The road enjoys a theater crunch

In an era when a first preview audience disseminates amateur opinions to the world through Internet chatrooms, the out-of-town Broadway tryout seems like an anachronism. Why pay to truck your show all across America if gossip and local reviews will now be almost as widely disseminated in Gotham as if you were playing in Times Square?

Yet this quaint legit tradition is alive and well. In fact, among a small group of resurgent theatrical centers, the competition to snag high-profile pre-Broadway engagements has never been more intense. And that has been changing the notion of the out-of-town tryout as a money pit. In some cases now, these preliminary stands can be profitable.

“A lot of cities,” says Nina Lannan, general manager and producer, “are now willing to make producers some very good deals.”

Take “The Pirate Queen” last season. That ill-fated tuner actually left Chicago last season with money in its pocket. “We feel like we gave the show some financial momentum,” says Broadway in Chicago vice president Eileen LaCario. “It did very well here.”

Similarly, Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” will have sold almost every available ticket to its seven-week pre-Broadway engagement in Denver. “We were 80% sold before the first preview,” says Disney Theatricals’ managing director David Schrader. “We even cut back our marketing because the show was selling on its own.”

According to Schrader, “Mermaid” will be seen by more than 100,000 people in Denver by the time it folds its tent.

For the cities themselves, big pre-Broadway engagements help move subscriptions and also bring cache to downtowns that increasingly sell themselves as cultural hubs. Along with Chicago and Denver, other cities that now aggressively court such shows are Seattle and San Francisco.

“They are very competitive,” says Schrader. “Really, you could just put out a ‘Request for Proposals’ and take bids.”

In general, this group of cities has replaced the more traditional tryout locations like Boston and New Haven, Conn.

According to producer Robert F. X. Sillerman, “Young Frankenstein” narrowed down its choice of tryout venues to three cities with two key criteria: theaters close in size to New York’s Hilton Theater and, as Sillerman puts it, audiences of sufficient size and sophistication “to give you the feedback that you want.”

Sillerman and Mel Brooks ended up choosing from a shortlist of Minneapolis, Chicago and Seattle, which won out. It was partly a matter of timing and theater availability.

“This isn’t a road show,” Sillerman says. “We don’t load in and out in a day. You need the theater for a lot of weeks.”

In busy theater cities like Chicago, where the spaces now are full of long-runners like “Wicked,” availability can be a problem. Venues don’t make as much money during dark weeks as when they also get their percentages of box office. And producers have the tricky task of timing their tryouts so that it fits in the host city’s schedule and matches the availability of the Broadway house.

In the case of “Little Mermaid,” the multivenue Denver Center for the Performing Arts offered Disney its newly restored Opera House, a 2,000-seat palace with a huge backstage area. Since most of Denver’s road shows aren’t booked there, the Opera House also came with the right kind of availability.

Producers clearly are enjoying their new clout, but they still insist the old romantic reason to go out of town hasn’t disappeared.

“With a musical,” Schrader says, “everyone going off on a trip together creates an atmosphere that helps the show.”

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