Road biz survives trying year

Trio of hot performers helps offset post-9/11 doldrums

As the legit road season rolls to a close, the figures seem highly undramatic: Playing weeks are slightly down, the number of touring shows flat and the uptick in grosses not much more than the rate of inflation.

In any other year, it would appear the road was stuck in a holding pattern. But given the horrors of last fall, those numbers are being hailed across the country with a kind of euphoria and relief.

“We got through the year somehow,” says Al Lichtenstein, the Nederlander Organization’s longtime man in Detroit. “It could have been an awful lot worse.”

Back in the fall, when Sept. 11 threatened to cast a long economic shadow, the road biz looked in danger of a lengthy depression. But the recovery came far, far quicker than expected — and, if one takes the season as a whole, the touring slates have shown more financial resilience than Gotham’s weak season.

“It was a remarkable year for our industry,” said Scott Zeigler, who runs the North American operations of road gorilla Clear Channel Entertainment.

“It was exhilarating to see everyone come back and appreciate the theater so much all across the country.”

In actuality, all of the autumnal hand-wringing over the potential changes in American cultural habits after Sept. 11 had little financial effect on the road.

Sure, some shows lost a few performances and saw demand drop away, but that lasted only for one or two months in most markets.

Even then, Rudy Giuliani’s exhortations to get out of the house and go about one’s normal business also stimulated demand in cities far from New York.

“People saw it as a source of civic pride to get their butts out of their houses and get out to see a show,” Zeigler says.

The dropoff in travel may have been beneficial for the road, as citizens canceled trips to Disney World and instead spent the money on advance tix to “The Lion King” scheduled to visit them in 2003-04.

About the only lasting effect of 9/11 is the change in ticket-buying practices.

Given all the uncertainty, ticket buyers waited until the last minute before committing, prompting stories all over the country of shows like “South Pacific” thinking they were going to be washing their hair in an empty bathroom, only to see life-saving day-of-performance wraps.

These practices appear to be here to stay.

“The sales patterns are definitely different now,” Zeigler says. “People still wait on their decisionmaking, and we’re now taking that into account in terms of our advertising.”

“We had to advertise hard,” says Lyn Singleton of the Providence Performing Arts Center in Rhode Island. “There was a lot of clutter out there.”

Of course, folks are ready to commit well ahead when the product is perceived as scarce and hot.

And although “The Lion King” came too late to have a major influence on the season now ending, it’s already pumping subscription renewals.

Last week, the big cat did a total of $1.5 million in a single on-sale day in both Fort Lauderdale and Dallas. The nine-week “Lion King” engagement in Houston, which involved selling some 300,000 tickets, already has gone clean.

And it was the same story in Denver, the market fortunate enough to debut the first tour (the second “Lion King” road company kicks off in Chicago next April).

The year did have its busts.

Buffeted by bad reviews, “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” proved spotty in most markets, and a quiet retooling by director Eric Schaeffer proved insufficient to change perceptions of the show.

Sighs Lichtenstein, “It was what it was. It bit me in the ass.”

Straight plays remain a tough sell.

Despite stellar reviews, “Proof” set few markets on fire. Ditto “Copenhagen.” And the age-old truth that classic tuners need stars still holds good.

“South Pacific” was generally underwhelming — until the Weisslers ponied up for Robert Goulet, thus spiking the weekly grosses at least $100,000 in Detroit.

One of the quiet blockbusters of the 2001-02 season was “Cats,” a show that cleaned up even in major markets like Chicago.

Since the perennial felines now have non-Equity youngsters under all that makeup, costs were low and profits high. This tour was first conceived as strictly second-tier — until it was proven that demand was there in the bigger markets.

And while national Actors’ Equity protests clawed down the grosses of the non-union version of “The Music Man,” the union gave Old Deuteronomy a free pass to the litter box. Ca-ching, to the tune of $750,000 in a single week in Providence.

“We found ‘Cats’ to be a very, very pleasant surprise,” says Brad Broecker, who runs several Midwestern seasons for Clear Channel.

By all accounts, next year’s slate looks good, as long as you’ve got at least one of the three blockbusters — “The Producers,” “Mamma Mia!” and “The Lion King” — to carry the rest of the season.

“Mamma Mia!” proved wrong all those who said Benny and Bjorn were Euro phenoms. Au contraire. It made $1.6 million in the Motor City and $2.4 million in Providence.

“Aida” has been doing nicely, too. “We took in $1.5 million with that show,” Singleton says.

Zeigler says this trio of shows is helping slates across the country snag Baby Boomers, who are buying “Mamma Mia!” because they recall Abba, “Lion King” for their kids and “The Producers” because they grew up on Mel Brooks and they’ve been told it’s the hottest show around.

“We’re desperate trying to ‘youthen’ our subscription buyers,” Zeigler says. “We need high-demand shows to persuade young execs to subscribe, because they’ve not been brought up on that tradition.”

Down the road, of course, “Movin’ Out” (the new Billy Joel-Twyla Tharp collaboration) and “Hairspray” could appease that demo, with “Urinetown” likely skewing even younger and “Thoroughly Modern Millie” taking care of the mainstream family crowd.

If the road can survive the season from hell, the widespread thinking goes, it can handle any challenges Broadway may throw its way.