Theater producers hope smaller shows deliver

CHICAGO — With recession-ravaged roadshows madly cutting midseason costs, the smaller shows that make up the backbone of the legit touring biz are desperately trying to figure out how to turn a crippling downturn into an opportunity.

Beyond the top-tier road earners such as “The Lion King,” “Wicked” and “Jersey Boys” lies a crop of smaller roadshows that come with a more recession-friendly pricetag. Along with seasoned travelers “Avenue Q” and “Sweeney Todd” are relatively new offerings like “Spring Awakening,” “Xanadu” and “Frost/Nixon.”Clearly, this isn’t a great time to be saddled with high costs. The touring production of “Avenue Q,” for example, managed to gross only a near-to-the-bone $376,889 in Detroit — where there is some tough car trouble, you may have heard — during the week before Thanksgiving.

“We did worse than my worst-case scenario,” said Al Lichtenstein, who runs Broadway in Detroit for the Nederlander Organization. “We got hit with, ‘Oh my God, the market just collapsed.’ “

Lichtenstein, a savvy and skilled presenter, is fighting hard against the rough economy with new parking packages, better patron amenities, aggressive discounting and heavy marketing.

“I don’t even talk about the recession,” he says. “We just go ahead and work harder.”

A bailout of Detroit could help. “People will at least be able to afford a Christmas tree this year,” Lichtenstein jokes.

In Grand Rapids, Mich., things are worse — pre-election stands of both “Avenue Q” and “Sweeney Todd” went down the toilet, leading to some wrangling over fees and receipts. And last week in San Jose, Calif., the American Musical Theater, a longtime road presenter, declared Chapter 7 bankruptcy. In the middle of its season.

Thankfully for the legit biz, most presenting organizations aren’t in as bad shape as that. Many of them are cushioned by civic pride and nonprofit status. Still, if the subscription base — sans significant single-ticket sales — is all a show can muster in markets reeling from the economic downturn, then tours with a lower weekly guarantee should logically find themselves more in demand.

“There are a large number of presenters out there who are having to take a serious look at what they can afford right now,” says Stephen Lindsay, who reps many of these shows through the Road Company. “If they’re doing some of the blockbusters this season, then they have to offset those costs with some less-expensive shows.”

While the road offers presenters scads of shows bookable for fees of less than $200,000 per week, that isn’t much use if nobody’s heard of the title.

In a recession, people want risk-free comfort food. That does not exactly describe, say, the John Doyle revival of “Sweeney Todd,” the adolescent angst of “Spring Awakening” or the campy pop-culture spoofery of “Xanadu,” though the latter (which kicked off its six-month tour at La Jolla Playhouse this month) at least has the benefit of being an upbeat antidote to economic blues.

“Familiarity is real important right now,” says producer Ken Gentry, of Networks Prods., noting that grosses in some markets are off as much as 20% from a year ago. “Serious shows are not performing like they did before the bad economic news came out.”

The most profitable numbers are being logged by such titles as “Rain — A Beatles Experience” and Gentry’s indomitable tour of “Annie,” which have built-in name recognition.

“Dirty Dancing,” which keeps itself firmly rooted to the beloved movie, has already pulled in $10 million in Chicago this fall, despite critical pans. Those results point to robust road prospects ahead. Similar brand recognition should help the Nederlander’s road rollout of “Grease,” which has just kicked off a two-years-plus schedule.

The arrival of the movie version of “Frost/Nixon” has come not a moment too soon for the artistically stellar first national tour of the Peter Morgan play, which has been doing less-than-great business this fall. “Frost/Nixon” gambled that it could capitalize on renewed political interest and went out on the road at the height of Obama and Palin fever.

But it didn’t work out that way.  Despite good reviews, the show suffered from a lack of visibility among hinterland audiences, and in some burgs, found itself swimming in way-too-large houses. The deepening recession further emptied seats.

Laura Matalan, who markets the show for Allied Live says business is picking up now that David Frost and the actors from the movie are making the media rounds. “We’re seeing more awareness of the play now,” she says. “We’re working as hard as we can to build the synergy.”

Matalan adds that “Spring Awakening” is doing decent business in major markets where there is familiarity with the Tony-winning title and an ability to reach younger auds. The show also does better where it can play long enough to have an impact. She says business is softer in smaller cities where the title needs selling.

One of the great paradoxes of the legit biz is that you have to keep costs in check without it looking like you’re keeping costs in check. Take the dilemma Gentry has with the upcoming tour of Bartlett Sher’s revival of “South Pacific.”

Presenters will balk if the show costs too much, but unless Gentry delivers a reasonable facsimile of the expansive opulence of the Lincoln Center Theater original, nobody will want to see the show. Gentry and his creatives are locked away in a room trying to figure out how to stage an operatic production of a colossal American musical in the middle of a recession.

Gentry says the current plan calls for 23 musicians in the pit — far more than most touring shows.

“I think we can deliver the steak,” Gentry says. “We’re still trying to figure out how to deliver the sizzle.”

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