Road biz stays course

Some concerned fewer shows playing longer stands

In a year comprising any number of unpleasant factors likely to knock audiences off their ticket-buying rhythm — most prominently the war in Iraq and the economic doldrums at home — the Broadway road demonstrated impressive resilience in 2002-03.

The cumulative total was $632,859,625, a minuscule 0.4% rise from last year. In the words of League of American Theaters & Producers prexy Jed Bernstein, that’s “pretty good, considering.” Or, as Scott Zeiger of Clear Channel Entertainment puts it, “not a bad year.”

But with total playing weeks down a significant 4.8%, from 938 to 893, the road increasingly is relying on fewer shows to make more money. There’s also some evidence that fewer strong markets are carrying the load for their weaker brethren. And if the road was built on the back of subscription selling, the final weeks of the 2002-03 season offered plenty of evidence that the asphalt is beginning to show its age.

Popular on Variety

In these tough times, hinterland auds want to see only the shows they want to see. They want brand names — mostly new brand names. And they don’t like to commit until — oh, say, noon on the day of a performance. According to the League’s research, subscription sales are down in several markets, but single tix are carrying some of the load. Bookers are finding the same thing.

“We’re relying on single tickets more and more,” says Steven Lindsay of Gotham’s Road Co. “It’s scary to go into the week of a show still needing $100,000 to break even. Often we don’t see the full bounce back until the weekends.”

Still, much of the road’s income this year has come from the resurgence in multiple companies of blockbuster hits — a trend that was big in the early 1990s but had dropped away considerably in the last few years.

Earlier this month in Chicago, Disney kicked off a splendid new production of “The Lion King” (replete with a dazzling star turn as Scar from local thesp Larry Yando). The long-awaited Windy City production gives the mouse a quartet of North American “Lion Kings,” and another touring company that Disney can plod through major markets, even as the previous touring version moves around more quickly.

The Chi gig is expected to roll in $1 million-plus a week from now until January — it’s the longest Chi engagement of a show since the glory days of Garth Drabinsky.

Once their Chi run is up, Disney says, Simba and pals will head for San Francisco, as well as Portland and Seattle.

“Mamma Mia!” also is becoming a multiheaded colossus. In addition to the Toronto sit-down production, there’s a new Vegas company — looking far healthier than a pre-Oscars “Chicago” did in the same Sin City theater — as well as two other road versions, both of which have been doing massive business, even in return engagements.

Just like the “Phantoms” of the glory years, “Mamma Mia Uno” does long stands, while its swifter-footed cousin rolls though the likes of Tucson and Sacramento. Ditto “The Producers,” which soon will have twin tours rolling across the country — and, presumably, training new leads for Broadway.

But the fast rollouts of shows like “The Producers” and, this fall, “Hairspray,” have been detrimental to profit margins. These shows are throwbacks to the mega-tours of a decade ago. Even near-sellouts aren’t returning all that much cash to investors.

“Shows can be branded on a national or even an international basis much quicker these days,” Zeiger says. “There’s a mindset among producers: You have to strike while the iron is hot, otherwise it will be yesterday’s news. But when a show on the road looks exactly like it did on Broadway, it’s very expensive to do. Margins are not what they used to be.”

The real profits this season, then, have come not from the big blockbusters but from shows that have been judiciously reconfigured for better margins.

The object of a controversial concession deal with Actors’ Equity, “42nd Street” has done huge business, turning in at least seven million-dollar-plus weeks, and a stunning $1.5 million in a single week in Boston.

“People appreciated seeing the 50-odd performers,” said L. Glenn Poppleton of Dodger Touring. In many ways, the boffo returns support Equity prexy Alan Eisenberg’s contention — which he reiterated last week — that shows like this should be going out with the standard deal. Given the grosses, that still leaves room for profit.

But Poppleton also notes the boffo returns have meant the actors and some other union members have been doing very nicely on the back end. Either way, it’s evidence that shows done right can find audiences.

Unexpectedly big dough also is flowing from the non-Equity “Miss Saigon” (a stellar title representing an uptick in quality from the typical Big League Theatricals affair), which now has moved into bigger and bigger markets and shows no sign of slowing.

And despite all kinds of bad reviews and casting snafus, “Jesus Christ Superstar” still is turning water into wine all over the place.

“I call them the Father, Son and Holy Ghost,” says presenter Lyn Singleton of the Providence Performing Arts, referring to “Saigon,” “Superstar” and the tireless “Phantom,” which sold some $7 million worth of his tickets for him this past season.

The also-rans

Shows without brand names have not done so well.

Recently, part of Elaine Stritch’s solo stand in Minneapolis was nixed due to poor ticket sales in a town where she’s not a name. Monday and Tuesday night performances were canceled at the last minute.

“Tick, Tick … Boom” has done reasonably well in big cities, but poorly in small markets. The Jonathan Larson tuner vanished from the sked altogether in Nashville and Washington, D.C., after weak sales. “It was very difficult,” says the Dodgers’ Poppleton, “where we were not on subscription.” Overall, says producer Ken Gentry, it was hard to sell a title called “Tick, Tick … Boom” during wartime.

Waiting in the wings

There are four big new titles for the upcoming season: “Thoroughly Modern Millie” (which bows July 15 in Kansas City), “Hairspray” (opening in September in Baltimore), “Urinetown” (June in San Francisco) and “Movin’ Out” (plans not yet clear).

Of the three, “Hairspray” has the longest stands and “Urinetown” has caused the most nail-biting and chronic underbooking, but all three shows look set for multiyear tours.

Gentry’s Networks has the non-Equity version of Cameron Mackintosh’s “Oliver” (opening Nov. 11 in Denver), as well as the non-union first national tour of Trevor Nunn’s “Oklahoma!” (it will be billed as “adapted from the 2002 Broadway version”), opening Dec. 16 in Denver. Presenters seem to have swallowed the unsavory non-union aspect.

“People liked the whole new take of the New York version, so there’s excitement about the tour,” Gentry says. He’s also pushing a non-union “Kiss Me Kate” (which opens Sept. 3 in Detroit).

Come 2004, they’ll be joined by “A Year With Frog and Toad” (which goes out in September 2004 under a plan to sell the piece as a family musical, not merely a kids show), yet another Cathy Rigby “Peter Pan” and a yearlong, pre-Broadway outing for the Queen musical “We Will Rock You.” Gentry also is working on a new project called “Me and Mrs. Jones,” based on the song — the show already was a big hit at the Prince Theater in Philadelphia.

The likes of Chicago will need the shows. The Windy City is gearing up for what looks likely to be a new and competing Broadway season in the Windy City of 2004. Last week, Larry Wilker, former head of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., became the new owner and operator of the historic Chicago Theater, beating out a bid from the Nederlander/Clear Channel partnership known as Broadway in Chicago.

Wilker says he intends to program the theater as a performing arts center. He plans plenty of Broadway at the Chicago (once leased by Disney), in cooperation with Dodger Stage Holdings.

“Competition,” Wilker says, “is a very good thing for the road business.”