Brief tour stops add up to bigger financials

If there’s a “Wicked”- or “Jersey Boys”-size road blockbuster in the wings, producers and their bookers are taking a wait-and-see approach. Even a potential behemoth like Disney’s “Mary Poppins,” which kicks off its national tour in March 2009, does not plan a sit-down production for the road. And more significant, its longest engagement clocks in at 13 weeks, in Chicago, the tour’s first city, followed by much shorter stays in St. Louis, Cleveland and Los Angeles.

“We’re being a little conservative and not stretching it out to the max,” says Disney Theatrical’s marketing director, David Schrader. “The way we book is we learn the appetite before we lock into the second season.”

It’s an approach that worked for “Wicked,” which initially went out on the road with a series of short engagements, as opposed to the longer stints that ultimately hurt its predecessors “Hairspray” and “The Producers.”

Speaking of lessons learned, “The Producers” producer Robert F.X. Sillerman will put out a leaner tour of his sophomore effort, “Young Frankenstein,” which goes out in fall 2009. “The life blood of the road is the subscription market business,” he says. “With ‘Young Frankenstein,’ most engagements are two to four weeks. Very few are six weeks.”

Extended stays? Sit-down productions? Wait till a tour’s second season.

“It’s easier to come back,” Fox Theatricals’ Mike Isaacson says of booking a tour’s second season.

With the “Legally Blonde” tour, which kicked off Sept. 21 in Providence, R.I., “we’ve booked very tightly, playing subscription markets on subscription series,” says Isaacson. “It is lessons learned from the last couple of seasons. What we’ve seen on the road is that if shows booked a week or two past subscription, it didn’t help the financials. Putting pressure on demand helps every show.”

Short runs create that pressure. According to On the Road Booking prexy Simma Levine, who handles the current “Spring Awakening” tour, the consumer has gotten savvy, developing a why-subscribe attitude. “People realized that they didn’t have to subscribe if shows were running two or three weeks beyond the subscription,” says Levine. Presenters have responded by giving theatergoers a good reason to subscribe: much shorter runs, with no perfs booked beyond the subscription series.

It’s a lean, if not mean, world out there in tour land. Traditionally, 15% of all road grosses come from just three shows. Thanks to “Wicked,” “The Lion King” and “Jersey Boys,” that percentage more than doubled in 2007-08 and could approach, according to some producers and bookers, nearly 50% in the current season. Translation: more shows vying for less of the pie.

Three new tours are being watched especially closely.

“Xanadu,” after a short stint at La Jolla Playhouse in November-December, moves east to Chi’s Drury Lane Theater for that rare sit-down engagement, beginning Jan. 16. The show will rely on the Broadway in Chicago subscription series. “It will keep us running eight to nine weeks,” producer Rob Ahrens says of the BIC series.

“Chicago is rapidly becoming a theater-destination market,” says BIC vice president Eileen LeCario. Not only have the big three — “Wicked,” “The Lion King” and “Jersey Boys” — enjoyed long runs there, but “The Color Purple” recently concluded a six-month run.

Ahrens promises that “Xanadu” will hit the road in fall 2009.

Jeffrey Richards gives the same kickoff frame for his “August: Osage County” tour. Plays are a rarity on the road, but the “August” producer looks to replicate the good fortune of another recent play. “It can be similar to the success of ’12 Angry Men’ on the road,” he says. “The Booking Group has booked 40 weeks, and we’re hoping to go out for a second season.”

The more immediate and bigger question is how “Spring Awakening,” which recently opened at San Francisco’s Curran Theater, will fare beyond the Hudson River. Unlike most tuners, it doesn’t have the marketing advantage of being based on a movie. And if the road found “The Producers” too edgy, how will Middle America respond to a story of teen pregnancy, abortion and homosexuality?

“The smart presenters see the fact that this show won eight Tonys,” says Levine.

As for its subject matter, “We’re a different kind of family show,” says Georgiana Young, tour marketing director, who has developed a parents’ guide, available on the tour’s website.

Who knows? In the current sociopolitical climate, in which Bristol Palin and Levi Johnston are stars in the Republican Party, maybe even the right will warm to “Spring Awakening.”

Certainly Levine has tired of presenters telling her, “I don’t know how my subscribers will like it. We’ve got a lot of blue-haired ladies.”

Right now, most tour theaters are booking “Spring Awakening” for one week only. But it’s a start. As one top-of-the-line presenter put it, “My subscriber base is old, but this will bring in a younger audience.”

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