Road shows cuts costs, keep pizzazz

Producers find innovative ways to save money

Make it cheaper, just don’t make it smaller.

Touring Broadway productions have thrived in an economic landscape ravaged by falling stock prices and collapsing banks, but with capitalization funds harder to come by, producers are finding more and more innovative ways to keep costs down and attract newly reticent consumers.

For the road production of “Young Frankenstein,” producer Tom Viertel has an ace up his sleeve. The traveling tuner will open in Providence on Sept. 29 with two of its star attractions intact: Roger Bart (who played Dr. Frederick Frankenstein) and Shuler Hensley (his beloved monster) are signed on to travel with the show at least through January.

“Roger was just really tickled to be back in it,” Viertel says. “There are people in this production we worked with on the touring production of ‘The Producers,’ so it’s a nice mixture of new people and old people.”

People aren’t the only assets Viertel retains from the show’s Rialto production: The tour will also travel with costumes and parts of Robin Wagner’s celebrated set.

With “Dreamgirls,” producer John Breglio had to innovate further: He staged a $6.7 million production of the soul-infused tuner in South Korea. It provided him with two things: a successful run proving the show’s merits to investors, and sets (Wagner again) for the famously opulent musical — built locally and then exported to the U.S. for the tour, which starts Nov. 7 at Gotham’s Apollo Theater.

“I can take the version I had done in Korea and then do it again in the United States with a more modest budget, even though it’ll be a huge production,” Breglio explains.

For “Shrek,” the tour may be its ideal form: “In some cases, presenters I’d talked to feel like the road is on par with Broadway or stronger,” says Dreamworks Theatricals prexy Bill Damaschke. “People are creating memories with their families in town, rather than traveling.”

Next June, “Shrek” will start in Chicago with an eight-week engagement that Damaschke says will sport some tweaks. The biggest change is the dragon. It will be a different creature from the puppet/soul trio on Broadway — “I think we’ve finally gotten it right,” “Shrek” designer Tim Hatley said earlier this year.

Bob Boyett is producing “South Pacific,” Lincoln Center’s staging of the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic. But moving the show offers its own set of challenges: How do you cart around the show’s much-publicized 30-piece orchestra, for example?

Easily solved, it turns out. “Most of these cities have really great orchestras, and everybody knows this stuff — they’ve all played Rodgers & Hammerstein all their lives,” says Boyett. “So we travel with about 12 and the rest are local musicians.” That tour launches Sept. 14 in Chicago.

For Nicholas Howey, it’s the voice, not the instruments. “In the next eight hours, you’re either going to see Frank Sinatra’s image or you’re going to hear the music,” asserts Howey, producer of upcoming Twyla Tharp dance-ical “Come Fly With Me,” which is set to open at Atlanta’s Alliance Theater Sept. 23. Howey says the biggest roadblock he’s facing as a producer is that he’s spoiled for choice — Vegas? New York? Abroad? They all sound good. “It’s a nice problem to have.”

Not everyone claims to have a show that sells itself. “In the Heights” isn’t a revival or an instant licensing bonanza, but producer Jeffrey Seller has some marketing innovations to help encourage local theatergoers to check it out.

“We were helped enormously by ‘In the Heights: Chasing Broadway Dreams,’ which was broadcast on PBS in May,” Seller says. “We’re working with a consultant to seek out more plays at local PBS stations, encouraging them to exercise their right of replay.”

Eric Fellner is producing the very British “Billy Elliot,” hugely successful in London and New York but not necessarily an easy sell in the regions.

Thus, Fellner and his fellow producers are launching the Elton John tuner with a sit-down engagement in Chicago starting March 2010 — giving the show’s rep a chance to spread further before starting a full tour, and putting it in a place where sit-downs have a good track record.

“It’s a different proposition than it would be with a larger brand that you can just whack out there with a lot of marketing muscle,” says Fellner. “Rolling it out across America is a much slower process for us.” More conservative, but potentially just as lucrative — and today, that’s the name of the game.

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