Season posts substantial gains over prior year

CHICAGO — Broadway might have missed the billion-dollar mark, but road biz crossed that golden threshold.

Despite the sub-prime mortgage crisis and four-buck gas, the 2007-08 road season posted substantial gains over the prior year, bringing home more than $1 billion in revenues. According to figures compiled by the Broadway League, this season’s road take was $1,000,066,000, up about 14% from last year’s $935,000,000.

Road attendance, says League executive director Charlotte St. Martin, climbed by a healthy 8%. Variety figures, which rely on a smaller reporting sample, also show a substantial increase over last year. As in the last few seasons, a small number of blockbuster shows, including “Wicked,” “Jersey Boys,” “The Phantom of the Opera,” “The Lion King” and “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” brought home the vast majority of the road bacon. Such sticky shows are revealing huge long-term power.

“We did ‘Wicked’ in a blizzard,” says Gina Vernaci, vice president of theatricals at the Playhouse Square Center in Cleveland. “Everybody still came.” And come March, “Wicked” will have another company out on the road, ready and willing to play some smaller markets.

“Avenue Q” also performed well this past season, routinely exceeding $750,000 per week and erasing most worries that the infamous Vegas deal, involving the reversal of original plans for a post-Tony tour, would mute interest in the R-rated puppets. “It was great to see all those twenty- and thirtysomethings we don’t usually see in our theater,” says Jeff Chelesvig, exec director of the Civic Center of Des Moines, Iowa.

So is the just-ended season a cause for celebration? In muted form, perhaps. But bigger grosses don’t necessarily mean bigger profits, not when it costs more to gas up the trucks.

“We’ve got to do better,” stresses St. Martin. “We have to find more ways to reduce costs or increase revenues. Profitability continues to be a significant challenge for Equity shows.”

Road crystal-ball gazers don’t love what they see ahead. Aside from the obvious challenges of the recession, or whatever forecasters prefer to call it, the road is also kvetching about a current Broadway season that failed to produce a single blockbuster new musical. And presenters and bookers also are well aware of a potential fall bloodbath, courtesy of the theatrics of John McCain and Barack Obama.

“We are going in that terrifying land of no television buy,” says Stephen Lindsay, co-founder of legit booking agency the Road Company, referencing the problem faced by presenters when local media outlets are filled with political advertising. “The big blockbusters will take care of themselves, but a lot of presenters are programming their riskier shows after Dec. 1.”

It’s certainly true that many shows aren’t rushing out of the starting gate. Even “Grease,” a much-anticipated touring attraction, isn’t going out until after the political season. “We agreed it was best to wait,” Lindsay says.

Scratch the surface of the road biz and you find other worries. Nobody knows whether “Legally Blonde,” one of the marquee titles of the 2008-09 season will perform more like “Wicked” or more like the financially disastrous “Wedding Singer.” (The pre-Broadway tour of the globally proven “Dirty Dancing” is regarded as a much safer bet).

With “Blonde,” much will depend on whether MTV exposure (the show’s replacement lead is being cast via a reality show on the network) provides some bounce. But presenters are being conservative. In Chicago, where “Wicked” will end a 3½-year run in January, “Legally Blonde” was just announced for a piddling three weeks.

And, of course, nobody knows whether the hinterland will take to the edgy “Spring Awakening,” with its sex and teenage angst. But presenters like the Tony-winning show and are willing to take a chance, in part to diversify their auds.

This year’s crop of Broadway titles presents other problems. Take “South Pacific,” the toughest ticket on the Rialto. How on earth, presenters are wondering, will that colossal, operatic production be adapted for the road? And how much will they be asked to pay for it?

“It may be the hottest thing in New York, but on the road without the stars, it could be just another ‘South Pacific’ revival,” says one insider. “People don’t want to spend $350,000 (in guarantees) just to pay for the orchestra.”

Still, counters Steve Schnepp, who is booking the show, “Bartlett Sher has said that much of the show’s strength lies in the casting.” So maybe hinterland auds won’t miss the huge depth of the Lincoln Center. “They need to find a way to retain that lushness,” Chelesvig says.

In some instances, shows may do better on the road than on Broadway. There’s surprisingly widespread enthusiasm around for the critically mauled “Young Frankenstein,” especially since the humbled producers aren’t holding the road to ransom.

And despite similarly tepid response from New York reviewers, “The Little Mermaid” is regarded as a slam dunk, although Disney is first unspooling “Mary Poppins” and hasn’t yet announced road plans for the underwater odyssey.

On the other hand, “In the Heights” will need a good pop from the Tony broadcast to establish a national brand. And unless it roars out of the Tonys with a major kudos haul and a knockout televised number, “Passing Strange” will be a high-risk operation, Stew or no Stew.

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