Road-only shows rise as profit centers

Touring productions don't need Broadway

Question: Which show did $800,000 in a single week in Fort Worth, Texas, last spring? “Wicked” “Jersey Boys”? “The Lion King”?

Answer: “Tuna Does Vegas.”

Joe Sears and Jaston Williams, who created the long-running “Greater Tuna” brand of small-town spoofs, are poster children for at least one of the reasons that road-only shows are thriving. Some attractions have huge regional appeal.

“The ‘Tuna’ shows have an incredible base in Texas,” says Roland Scahill, who books “Tuna Does Vegas” at the William Morris agency and says only $40,000 was spent in advertising to spark that huge Texan-sized take. “The audience in that state feels very proprietary toward the show.”

“Tuna” is in the midst of a 21-city national tour that’s headed as far north as Cleveland. But Texas remains front and center, for reasons anyone who can read a box office report can understand.

Road-only attractions. like the Beatles-themed show “Rain” or Troika Entertainment’s intensely successful “Jesus Christ Superstar” tour starring Ted Neeley, are also emerging as crucial potential profit centers for presenters squeezed by the terms demanded by the blockbuster titles.

With a larger and larger proportion of road revenue now going to a tiny slate of leading titles, presenters spend a lot of their time stuck in four-wall deals that don’t leave them with much overage. Those titles may score huge grosses, but the presenters don’t see much of the cash.

That’s where those Not for New York shows can come in.

“If a subscription show is costing presenters $175,000 per week and is doing two weeks on a subscription series,” says booker Stephen Lindsay of the Road Co., “then everything that comes in through single tickets is gravy. As long as you are protected on your subscriptions, that’s a formula that works.”

In many cases, Lindsay says, presenters book road-only shows as the final slot in their seasons, once other routings are sorted out. But as long as they can sell their subscription renewals on the back of the blockbuster shows (and they usually can), it makes good sense to round out the slate with something potentially profitable.

Most road-only shows operate under guarantees and come in at less than $300,000 per week — in some cases, substantially less.

“It’s all about whatever fits the slot and the economic model,” Lindsay says. That’s why you’ll see “Rain” and “Superstar” on big-city seasons like the Nederlander Org’s Broadway in Chicago slate.

Furthermore, these tours fill in a huge gap when it comes to family and retro entertainment, which does not always flow directly off Broadway.

Ken Gentry’s Networks is producing a new non-Equity touring production of “The Wizard of Oz” that’s based on a British production (directed by Nigel West) discovered by the company in Southampton, England.

“When it comes to lines from a musical,” says Gentry, “this is the most-quoted title. And we always like to have some family entertainment on our roster.”

Without a Broadway launch, of course, these shows need a strong sense of their own brand — it’s hard to imagine someone touring an entirely new title.

And it’s certainly easier if a producing company like Networks or Troika can find a touring production in the U.K. and bring it across the Pond (Networks did much the same last season with its successful road tour of “My Fair Lady,” another show with U.K. origins). 

“You need some motivating factor for people to know they are getting their money’s worth,” Gentry says. “But when it comes to a title like ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ you have to remember there is always a new generation of people who have never seen it before.”