Can road uptick be just around the corner?
The death of the road has been greatly exaggerated. So say the folks who mine it for paydirt. New tuners aren’t exactly hitting the country by the bushel-load this season, and producers remain far more cautious than in the road’s boom years. But the 2006-07 marquee shows, “Jersey Boys” and “The Color Purple,” look like healthy hits well engineered for the vicissitudes of folks in the hinterlands.Add in the delayed financial effect of monster road vehicles like “Wicked” (which is opening a new company early next year in Los Angeles and is just now getting to many important markets) and “Spamalot,” and most insiders predict the recently anemic road grosses are set for a very big jump next June. Even presenters — those most demanding of clients — are pretty happy with the state of play. “I’d say there’s a general atmosphere of cautious optimism,” says Mike Isaacson, who runs the Fox Theater in St. Louis. It had the best week in its history earlier this year when “Wicked” came though and sold out the entire beautiful barn. Cautious also is the world the Dodgers are using with respect to “Jersey Boys,” which opens in San Francisco this fall and is being talked about as another “Wicked.” Maybe. “This silly world becomes more speculative and more dangerous as each day passes,” says Michael David of the Dodgers. “In terms of the road, we feel about ‘Jersey Boys’ the way we felt before the La Jolla Playhouse. We really like the show and audiences seem to appreciate it, but we will have to see how it goes.” The Dodger strategy with the tuner is to create what David calls “some tentpoles,” which are getting four-wall deals (with some modifications to give the presenters a piece of the action). Current thinking has the show in San Francisco for the winter and fall before moving to Los Angeles in May (if San Fran underperforms, it could go elsewhere between the two). Due to theater availability, the L.A. run is limited to 15 weeks — and then the boys likely will hit Chicago (the deal is not yet inked). Arriving at the La Salle Bank Theater around this time next year, the show then will sit down for a while — how long remains to be seen. “We’re committed to fulfilling whatever demand makes itself apparent in a responsible way,” says David. That might mean new companies — or the Dodgers may stick with one. Smart betting is on multiples. “We have been running this ‘Camp Jersey Boys,’ ” David says. “We have the people we need in front of the curtain.” Insiders will note the shrewdness of hitting the West Coast markets before there’s any talk of Las Vegas — a town for which this macho musical (with wise guys) seems a natural fit. This way, no one can start talking about exclusives in the way that Wynn did with the upcoming Vegas version of “Spamalot.” Although it opens in producer Oprah Winfrey’s home base of Chi as its Midwest tentpole, “The Color Purple” is planning much the same thing. “We’ve already routed 150 weeks,” says producer Scott Sanders. “And we’re starting to put together national advertising spots.” Sanders sees good indicators for the road in the Broadway demographics: Nearly half the “Purple” ticket buyers are from out of town. “You figure people are spending, say, $500 to fly in and see it on Broadway,” he says. “Now they’ll be able to see the show in their local communities for $75.” In New York, “Purple” has attracted a far higher percentage of black ticket-buyers than any other show in recent history. Sanders, who also has worked in the music biz, knows he has to reach out to the African-American market if the show is going to live up to its potential on the road. That means going beyond the standard presenters’ marketing and PR channels. “We’ve reached a deal with Atlanta Worldwide Touring,” Sanders says. “They’ve given us 150 weeks of guaranteed touring and they have the marketing infrastructure that will allow us to reach the African-Americancommunity. … I want to make sure we reach the people who might not currently be in the local presenters’ databases.” Sander says he’s leaving open the possibility of keeping a company in Chi long-term (as a sit-down twin to “Wicked” playing down the street from the Cadillac Palace Theater) and creating a second troupe for the subsequent road bookings. But no decision on that is likely before early next summer. No slow down for ‘Lion’ Meanwhile, the road’s old standbys are mostly still going strong — even though “Les Miserables” has been axed from the lineup (for now). As two road companies hit smaller markets like Omaha and Austin for the first time, “The Lion King” shows no signs of slowing. “We’ve been doing over $100 million a year for four years in a row,” says David Schrader, the managing director of Disney Theatricals. “And that’s only covering 14 or 15 markets a year, rather than 50.” The tuner did $18 million in a 14-week stand in Philly. The “Avenue Q” tour, delayed because of an exclusive deal with Steve Wynn in Las Vegas, won’t be going out until fall 2007. However, producer Kevin McCollum says it’s possible that a TBA licensed production at a regional nonprofit might precede the actual tour. McCollum’s “The Drowsy Chaperone” has its eye first on London, but it’s expected to tour North America beginning in fall 2007. By recent standards, it’s a pretty solid outlook. “I am a great believer in the marketplace,” McCollum says. “If people aren’t coming on the road, it’s because our shows aren’t good enough. You have to build shows centered on story, not stars, because stars aren’t getting any cheaper.” That’s certainly the case with “The Light in the Piazza,” the Tony-winning tuner that has moved more quickly to the road than most of its peers. Presenters regard “Piazza” as the riskiest new title of the year from a financial perspective; even in major markets, engagements typically run only one or two weeks. But with the likes of “Wicked” to sell subscriptions, there’s room this year for a show that appeals to the higher-end subscriber. “In general, the quality seems to be there this year,” says Isaacson. “The subscription model feels better supported, and we’re confident these shows will satisfy our audiences.”