Chi’s broadway bandwagon

A local org with national scope turns 10

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When Broadway in Chicago was created in 2000, some local Chicago politicians with chips on their Second City shoulders weren’t shy about criticizing the appropriation of a Gotham brand. “Why Broadway in Chicago?” asked one cantankerous alderman at the time. “Why not Chicago in Chicago?”

The reason, of course, was that Clear Channel Entertainment was, at the time, pushing “Broadway in” as a national road brand. But 10 years later, those worries have dissipated. Through a combination of presenting savvy, shrewd marketing, the heralding of long runs and careful attention to the needs and neuroses of the community, Broadway in Chicago has been, by any reasonable standards, a roaring success.

“Broadway in Chicago has navigated the theatrical waters of this city beautifully,” says Andrew Alexander, owner of the Second City. “(It) provides a prominent national hub for first-class touring productions while remaining a staunch supporter of local artists and theaters.”

Politicians are now happy to jump on the bandwagon. Both NEA chairman Rocco Landesman and Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley showed up at the anniversary event earlier this summer, heralding the economic benefits of a presenting org that has been worth $5 billion to the Chi economy over its decade of life. Its innovations have been in two main areas: sit-down productions and pre-Broadway tryouts.

“Wicked” ran in Chicago for 3 1/2 years, selling $206 million worth of tickets. “Jersey Boys” played for 2 1/2, reaching some 1.3 million people, nearly half of whom arrived from out of state.

“They like to talk about shows running 40 weeks,” says Stephen Lindsay, prexy of the Road Company. “Other markets don’t talk about that.”

Broadway in Chicago also competes hard for pre-Broadway tryouts, most recently, “The Addams Family.”

“Being able to see a show before Broadway is very important to our audiences,” says prexy Lou Raizin.

Since 2007, when Live Nation sold its share for $60 million, Broadway in Chicago has been owned entirely by the Nederlander Organization and other entities controlled by James M. Nederlander. The presenter owns and operates three large downtown venues: the Cadillac Palace Theater (first restored by Fox Theatricals), the Bank of America Theatre (formerly the Shubert Theatre) and the Oriental Theater (once part of the Garth Drabinsky empire).

Broadway in Chicago also has a pact with the Auditorium Theater (once the favored Chi venue of Cameron Mackintosh) as the exclusive legit presenter in its gilded quarters.

In recent months, Broadway in Chicago has experimented with non-traditional presenting, including this summer’s run of “Fuerza Bruta: Look Up” on the stage of the Auditorium. Results were disappointing at the box office, but Raizin says that the show made inroads with crucial younger auds. Broadway in Chicago also gets involved with local colleges and with the Off-Loop scene, offering marketing help and sponsoring an “emerging theater award” that has helped quiet some of the usual Chi criticism that downtown shows suck up too much of the oxygen.

Later this month, Broadway in Chicago bows its latest venue, the 550-seat Broadway Playhouse, located behind the Water Tower Place shopping center in the heart of Chi’s Magnificent Mile tourist district. The new theater, which will house both “Traces” and a new production of “Working,” has been calved from the shell of the failed Drury Lane Water Tower. But whereas the Drury Lane featured chandeliers and velour, the Broadway Playhouse has a contempo look.

“This is what producers told us that they wanted,” Raizin says, arguing that the theater will be ideal for long runs of smaller musicals and plays.

And this time, even in Chi, nobody batted an eyelid at the choice of name.