly million-dollar mark.

So what are the prospects for numbers finally to tick upward next season? There’s some persuasive evidence that this is the last year of the current slump.

In 2006-07, there will be at least two companies — some speculate three — of “Wicked” touring, adding to coffers for the entire 52-week season. Presenters are very excited by “Jersey Boys,” bowing in San Francisco in December before heading toward potential $1 million-per multiweek stands in Los Angeles and Chi (Ed Strong of the Dodgers says the routing has yet to be fully worked out). In many minds, the Frankie Valli biotuner has the chance to be another “Wicked” on the road.

And then you’ve got “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” a reliable $900,000-plus per weeker showing up for its first full year in the grosses. Add in the popular (and affordable) “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” and new titles “The Light in the Piazza” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” and you’re talking a lot of fresh shows with a Tony imprimatur — and not so many second-tier revivals.

“I’m not saying you’ll be back to the levels of the mid-1990s,” says Stone. “But the road is going to recover next season.”

There’s also enthusiasm for “The Drowsy Chaperone,” depending on how it does at the Tonys. “That one is too early to call,” says Lichtenstein.

The producers of “Sweeney Todd” say they are planning a 2007-08 tour (no details yet) and “The Color Purple” will be adding to the numbers at the end of next season, when it opens a Chi sit-down at the Cadillac Palace Theater in presenting producer Oprah Winfrey’s hometown (she has the opening night on her schedule).

According to producer Scott Sanders, the Chi company (which bows next April) will remain in the Windy City “as long as it sells tickets.” Translation: It remains to be seen whether this company will become the national tour, or if Sanders will create a third troupe, which it looks like the market will warrant.

In the meantime, presenters are railing against ever-increasing costs. “Our industry sells wholly perishable goods, just like the airline industry,” says Weeks. “And I don’t see a lot of airlines making money.” As Weeks sees it, the road is badly due for some cost realignment.

Other presenters complain that even a straight play like “Doubt” can have a break-even point as high as $350,000-$400,000 when presenters would rather see plays coming in at $275,000-$300,000– considered more do-able at the box-office. And although people like the class of “Piazza,” that heady tuner has a break-even level of around $500,000 per week, which has spooked some presenters. After all, it’s hardly a populist hit. Even “Scoundrels” is regarded as a risky bet, given the cost structure, because it’s going out late and without stars.

Such are the perils of the biz. In suffering Detroit, Lichtenstein has nixed the full-year announcements in favor of rolling out five shows every eight months or so.

Based on this year’s road numbers and titles, at least, asking subscribers to commit to an expensive, full-year slate appears to be too much of a risk. Better to hedge your bets for now — and wait for the better shows to come.

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