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Bialystocks in bloom worldwide

Complex expansion plans for Broadway's musical megahit

Coming soon to a theater near you: Bialystock and Bloom!

The live ones, that is, though with a half-dozen companies of Broadway’s “The Producers” fanning out across the globe during the next year and a half, you might almost mistake the show for a movie in wide release.

The first national tour kicks off in September, wending its way across the country before sitting down for six months in Los Angeles, where Jason Alexander and Martin Short will take over from Lewis J. Stadlen and Don Stephenson in the lead roles. Shortly after the first company arrives in L.A., a second one opens in Boston. The London bow will take place in September 2003, with a sit-down stand in Toronto (still in the planning stages) planned for the fall, too. Australia will get its own “Producers” company in the first months of 2004, and then there’s Germany. (Ja, Germany!) Further down the line, there is interest from the Netherlands, the Spanish-speaking countries, Scandinavia and Japan.

A sit-down engagement in Kuala Lumpur is not out of the question.

It sounds like an aggressive campaign, but in fact the producers of “The Producers” — for the most part the same mix of general partners as on Broadway, including Mel Brooks, Rocco Landesman, the Frankel-Baruch-Viertel-Routh Group and Clear Channel Entertainment, among others — have been decidedly conservative in planning the first national tour. The stands for the initial nine months of the tour are strikingly short: three weeks in Pittsburgh, three in Cincinnati, a mere two apiece in Seattle and Portland, a radical eight in San Francisco.

There are several reasons for a strategy that seems surprising given the show’s clear blockbuster status.

“We very deliberately decided to underbook rather than overbook,” Landesman says. “For one thing, we’ve never had an experience like this. It’s uncharted territory for us, and we’re feeling our way as we go along.”

Landesman cites Cameron Mackintosh’s savvy road strategy as a prime influence on the planning of the “Producers” rollout. “He wrote the book on taking a megahit on the road and keeping it a megahit for a long time,” Landesman says. A key piece of Mack advice was to leave ’em wanting more. The “Producers” producers were more interested in avoiding the pitfalls others have fallen into — overestimating auds in major cities and leaving presenters disgruntled — than in maximizing their ticket sales the first time out. The plan is to return more than once to cities where interest remains high.

Pursuing this strategy does mean higher costs.

“We very much wanted to keep the engagements short and move from town to town without exhausting the audiences,” explains Tom Viertel. “That dictated a lot of decision making; we spent a lot of money to make these tours mobile. That’s costly when you’re not cutting down the show in any way, and unloading costs will be more over the course of the year. But we believe this will keep the show a hot attraction — as it is on Broadway — and will prolong the life of the show on the road.”

The producing team is adamant that audiences across the country will be getting the same show they’d be seeing on Broadway in terms of production values.

The national companies are costing more than $7 million each. “That’s a lot for a tour, and relative to the New York capitalization,” says Richard Frankel. “In fact, if you subtract the New York-specific costs, they’re pretty near equal.”

Scheduling of the rollout was carefully cantilevered around the plans of the dynamo director-choreographer Susan Stroman. “Stro’s schedule is the single biggest factor in skedding all of this,” Frankel adds. “If it takes longer and costs a little more, that’s OK with us. We’re committed, and Mel and Stro are committed, to maintaining the quality of these productions.”

Capitalization was not a problem: “I get calls constantly about the upcoming productions,” says Steven Baruch. “The initial investors are aboard, but some of the international productions will involve co-producers.”

The Australian production, for example, will be a co-prod with SEL and Gordon Frost. It is skedded to open in February 2004 at the Princess Theater in Melbourne and move to Sydney a year later. In Toronto, David Mirvish will be a partner and the Pantages is the likely venue, although details are still being worked out.

Mirvish himself lobbied the “Producers” producers for a sit-down company, convincing them that 11 weeks in a city that continues to host long-running, high-grossing companies of “Mamma Mia!” and “The Lion King” was insufficient.

London, of course, has become a delicate subject since Henry Goodman, a much-revered British actor, was axed from the Broadway company.

“Henry Goodman is a great actor with a great following, and we’re probably going to have to pay the piper in the press,” Landesman admits. (Indeed, Goodman himself was griping about the incident in the London press last week.) “All we can do is have a great show. The audiences will decide.”

Landesman says they’ll seek to hire British stars for the London production, both for cost reasons and because “there are a lot of great British performers who could fill these roles.” (It also has been reported that original Broadway stars Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick will take up their roles in London for six months starting early next year.)

Are the producers worried about the downbeat economy? When the show opened on Broadway, the stock market was a good 1,500 points higher.

Here, too, the conservative strategy that was mapped out from the very beginning turns out to be peculiarly well-timed. The short-stay strategy could serve to insulate the show from pockets of depressed ticket sales.

But so far, sales look good. “We’re on sale in the first two markets, Cleveland and Pittsburgh, and the sales are through the roof,” says Marc Routh. “The response has been terrific.”

The short-stay strategy does limit — or at least postpone — the potential upside for presenters who are only getting a few weeks of a show they probably could sell for quite a few more. Some disgruntlement is inevitable.

But Lyn Singleton, an independent presenter in Providence, R.I., who won’t get the show until the end of the 2003-04 season — and then for only two weeks — is upbeat.

“Two weeks in this market for that show is a fairly conservative booking,” he says. “But it’s better to leave people looking for tickets than seats looking for people. I’d rather sell out the building for two weeks and bring it back.”

And Beth Williams, prexy of productions at Clear Channel, which is both a producer of the show and a presenter of it in several cities, is bullish on the prospects of the show helping to keep the road on the rise for several seasons.

“We’ve seen an uptick in subscriptions in the first several markets that’s directly attributable, I believe, to the presence of this show,” Williams says. “We expect that it will have a halo effect on other shows, too, across the country.”

Max Bialystock, hapless schmuck producer, as the angel of the Broadway road: There’s a fictive irony to savor.

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