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On the (rough) road

Election distractions, sliding sales made road biz bumpy

CHICAGO — Despite all those optimistic press releases and reports about Broadway’s banner 2004, those who run the road just suffered through a terrible end to the year. Shows underperformed all over the country; even hits like “The Producers” had some mighty tough weeks. Single-ticket buyers vamoosed. And, in some cases, jobs at the agencies and venues themselves were suddenly on the line at the end of the year.

“It was like a nuclear winter,” says Lyn Singleton, chief executive of Rhode Island’s Providence Performing Arts Center and a booker at venues nationwide. “We might as well have all turned off the lights and gone home.”

What happened? Plenty of bad things.

For starters, you can blame George W. Bush. Along with John Kerry and the cable punditry yakking into the night.

“The election just sucked away all the energy,” says Mike Isaacson, who runs the Fabulous Fox series in St. Louis.

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But election-oriented problems weren’t limited to distracting the audience. In states where red America and blue America were fighting it out, it was virtually impossible to buy any advertising time. During elections, local affiliates tend to void any and all trade agreements — and other special deals — with local road venues. Thus any and all time comes at book rate. And that’s if you can get it.

“A lot of our advertising got bumped,” says Stephen Lindsay of the Road Company, who was trying to push shows in Florida during the political blitz. In general, he says, “The midrange shows got hurt and the smaller shows got buried.”

This happens every four years, of course. But road insiders argue it was worse than ever this year. That’s partly due to the unusual intensity of the campaign, but it’s also a reflection of the road’s increased reliance on single-ticket sales. Even four years ago, subscriber numbers (cultivated in the spring) could cushion the blow. In 2004, nudging the day-of-performance types is more important than ever.

Available product also was an issue. Two new road-only tours — “Scrooge” and “On the Record” both had it rough. The Disney tuner got mixed reviews across the country and tended to confuse family and adult markets. Meanwhile, the Richard Chamberlain tour set out too early in the year for anyone to be in the holiday mood. That hurt cash flow. By its second market, there were reports of actors worrying about whether their paychecks were any good.

In a lot of midrange markets, there were a lot of revivals — very few of which proved able to consistently beat $500,000 in a week. Despite much critical admiration, “The King and I” was softer than expected.

“We don’t pay enough attention anymore to how long it has been since these titles were in the market,” Singleton says. “This fall, there were too many of them, too soon.”

But things are looking up.

In a few weeks, a potential blockbuster called “Wicked” starts its national trek. By now, there’s no question whatsoever that Broadway crix and pundits seriously — massively — underestimated the fantasy tuner’s colossal and enduring popular appeal.

“In New York, everybody was so busy arguing about how successful a musical it was, they all forgot to notice it was a very successful show,” Isaacson says. “It manages to completely transport audience members to a different world.”

In these days of pastiche, few shows even attempt to do that, let alone succeed. Thus “Wicked,” which starts in Toronto (a town desperate for a show that can actually sell tix), already is selling massively. In Chi, where the show plays seven weeks in the spring, local sources say tix already are about 80%-85% sold. By opening, the tuner is expected to go virtually clean.

Conventional wisdom has the show drastically underbooked at only six or seven weeks in major centers like Chi, L.A. and San Francisco. Producer David Stone claims to like it that way. “We can always come back,” he says.

Meanwhile, ever-optimistic presenters can see the future lining up nicely from the spring slate of generally road-friendly new Broadway tuners.

Sharp eyes already have spotted a fascinating above-the-credits duo on the Broadway-bound “Spamalot.” The list of producers includes both the Independent Presenters Network and Clear Channel, typically arch rivals.

What does that mean? Sources say it means an open, market-by-market contest that allows the show to benefit from a bidding war. No one yet knows who will be booking the show on the road. And since “Spamalot” looks like the Holy Grail for 2006-07, that’s gonna be very interesting.

It’s generally thought that the familiar title “Little Women” will have a road life, assuming it doesn’t crash and burn entirely. Ditto Elvis songbook tuner “All Shook Up,” a piece tailored for the hinterlands. “Sweet Charity” shows some promise — depending on the name attached. And there’s already enthusiasm for “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” regarded as a decent chance for a hit. Come fall, Julie Andrews (a blue-chipper if ever there was one) will be pushing her production of “The Boyfriend.”

“This show is her baby,” says Lindsay, who’s selling it. “She’ll be showing up in major markets.”

Presenters like the sound of that. And thus optimism springs eternal. Moreover, in 2005, George W. Bush won’t be debating anyone.