Waiting game puts break on fast tours

Time is on their side as shows look to build the brand

Barely more than six months after its Broadway bow, the first national touring company of Jonathan Larson’s “Rent” opened at Boston’s Shubert Theater in 1996 to the kind of excitement Beantown hadn’t see in years.

Such a rapid transfer from the Great White Way to the road now seems almost inconceivable.

Consider the evidence: “The Drowsy Chaperone” won’t tour until the 2007-08 season. “The Color Purple” will bow its tour in Chi about 18 months after its Broadway opening. “Doubt” is just this season starting to tour, even though the show opened in March 2005. Even “Jersey Boys,” which has moved relatively quickly to the hinterlands, took at least a year to get its act together.

Back in the early 1990s, Cameron Mackintosh was planning the national tour — or, more accurately, tours — even before the previews in Gotham. And there was a lot of talk a decade ago that the new way of doing biz was going to require building, casting and teching two shows at once — and opening both the Broadway and the first national companies virtually simultaneously.

No one talks that way anymore. Producers prefer to take their time. While the world may be moving faster these days, it’s also a lot more expensive, which slows down the process for legit.

“In the case of ‘Rent,’ ” says producer Kevin McCollum, “we were taking a page out of Cameron’s playbook. Plus, Boston was near New York and we’d already hit the cover of Newsweek. So everyone knew what was the show was already. But that was all very unusual.”

These days, conventional wisdom has it that it’s better to take the time to let the Broadway brand develop before making the assumption that people in Des Moines know what they’re buying with a title like, say, “The Drowsy Chaperone.”

“If you really want to tour with a powerhouse hit,” says “Color Purple” producer Scott Sanders, “momentum now takes a long time to build.”

Back in the late 1980s and early ’90s, it was much easier to hustle a show out on the road in fast order; theaters were more willing to rearrange their schedules. Nowadays, road skeds are mapped out like opera companies: Presenters fix dates two or three years ahead of time. A hit that wants to tour the country while the iron is hot might well find itself unable to find the right theaters with the right open weeks.

Another reason for the increased delays is the difficulty of tying down creatives who might have other projects booked that get in the way of working on the tour. Often, producers have to wait until their creatives have a blank page in their calendars.

“You want your tour to be the work of the original creative team and have the right quality,” says McCollum, noting the availability of director Casey Nicholaw as a factor in deciding to launch the “Drowsy” tour a year from now.

In that case, London is coming first.

Producers admit that the cautionary approach has its limitations: Shows can and do go stale. “It’s a very fine line to yesterday’s news,” allows Sanders.

And for all the manic attention paid to getting a good showcase at the Tonys, many shows wait so long that the broadcast is but a distant memory for most hinterland ticket buyers by the time a show’s ducats go on sale.

For the most part (with the possible exception of markets like San Francisco, L.A. and Chi), presenters now accept the reality that shows won’t walk straight from the Tony Awards onto their local stages anymore.

“The diehards who really care about seeing the very latest show hop on a plane to New York,” says Mike Isaacson of the Fox Theater in St. Louis. “That’s fine with us, because they’re the talkers. They tell everyone in St. Louis about the show. And then they come back and see the tour as well.”

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