Tuner navigates otherwise rocky road

CHICAGO — Like its even bigger namesake in Atlanta, the Fox Theater in St. Louis is a relic of the days when road attractions had a decent chance of selling more than 4,000 seats to a single legit performance. In the current era of declining road biz, that’s generally a laughable proposition.

But in the first week of December, “Wicked” not only sold out all eight performances, it used the theater’s 4,074 capacity to smash the $2 million barrier for a single week’s gross.

“We checked with Disney and so on,” says “Wicked” producer David Stone. “No one else has done $2 million in a week before.”

Indeed not. A weekly Broadway gross in excess of $1 million is cause for celebration. And while higher road capacities mean the likes of Billy Crystal can bring in $1.2 million in a major market like Chi or San Francisco, and “The Lion King” went a couple of hundred thousand higher than that from time to time, $2 million still was a head-turner.

So was the total for three weeks in Missouri: $5.85 million.

And the achievement in St. Louis was all the more remarkable when you consider that a sitdown Chi production of “Wicked” (in a smaller theater) has been up and running for months, routinely selling out and bringing in some $1.2 million a week. (Chi and St. Louis are only about a four-hour drive apart.)

It’s just a pity “Wicked” is an aberration.

In general, the first half of the road season has stuttered along, struggling to survive hurricanes and disasters of both the natural and the self-inflicted, artistic kind. At the end of Week 28 (Dec. 5-11), receipts were down well over 15%. More troubling is the lack of titles on tour — December is seeing around a dozen titles as compared with 20 or more at this time last year.

“It was pretty treacherous out there,” says booker Stephen Lindsay of the Road Company. “There are performing arts venues in the South that are no longer in business. And pretty much everyone south of the Mason-Dixon line got hit in some way.”

Bus-and-truck affairs like “The Will Rogers Follies” ended up with lost dates. So did “Annie.”

So what are the prospects for 2006? Better, says Lyn Singleton, prexy of the Providence Performing Arts Center in R.I. The price of gas is down. Optimism is improving.

“We were on the ledge looking down,” Singleton says. “Now we’re at the table having some dinner.”

As has been the case for several years, some midrange shows with relatively high costs are struggling for profitability. The likes of “Little Shop of Horrors” struggle along making $350,000 a week, costing presenters most of that amount. And one of the fall’s most spectacular casualties was “Dr. Dolittle,” which was pulled off the road for a massive retooling following horrendous reviews and bewildered auds who thought (wrongly) they were getting a family attraction.

The mauled show, which was first developed in Pittsburgh at the struggling Civic Light Opera, will reappear in 2006 with Tommy Tune in complete control.

But there’s no word on if or how the book will change, and the tuner still will have to overcome the aura of being damaged goods.

Even the mighty Mouse’s “Lion King” is slowing — a bit — to 70%-80% capacity. And “Hairspray” has not proven to have huge road legs — its first week in Chi pulled in well under 50% of potential. Both “Chicago” and “Movin’ Out” are much stronger.

In general, presenters say they’re nervous about “Monty Python Spamalot,” regarded as fine for major, Python-loving cities but iffy elsewhere. But thanks to the mighty Oprah Winfrey, presenters are much higher than one might think on “The Color Purple,” which producer Scott Sanders says is “a natural for the road.” A tour is a sure thing.

“I’d book it in a heartbeat,” Singleton says.

Big cities are looking forward to “Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life” in 2007 –presenters regard it as rare chance to deliver to the hinterlands an actual star. Much sooner than that, many will present “Bombay Dreams,” currently slated for some 19 cities and regarded as a solid booking in markets with high ethnic concentrations.

Lindsay says he’s booking “an affordable” version of “Pippin,” the latest title in the ongoing effort by Connecticut’s Goodspeed Opera House to develop tuners for the road that can bring in $350,000-$400,000 per week and still make a profit for all concerned. (Goodspeed currently is touring “The Boy Friend,” directed by Julie Andrews.)

Some markets also are trying to sell an enhanced version of the Off Broadway title “Altar Boyz” in standard road auditoriums with as many as 2,000 seats. That’s a tough sell for a smaller show.

“Wicked,” of course, would have no trouble with that. But there are only so many witches to go around. And aside from “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”: (which is hard to predict on the road), the only other new title on the horizon with the potential to score big in the hinterlands is “Jersey Boys,” a title with a chance like “Movin’ Out” of drawing that all-elusive male ticket buyer.

But although a spokesman says no decisions have been made, rumors are flying about that one. And they contain two dreaded words: Las Vegas.

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