Road grosses up 50% from last year

CHICAGO — Having dodged the stagehands’ bullet and not yet crowded off the airwaves by Hillary and Huckabee, the road finds itself in a midseason sweet spot. According to Variety figures, midterm receipts are up a whopping 50% from last year’s anemic totals, with the road scoring $390,079,928 through Dec. 16 for the season to date.Thankfully for presenters, the costly stagehands strike remained confined to Broadway shows, despite some threats of extending the walkouts to touring productions.

The reason for the healthy take is mostly more shows — or additional road productions of mainstem hits. Adding to the long-term viability of “The Lion King” — which just went virtually clean with $1.3 million per week during a nine-week stand in Honolulu — were such crucial new additions as the Chi and national touring companies of “Jersey Boys” (both doing capacity business) and the West Coast swing of “The Color Purple,” another solid earner.

“Wicked” continues to snag stratospheric numbers — $1.5 million or more per week wherever capacity allows. And “Monty Python’s Spamalot” has proven more viable on the road than many expected, routinely adding $1 million to the overall weekly take.

“There’s been a flight to quality,” says Lyn Singleton, who runs the Providence Performing Arts Center in Rhode Island. “People might not be buying a new car, but they’re buying tickets to ‘Spamalot.’ ”

Despite its delayed appearance, having favored a commercially unsuccessful Vegas stint over a road run, “Avenue Q” also has been doing quite nicely, while “Mamma Mia!” has kept most of its legs. Both shows routinely score about $800,000 per week.

Although it has varied from market to market, Disney’s well-reviewed “High School Musical” has enjoyed some very big weeks in that same range. Given the show’s modest expectations and relatively low cost, that’s good news.

Interest in the “Sweeney Todd” tour also has shot up, given the exposure of the movie.

With more members of the millionaires’ club out there, people start to grumble if all shows don’t cross that weekly threshold — a rare achievement just a few years ago.

” ‘My Fair Lady’ has been doing very profitable business, with more than half its receipts coming from single-ticket sales,” reports Steve Schnepp of the Broadway Booking Office. “But a million a week is a very hard threshold for a lot of shows to reach.”

That hurdle is more of a challenge in some parts of the country. Several Florida markets report the effects of the sub-prime mortgage crisis. And presenters like Randy Weeks in Denver say they’re keeping a wary eye on the local economy and planning accordingly. “We’re throttling back a little bit,” Weeks says.

In the upcoming political season, presenters know the road will struggle to compete with politicos for high-priced TV time. For that reason, a lot of presenters are booking very light in the fall — and tours are trying to avoid making their debut in the middle of election season.

“Grease,” for example, is staying in the gate until Dec. 1 and “Curtains” has yet to announce any plans for the road.

“People are trying to push their tours later in the season for 08-09,” says booker Stephen Lindsay of the Road Company.

Still, there’s considerable excitement over “Mary Poppins,” slated to debut on the road in Chi in the spring of ’09.

“We’ve found a whole new way to do it for the road,” says Disney Theatrical Prods. prexy Thomas Schumacher, promising that auds will be dazzled coast to coast by Bob Crowley’s new storybook-type house.

All of Disney’s road shows are getting a nice little boost from the national exposure Schumacher is enjoying for his kids’ book, “That’s How the Show Goes On.”

Weeks also argues that the fiscally boffo, capacity-biz tryout in Denver for “The Little Mermaid” augers very well for the road, even if reviews turn out to be mixed. “That brand is unbelievably strong,” Weeks says of “Mermaid.”

Mel Brooks’ brand is strong, too — explaining wide road enthusiasm for “Young Frankenstein,” despite its tepid Gotham reviews.

For sure, presenters are increasingly price-conscious. There has been much kvetching over the cost of “Xanadu,” which was initially offered for a $275,000 plus 10% weekly guarantee, even though many presenters regard the confection as more in the cheaper, “Altar Boyz”-style, special-attraction mode. But now that around $50,000 has been shaved off that guarantee, there should be more takers.

The general feeling also is that “Spring Awakening,” which starts in San Francisco in 2008, has the capacity to generate a lot of road excitement.

“The Drowsy Chaperone,” which last week announced its Broadway closing date, is seen as more of a crap shoot. “Great show, bad title,” says one presenter. “You have to explain it all the time.”

The one play with firm touring plans is “Frost/Nixon,” with unconfirmed reports mentioning Stacy Keach in the role of the former U.S. president.

But despite the astonishing renaissance of the non-musical on Broadway this fall, don’t expect that to translate to the road, where musicals always rule and plays tend to compete for one seasonal slot.

And that ain’t gonna change anytime soon.

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