On the road, nothing succeeds like one’s former success, whether it be “Wicked,” “The Lion King” or “The Phantom of the Opera.” Presenters and their auds loved those shows not once but often twice or more.
“‘Phantom’ is still important,” says Josh LaBelle, exec director of Seattle Theater Group, which operates two houses, the Paramount and the Moore. “It comes every four to five years, and we’re doing it now.”
And he conceives a similar future for another show that traffics in fantasy, “Wicked,” which sold out the Paramount for two weeks during the 2006-07 season. “If you look at which show’s got the longest tail, it’s smelling like it’s ‘Wicked,’ hands down,” he says.
“Broadway San Diego (a Nederlander subsidiary) just brought in ‘Phantom’ for four weeks,” says Don Telford, prexy of San Diego Theaters, which operates two houses in the city. “And they brought back ‘Cats’ in June for a week. I’m not sure how many times it’s been with us, but it continues to be a major hit. San Diego audiences came out in droves for it.”
Some venerable titles are so potent that a theater’s full calendar can force a successful run’s closure well before saturation. “We just finished having ‘The Lion King’ for the first time,” says Max Woodward, VP at the Kennedy Center. “It was here for nine weeks — we usually do four — and it totally sold out. Had we had the time, it would have stayed longer, but we had Washington Opera coming in.”
“Jersey Boys” is well on its way to becoming one of those perennial faves like “Phantom” and “Lion King.” As Gina Vernaci, VP of Cleveland’s PlayhouseSquare, notes, “In June, we opened a five-week run of ‘Jersey Boys’ and set the worldwide record for single-week gross sales anywhere with that show — $1,883,450 from July 15 to 20 – beyond even Broadway and Vegas. Of course, our largest theater is 3,000 seats, so that’s more seats than on Broadway.”
“Jersey Boys” packs a wallop outside the heartland as well. “Unquestionably our best sales in recent years were for ‘Jersey Boys,'” says Charles Dillingham, managing director of Los Angeles’ Center Theater Group, whose 2,000-seat Ahmanson Theater often hosts Broadway shows on tour. “It’s a gigantic hit and will soon be referred to in the same category as ‘The Phantom of the Opera,’ ‘Les Miz’ and ‘Miss Saigon.'”
Dillingham also cites the new title “The Color Purple” as a big hit at the Ahmanson, where it played for 13 weeks. “Our normal run is six weeks,” he says, “so when a show can play at 80 or 90% capacity for double our normal run, that’s a big hit.”
Another first-time hit is PlayhouseSquare’s initial booking of “The Drowsy Chaperone.” “We sold more single tickets in a week for that show than for any other in our history,” says Vernaci. “In the time the show — the worst title in showbiz — was in town, we did 55% of our single-ticket sales for the show, which for us is unheard of.
“That showed us that because it was a tough title, the world of mouth just shot out of a canon. And that’s not something we often experience. Subscribers are showing up for this, and they don’t know what they’re in for, and they leave with a deeper sense of trust in us.”
Dillingham notes that “Chaperone” did better in its second engagement at the Ahmanson than when it preemed there before going to Broadway. “Yes, actually, on a capacity basis, ‘Drowsy Chaperone’ did better the second time around. It was a shorter run, but on a capacity basis it did better.”
The Kennedy Center had problems with one new title. “‘Little Women’ was a hard sell,” Woodward admits. “You’d have thought it wouldn’t have been.” Like theatergoers everywhere else on the road, the Kennedy Center auds preferred those shows that many of them had already seen before. “‘Wicked’ they were beating down the doors for — totally sold out,” he says. “Both that and ‘The Lion King’ were sold out before we opened. I wish they all could do that.”
A correction was made to this article at 5:40 p.m.