Down Under has become B'way's testing ground

SYDNEY — Forget Chicago, Edinburgh or San Francisco, Australia is the new favorite tryout destination among musicals producers before taking the big gamble on Broadway.

The Jacobsen family’s “Dirty Dancing” stage version of the 1987 pic is the most recent success story that began in Sydney.

The “dancical” — some crix deny it’s a musical because it contains scant live singing, though it is loaded with impressive dancing — sold 750,000 tix during a 14-month tour of Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Brisbane that began in November 2004.

A German-language production opened in Hamburg March 26 and another production opens Oct. 24 in London’s West End.

“We opened in Hamburg with record advance sales for any show that’s ever (played there),” says Michael Jacobsen, co-producer of Dirty Dancing Intl.

Jacobsen and its mainland European production partner, Stage Entertainment, intend to launch local-language productions in Spain, Holland, France and Italy in 2007. A U.S. launch is slated for next year.

“We’re trying to determine whether we open in Vegas or one of the other cities like Chicago or L.A., as opposed to Broadway. We don’t intend to open there first — we’ll go later,” Jacobsen says.

The advantages of launching a show in Australia are myriad. Although there are no local tax breaks for investing in startup shows and local investors are wary, funds sourced offshore go further in Oz because it is cheaper, with the Aussie dollar worth about 73¢ over the last 12 months. The nation boasts considerable depth of talent, both onstage and off. The local media are generally supportive, and there’s a big enough audience for good shows to give producers boasting rights about B.O. when angling for foreign co-producers.

“Dirty Dancing” cost A$6.5 million ($4.6 million) to launch in Australia, and operating costs for a show of that size are about $358,000 a week.

Jacobsen says the Australian tour averaged 95% capacity and, despite significant costs of transferring between cities, went into profit about three-quarters of the way through the run.

The German production launch cost was E4 million ($4.8 million). The London production, co-produced with Karl Sydow, will cost £3 million ($5.2 million) before opening night. Jacobsen says both productions will incur weekly running costs of half a million in local currency.

Original tuners used to be rare beasts in Oz — two exceptions being the original “The Boy From Oz” (March 1998) and the Jacobsen family’s “Shout! The Legend of the Wild One” (January 2001) about Aussie rocker Johnny O’Keefe.

That tuner was a hit at home, but it didn’t travel because O’Keefe had no profile abroad. “Boy” enjoyed a year on Broadway with Hugh Jackman, who will front an arena-tour return to Oz in August. Producer Robert Fox reports ticket sales totaling $19 million in the first six weeks, but readily credits Jackman with making that tuner a success in the U.S.

The triumph of “Boy” encouraged the Jacobsens to pursue “Dirty Dancing,” which now can claim its own string of imitators.

Producers of the Dusty Springfield biotuner “Dusty” and Judy Garland biotuner “End of the Rainbow” both have ambitions beyond Australia.

“Dusty,” which cost $4.5 million to launch, played 10 weeks in Melbourne before transferring to Sydney in mid-March. The show’s producers will take it abroad if they can.

Producer Dennis Smith tells Variety the pricetag of acquiring rights to the 30 songs featured in the musical was considerable, but it was worthwhile when compared with losing 20%-25% of the gross earned on imported shows.

“End of the Rainbow,” starring Caroline O’Connor, premiered at the quaint Ensemble Theater company in 2005 before impresario Ross Mollison picked it up for an Oz tour.

It’s booked into Sydney’s 1,000-seat Theater Royal for May; expect further dates if tix sell strongly.

The early shuttering in March of John Lennon show “And in the End” stands as a warning, however, that mounting new shows in Australia, or reworking existing ones for an international tour, is not risk-free.

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