In the old days, there was one road to Broadway, and it was usually on the road. Producers took a new musical out of town, worked out the kinks in the relative privacy of the regions and then moved into New York with visions of Tony Awards dancing in their heads. Or they could give the project a trial run at an Off Broadway theater in advance of the big leagues. They certainly never opened a show cold on Broadway.
But there are signs that the thinking is changing.
In 2011, “The Book of Mormon” opened cold on Broadway — and became the hit of the season, scoring nine Tonys and packing houses to this day. Last year, “Something Rotten!” skipped a tryout to go directly to Broadway, where it earned 10 Tony noms (and one award) and is still running. This season, two of the five contenders in the all-important new musical category — “School of Rock” and “Shuffle Along” — opened cold.
Is the tryout headed for a fade out? Not quite. But talk to producers around town, and it becomes clear that a number of factors — from rising costs to real-estate scarcity — are shifting the calculus of pre-Broadway runs.
“Taking economics out of it, from a purely developmental perspective, I believe that the best way to open a new musical on Broadway is to start somewhere else,” says Joey Parnes, the producer of nominee “Bright Star,” the Steve Martin-Edie Brickell musical that had two out-of-town runs prior to New York. “Now, if you put the money back in: It’s a good question. What makes the most sense?”
In Parnes’ view, his show’s two pre-Broadway runs, one in 2014 at the Old Globe and one last year at the Kennedy Center, afforded creative parties the time, the focus and the experience with audiences to make the show good enough to earn its five Tony nominations. But the Kennedy Center run alone added some $2 million to the show’s capitalization.
“That’s a big difference,” says Parnes of the $11.5 million production. “It was economically difficult to raise that much money. And yet, had we not done Washington, I don’t think the show would be nearly as good as it is.”
Weighing artistic benefits against rising costs, some producers are exploring new ways to spend the money that would otherwise go toward a regional tryout. Case in point: “School of Rock,” which skipped out-of-town in favor of a local developmental workshop and a handful of low-key performances at the Gramercy Theater, a concert venue 20 blocks south of the Broadway box.
That run at the Gramercy cost less than half of the approximately $2 million it would have required to go out of town, according to “School of Rock” executive producer Nina Lannan. But in this case, the decision to stay in New York was prompted as much or more by the creative freedom permitted by the lower-tech concert staging.
“Because of the technology and the advancement of technology, it’s hard to make a change in a fully staged production,” Lannan says. “Even changing a sound cue can take three days. And of course, when a musical is developing, it’s growing and shifting, and you want to have the ability to change things.”
The pared-down run at Gramercy freed up the show’s creators, led by Andrew Lloyd Webber, to tweak and refine at will, rather than grapple with being locked into cumbersome design decisions made and executed weeks prior to getting the show in front of an audience.
In the final Broadway product, the choice to have the onstage desks moved by the show’s young cast members, rather than technology, grew out of that Gramercy run, Lannan says. It also led to a major reimagining of the entire opening sequence.
But what worked for “School of Rock” might not prove the right path for all shows, most producers concede.
Kevin McCollum (“Rent,” “Avenue Q”), for instance, has in recent seasons opened two shows cold on Broadway, “Something Rotten!” and “Motown.” But “Ride the Cyclone,” the new musical to which he’s attached as commercial producer, will play Off Broadway this fall following a successful Chicago premiere.
“Anytime you add a real audience, one that pays, you will learn more about your show,” he says. “Finding the most responsible cost threshold for adding an audience is just responsible producing.”
For “Something Rotten!” and “Motown,” the decisions to open cold were motivated by different factors. For “Motown,” the hefty size of the physical production would have made moving difficult as well as costly, McCollum says. Besides, “Motown” already had a good shot at weathering the competitive New York landscape, thanks to its internationally recognized brand.
On the other hand, “Something Rotten!,” an original musical with no pre-existing source material or big-name star, was all set for a tryout in Seattle — until a prime New York theater opened up.
“We had the right cast, we had the right creative team, and suddenly we had a theater,” McCollum says. “As real estate is getting harder and harder to secure, a bird in the hand is worth going for.”
Other producers, however, remain devoted to going out of town. Take Barry Weissler, whose nominated musical “Waitress” bowed at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., before it moved to Broadway. He’s developed revivals, such as “Gypsy” and “Annie Get Your Gun,” on the road before bringing them in.
“It’s essential,” he says. “The cost is always worth it. You get one chance in this town.” If you don’t nurture the piece , if you don’t sculpt it properly, it’s going to fail.”