Heartland auds flock to familiar shows

Road-only shows find success beyond Gotham

If the stereotype of a road-only show is some non-union, not-for-New-York revival of a creaking Rodgers & Hammerstein tuner, consider the pedigree of “101 Dalmatians,” the new touring attraction from Magic Arts & Entertainment, Troika Entertainment and Luis Alvarez.

A $6.5-million capitalization. An original score from the rock star (and former Styx frontman) Dennis De Young. Direction by Broadway veteran Jerry Zaks. A star turn from Rachel York and numerous live pooches. And although this is very much a show conceived for the road, nobody is scared of playing New York. In fact, “Dalmatians” will play three weeks at the WaMu Theater at Madison Square Garden two-thirds of the way through its 30-week tour.

“If this show was mounted on Broadway, it would cost more than $10 million, given all the costs,” says Magic’s Lee Marshall. “But we’ve designed it to move quickly and fit into road theaters. This was a way to mount a $10 (million) or $15 million show for $7 million. It’s kind of a risk-arbitrage way of mounting a Broadway show.”

Of course, if “101 Dalmatians” does well at the Garden, it may well become a Broadway show. “We could load right into a Broadway theater nine weeks later,” Marshall says.

Another road-only show that might make a similar move is “Little House on the Prairie,” a new touring attraction based on the musical version of the beloved Laura Ingalls Wilder novel that premiered at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and did poorly with critics but sold at a tornadolike pace among the public at large.

Toplined by Melissa Gilbert (who played Laura on the 1970s TV series), the road-only “Little House” is playing this month at the Paper Mill Playhouse and then, according to booker Meredith Blair, has 38 weeks booked through the summer of 2010.

In many ways, “101 Dalmatians” and “Little House” are the epitome of the ideal road-only show in today’s market: They have family appeal — and family-oriented attractions are always in much higher demand on the road than on Broadway; they are both fresh musicals that people can’t see revived at their local theater; they both have at least have a modicum of comforting star power; and, most important of all, people will understand what they are buying.

“People are really cherry-picking what they want to see now. In many cases, they want familiar titles,” says Dan Sher of the newly renamed Big League Prods. Sher is working on “Groovaloo,” which appeals to the younger, more urban end of the road market.

Familiarity is why perennial productions like Networks’ touring “Annie” continues to do well. And — along with a performance from veteran star Topol — it explains why Troika’s “Fiddler on the Roof” still did boffo touring business last season.

But well-known names with a contemporary slant are especially hot. Networks prexy Ken Gentry says he’s working on a new proscenium-tour concept with Blue Man Group that will take that brand across America. “Everybody knows the blue men,” Gentry says. “We’re planning a very high-tech kind of show.”

Everybody also knows the Disney animated classics, which explains why another new, road-only Gentry project is a new non-Equity tour of “Beauty and the Beast.” Gentry says that the original creatives are involved in the project, but doing something unique. “The show is going to have a different look,” Gentry says. “The approach we are taking is that the show is really about being able to see beyond the facade into the heart of things. The plan is for everything physical to follow that theme.”

As bookers like Stephen Lindsay of the Road Co. see it, presenters need a certain number of affordable titles in every subscription season. “Ideally,” he says, “we’re able to provide people with a new title, a high-quality show and a familiar brand. And we try to help them cover the costs on subscription sales alone.”

Lindsay is repping “Rain,” a Beatles-themed show that continues to tour well and, Lindsay says, is doing the kind of numbers that has led to the pondering of some kind of limited Broadway run.