Road shows suffer spinout

Auds leave midsize shows stranded

CHICAGO — Broadway may be buoyant, but this season’s figures show once again that strong legit biz in New York is failing to translate to the road. With grosses either flatlining or trending downward, frustrated presenters are casting about for solutions.

Book fewer shows? Get into the premium ticket biz? Fight for longer engagements of “Wicked?” Pray for fewer snowstorms? Or presenters could quit “four-walling” the popular shows people actually want to see. Those flat-fee rental deals yield profits for producers but, without much gross participation, are less lucrative for presenting theaters.

Those are all ideas being bandied about in presenter-land after another tough year on the road.

Full season totals are still a week away, but according to Variety’s tallies of reported road grosses for major shows, box office for the past 51 weeks hit $487.5 million, cementing the steady decline of the past few years. For the 2005-06 season, the 51-week total was $521 million. For 2004-05, it was $628 million. And for 2003-04, $711 million, a figure that now looks like a sugar-coated song-and-dance dream to road presenters.”It was hard to get people’s attention,” says Denver Center Attractions chief Randy Weeks of the past year, during which he suffered his way through a couple of debilitating snowstorms. “The mix of shows didn’t always inspire,” echoes Meredith Blair, prexy of the Booking Group.

Ironically, presenters’ usual complaint about lack of product wasn’t a factor this year. There were a slew of shows on offer.

“It seems there are more booking agencies offering more shows than ever,” says Stephen Lindsay of the Road Company. And lack of blockbusters wasn’t the problem either. Shows like “Wicked,” “Mamma Mia!” and “Monty Python’s Spamalot” — members of the million-a-week club — exhibit few signs of slowing down.

“With ‘Mamma Mia!’ we often do better on the third engagement than we did the first two times around,” says Blair. And based on its solid early weeks in a six-month Chicago stand, “The Color Purple” looks as if it can expect a mil or so per week in many urban markets for the next two to three years. The 2006-07 season’s problem, simply put, was the number of midsized shows that underperformed, often to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars per week. Among the titles widely mentioned as not bringing in the pasta is “The Light in the Piazza.”

“That one was tough going in Cleveland,” says Gina Vernaci of Playhouse Square Center, even though she greatly admired the show, as did most presenters and reviewers.

“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” also failed to clean up. “Sweet Charity” often made presenters feel as if they were running a charity themselves. And the acrimonious Joan Collins-Linda Evans catfight vehicle, “Legends,” was a colossal disaster, garnering some of the worst reviews in recent road history and causing initial talk of its eventual arrival on Broadway to quickly evaporate.

For presenters, this was bad news because on paper, these were the shows with potential for hearty biz. And the big hits, mostly, were four-wall deals with the bulk of the revenue flowing back to the producers.

In some markets, it looks as if presenters simply overbought this year, presenting eight or nine shows and “special attractions” when they would have been better off sticking to their usual bill of five or six.

There were some exceptions. Roundabout Theater’s virgin road attraction, “Twelve Angry Men,” was the sleeper hit of the year.

“Touring is a logical extension of the Roundabout’s mission,” says Roundabout artistic director Todd Haimes. And based on weekly grosses, it’s also a profitable extension of that mission. The hung jurors of the trial drama are going into their second year, which, as Blair points out, is most unusual for a play.

John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt,” which just hung up its habits in Philly, also performed very well, especially in major markets, mostly on the back of stellar notices for star Cherry Jones’ Tony-winning turn. Thanks to the marquee value of original cast members Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” did very nicely in major cities, although Turner missed several heavily sold Chi performances. All of that makes Peter Morgan’s “Frost/Nixon,” which plans to tour, an attractive booking.

A variety of new methods are coming on line to maximize potential revenue. Premium tix — the phenom largely responsible for the Broadway uptick of recent seasons — is coming to the road. In Chi, where the theaters are so full of long-running shows that presenting banner Broadway in Chicago is struggling to keep its subscribers happy, premium tix are a big part of the plan for the upcoming stand of “Jersey Boys” this fall.

At weekend perfs, a good chunk of top seats in Chicago are going for at least $150 per. Broadway in Chicago vice president Eileen LaCario says she doesn’t want to see the premiums go as high as Gotham, but, clearly, variable pricing is on the rise.

“We’re putting together a plan,” says Weeks of Denver. “It really doesn’t make sense to have 1,700 main floor tickets all priced the same. There is a group of people who want the best seats and don’t care what they pay. So let them subsidize somebody else.”

For sure, road presenters are figuring out that their subscription-averse patrons are demanding the ability to get a terrific pair five or even two days from the desired performance. And since they are willing to open their wallets, that flexibility could be a win-win.

In general, the road appears bullish on the new season. “Legally Blonde” is regarded as a potential road blockbuster and the most exciting touring title of the season.

“It’s the crown jewel,” says Lindsay. However, there’s some resentment in road-land about the show’s failure to net a Tony nomination for best musical (it scored eight others), with roadsters suspecting fear in the New York community that the collective road vote would give “Legally Blonde” the top prize — not, it appears, an unreasonable fear.

Exciting but tricky in content, “Spring Awakening” appears more likely to sit down in major markets in the short term, but it’s still regarded as a decent prospect. Also promising to be a high-end entry with greater impact on the coasts than in the hinterland, “Grey Gardens” has announced intentions for a U.S. tour following its London engagement next season, again starring Christine Ebersole. And there’s considerable anticipation for the revivals of “A Chorus Line” and (given the new TV exposure from NBC’s reality casting series) “Grease.”

Some newly touring tougher sells from last season, such as “Sweeney Todd” and “The Drowsy Chaperone,” are perceived as viable because they’re not demanding barbarous amounts of money for a booking. And although you might think the controversial road delay would have hurt “Avenue Q” (which reneged on its original tour promise for a commercially unsuccessful Vegas run instead), that’s not thought to be the case in most quarters — especially since the Tony winner has now had a lot more time to build its brand.

Revivals of hoary chestnuts are regarded as officially dead — unless you count the still-solid “Rent” in that category. But the days of trotting out a 1940s-’60s classic adult title and hitting paydirt clearly are over. “That audience seems to have gone away,” says Blair. The revival of “Camelot” with Michael York was by no means a disaster (and continues to tour), but it performed below expectations in many markets.

And while presenters had been drawn into early discussions about a fast tour of “The Pirate Queen,” interest in bookings dwindled after the historical tuner took a critical bath in Gotham. But if deep-pocketed producers Moya Doherty and John McColgan have their way, swashbuckler Grace O’Malley may yet be back.

David Stone, the producer of “Wicked,” says he thinks that a small number of blockbuster shows will form a bigger and bigger percentage of the total road gross in future seasons.

“The big shows did unbelievably well th
is year,” he says.

And, indeed, the figures support his argument. “Wicked” did $58.3 million this season in Chi and $72.2 million on tour. When you add another $25.9 million from the relatively new L.A. staging, that’s pushing a third of this year’s total road take.

All in all, this season’s much-predicted road recovery never happened. But as a Chicago Cubs fan would say, there’s always next year. Especially if “The Color Purple” keeps smelling the roses and “Legally Blonde” turns out to be the next “Wicked.” And by then, the Live Nation road operation should have a new owner, who might have even more ideas.

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