Touring shows stay in the loop

Broadway in Chicago boosts economy

CHICAGO — Numbers-crunchers now confirm what’s pretty obvious to anyone walking past the overstuffed sidewalk surrounding the “Wicked” marquee in downtown Chicago: The growing commercial theater boom is bringing big bucks to the Windy City.

A study conducted by consulting firm Fishkind & Associates and announced at a press conference Jan. 16 with Mayor Richard M. Daley, concludes Broadway in Chicago, the city’s leading commercial presenter, generates more than $635 million in economic activity each year.

Broadway in Chicago, founded in 2000, is a joint venture between Live Nation (formerly Clear Channel) and the Nederlander Organization. The banner owns three theaters in the Loop — LaSalle Bank Theater, the Ford Center for the Performing Arts/Oriental Theater, and the Cadillac Palace Theater. It also presents shows at two more: the Auditorium Theater of Roosevelt U. and the smaller Drury Lane Theater, Water Tower Place.

With five theaters, Broadway in Chicago has managed to accommodate sit-down runs and tours.

The long runs could change the equation for producers, who are starting to look at Chicago like, not so long ago, they dreamed of Las Vegas, as a place where shows could put down roots.

“Wicked” has been playing since June of 2005 and shows no signs of slowing.

“To be honest, we thought it would run 18 months, then we’d spend a year in Los Angeles and six months in San Francisco,” says producer David Stone. But sales stayed so strong that the producers created another road show and kept the show running in Chicago.

Stone is also a producer of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” at Chi’s Drury Lane. Like “Wicked,” the show hit new heights over the holidays. It is due to close March 25, after a solid one-year run.

It remains an open question whether this is a phenomenon due to a couple of hit shows or the tapping of a lasting market. Stone believes it’s the latter. Over 9 million people live in the Chicago metropolitan area, but within a four-to-five-hour drive, that number jumps to more than 20 million.

The most important conclusions of the study demonstrate the evolution of this potential tourist market. Of the 1.5 million annual ticket-buyers to a Broadway in Chicago show, more than 42% traveled to the city from out of state. Of those who came to see the long-running “Wicked” or “Spelling Bee,” 88% said the show was the primary purpose of their visit. Those numbers make Broadway in Chicago the city’s fifth most visited tourist attraction.

There’s some concern about a future theater crunch. “The Color Purple” arrives in April at the Cadillac Palace, and, with presenting producer Oprah Winfrey in Chicago, a long run is on everyone’s mind. That will be followed by “Jersey Boys.”

Broadway in Chicago prexy Lou Raizin downplays the immediate need for new theaters. “Lacking capacity is not always a bad thing,” he says.