Reliable titles continue streaks despite recession

CHICAGO — At least the road this year didn’t lead straight to hell.

Late last fall, presenters and producers were fearing infernal scenarios, involving unsold seats, unrenewed subscriptions and truncated or cancelled tours. None of that came to pass.

Variety road box office totals for 2008-09 are $652,233,876, down only about 6% from the boffo 2007-08 season, while subscription renewals, presenters report, are generally on par (or only very slightly down) from last year. And that’s despite the road leading through severally economically melted cities like Detroit and Cleveland.

“I don’t understand it, but I am grateful for it,” says booker David Lindsay of the Road Co.

“The world didn’t end,” echoes Mike Isaacson of Fox Theatricals and the Fox Theater in St. Louis. “I think it ultimately points to the value of what we do. My sense is that instead of buying a new pair of jeans, people made the choice to pay $60 or $65 and come into a beautiful building, get entertainment that means something to them, and sit together as a community.”

For the most part, the traditional road blockbusters like “Jersey Boys” and “The Lion King” continued their boffo ways this season.

Flying in the face of the recession, “Wicked” launched a second national touring company in the spring, following the end of the 3½-year Chicago run in January. The end of the Chi stand allowed the company to travel to hitherto protected Midwestern markets. Almost as soon as it launched, the new tour broke box office records in Appleton, Wis., where it went virtually clean in a multi-week stand.

“Mary Poppins,” which has been doing around $1 million a week during its extended Chicago opening stand, is preparing to move to Cleveland in mid-July, where presenter Gina Vernacci of the Playhouse Square Center says advance business is strong despite the travails of the local economy.

Of course, it wasn’t all roses on the road. Discounts are legion. And many of the big non-profits that form the backbone of the circuit are struggling with a meltdown in philanthropic dollars. “The touring business is fine,” says Randy Weeks, who runs Denver Center Attractions. “The back-end is the problem.”

Consequently, margins are being watched more closely than ever.

Still, all four of this year’s Tony-nominated best musicals are expected to tour, as is score nominee “9 to 5.” And they’re all regarded as viable.

Presenters are, of course, most excited by “Billy Elliot,” which didn’t necessarily fire everyone up after its fall opening but jumped into road blockbuster status immediately following its Tony night domination.

“The producers are looking at multiple scenarios,” says Lindsay, who is booking the show. ” ‘Billy’ will be hitting North America sooner than you think.”

Sit-down engagements are a cert. In an interview with the London Times, director Stephen Daldry said he was working on a Chi production for 2010, but no official announcement has been forthcoming.

Hair-metal jukebox musical “Rock of Ages” also is finalizing plans — one likely scenario is a sit-down in a big music town somewhere in the spring or summer 2010, followed by a traditional tour. Various 1980s rockers may participate — assuming they get an assurance no scenery will fall on their heads — and there is interest on the road in a headlining gig from Constantine Maroulis, replete with his potentially lucrative “American Idol” bonafides in a show that can take advantage of that link better than any other tuner in history.

“9 to 5,” which lands smack in the middle of the most dominant road-audience demographic — middle-age women — will also head out in the fall 2010. Banking on the Dolly Parton factor as well as nostalgia for the movie, the tour’s model will probably be akin to that of “Legally Blonde,” which went out with a simplified set and a guarantee attractive even to brunette presenters.

That leaves “Next to Normal,” obviously the more challenging show for the road. But with three Tonys for the show, producer David Stone reckons he can put together a 30- or 40-week tour in 2010 by focusing on big urban markets with discriminating theatergoers. “It’s not a terribly expensive show,” Stone says. “It’s much bigger emotionally than physically.”

It’s not easy, of course, for the road to benefit from the blue-chip, high-end, star-laden revivals that brought so much attention to Broadway this spring — presidential and otherwise.

“There really are two different businesses,” says Stone, noting that Broadway can split its attention between mass-market entertainment and (to paraphrase Geoffrey Rush) arty French existential fare that critics love. There really is no model for such shows anymore on the star-starved road.

“The last time I had someone sign a glossy was like 15 years ago,” confesses Weeks.

Best play winner “God of Carnage” will go out (and you can guess which name presenters want to see), but don’t look for the likes of “Exit the King.” This inability to deliver upscale plays with attached stars is causing some presenters to lament that producers are leaving money on the table.

Still, the musical revivals have a model. And the Tony nominees are building routings — “West Side Story,” “Hair” and even “Guys and Dolls” are all regarded as viable properties. And presenters are noting that the current Broadway slate is dominated by critically acclaimed shows.

“I can’t remember when we had so many shows with great reviews,” says Charlotte St. Martin, exec director of the Broadway League. “You see the impact of that in the numbers and in the spirit that exists this spring on Broadway and will move to the road.”

Reviews of the road class of 2009, which features “Young Frankenstein” and “Shrek,” were less glowing. Still, those are familiar titles in the hinterlands, which is generally more friendly to family fare like “Shrek.”

And thus, even in these cash-strapped times, the road is feeling well and truly stimulated. Economically speaking.

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