‘King’ takes royal road to B’Way

Wilson play has hit Pittsburgh, Seattle, Boston, LA, Chi, and D.C.,

NEW YORK – As production costs continue to rise, the pre-Broadway tryout tour has become largely a thing of the past. These days, a show is lucky if it can afford an extra million dollars for a single, brief stand in New Haven or Boston or Chicago.

But one show arriving on Broadway this season has had the benefit of not one, not two, but six full-scaled, lengthy runs before heading to New York: August Wilson’s “King Hedley II,” which opens May 1 at the Virginia Theater. (Doctor-mandated vocal rest for star Brian Stokes Mitchell pushed the date back from the previously announced April 29.)

“King’s” long march to Broadway began a year and a half ago in Pittsburgh, the playwright’s native city and the setting of “Hedley” and several other plays in Wilson’s ambitious cycle chronicling the African-American experience in each decade of the 20th century.

The play was chosen to inaugurate the new home of the Pittsburgh Public Theater. It went on to play prestigious nonprofit theaters in Seattle, Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago and most recently Washington, D.C., as the playwright and director Marion McClinton, who has been shepherding the play all along, continued to refine it.

It’s a modus operandi any playwright would kill for, but it’s unique to Wilson.

The playwright and his producing partner, Ben Mordecai, have enjoyed a collaborative partnership with the nonprofits that stretches back nearly 20 years and embraces many of the playwright’s works in succession. Most of the companies that hosted “Hedley” have shown three, four or even all eight of Wilson’s works to their public.

Barry Grove, exec director of Manhattan Theater Club, one of the show’s Broadway producers, explains, “It’s not a tour. Ben pioneered this idea of a linked series of regional theater productions.”

“Ben Mordecai is a creature of the regional theater and Yale, who’s also tried his wings on Broadway,” says Gordon Davidson, artistic director of Los Angeles’ Center Theater Group. “He was able to devise this system.”

The rationale is artistic as well as economic. Mordecai says, “I feel it is very hard to focus on the work in a commercial environment. When you’re in a commercial environment, it really becomes product. It really represents a major evolution in the nonprofit houses, this willingness to be collaborative, not to focus exclusively on, ‘Let’s premiere this work and move it right to Broadway.’ ”

“Ben controls marketing and promotions. We provide a theater and go to ad meetings,” says Jack Viertel, creative director at Jujamcyn Theaters — the lead New York producer for the $1.5 million Broadway version of “King Hedley.”

Viertel, a longtime Wilson supporter, says, “The journey August Wilson’s plays make is unique in my experience. He’s a poet, and when he writes he’s an automatic writer. The first draft doesn’t even seem to be a play. That emerges as part of the process, in the revisions. The play is quite different in each production. It is finished now.”

In its prior incarnations at the regionals, Wilson’s latest play has proved mostly successful. At the Goodman Theater in Chicago, “Hedley” played to a consistent 94%-95% of capacity. Roche Schulfer, executive director at the Goodman, says , “Our relationship with Wilson goes back to about 1986. We’re the only ones who have done all the plays, from ‘Jitney’ to ‘Ma Rainey.’ They’ve all been tremendous successes.”

But the road has had its rocky spots. “Hedley” has weathered many cast changes in its six-person ensemble, reportedly leaving some actors disgruntled as higher-profile names including Brian Stokes Mitchell and Leslie Uggams have joined the show on its way to Broadway.

And the show’s four-week Kennedy Center engagement was not profitable. The show took in $1 million at the box office out of a gross potential of $1.9 million, averaging $250,000 a week.

“We lost $360,000 on the run,” says Max Woodward, director of theater programs at the Kennedy Center. “It was a very long show, and the length may have deterred some people.”

Wilson’s plays generally “run over three hours,” Woodward adds. “The cast was wonderful, and Brian Stokes Mitchell had a very short rehearsal period. He really is a sensational presence.”

Would the Kennedy Center tackle another Wilson play, in spite of losing money on “Hedley”?

“Absolutely,” says Woodward, indicating the rare prestige and popularity of a playwright presenters are willing to lose money on.