Road presenters bank on ‘Book of Mormon’

Broadway and the Road 2011

When America’s touring Broadway presenters first rang the doorbell of “The Book of Mormon,” the only true blowout hit of the 2010-11 Broadway season, it was a cautious “hello.” Here was a uniquely profane and outrageous tuner that could play with impunity on the island of Manhattan, but hinterland subscription seasons looked like a very different matter.

But that was before the phones starting ringing off the hook with punters in the sticks looking to be hooked up in New York. And a further truth quickly dawned in road-land. You don’t necessarily have to put “The Book of Mormon” on subscription series to sell subscription tickets: You just use it as live Mormon bait.

“That show,” says Randy Weeks, the president of Denver Center Attractions, where “The Book of Mormon” will kick off its tour in the fall, “is helping us sell a lot of subscriptions to the next season.”

Denver only has three opening weeks of “Mormon,” which has caused much wailing and gnashing of teeth in the Mile High City, where only those willing to buy other shows are likely to get prime seats.

Matt Stone and Trey Parker say they were always convinced that the show would have no problem with a national rollout. There is no Gotham monopoly on “South Park” fans.

“We’re from Colorado,” Parker says, “and we think it’s funny.”

“There were a lot of people who said we had to warn people about content,” says “Mormon” lead producer Scott Rudin, “but the most lucid thing we had to say about the show was that it was by the creators of ‘South Park.’ ”

Responding to demand, “Mormon” launches two road companies in 2012. In December, the tuner will open a dedicated, point-of-origin company in Chicago, where Broadway in Chicago prexy Lou Raizin is hoping that the show will play “a very long time.”

The only other production to launch like that in recent years was “Billy Elliot” which also created a Chi/first national company and a quick-touring troupe (albeit in the opposite order). That did not work out so well. “Billy Elliot” struggled on the road, even closing early in what one would have thought were shoo-in markets like San Francisco.

This fall, the two production-contract tours have both been shuttered and replaced by a Networks affiliated production using tiered contracts and featuring much-lower costs. Those cost challenges notwithstanding, some road auds clearly resisted “Billy” (some presenters fault the marketing, which featured a kid on the poster and suggested this was a family show, which to many U.S. minds it was not) and the producers made various seat-of-the-pants attempts to delete profanity and clarify the Brit plot.

But it didn’t work. “Nobody, wants to be the next ‘Billy Elliot’ on the road,” Weeks says.

Indeed not. But then “Billy” did not have the “South Park” brand. And in terms of its physical production, “Mormon” is quite a simple show. Nor does it rely on stars — few of those clamoring for tickets could tell you who they were clamoring to see. Whatever resistance may have been melted faster than Mormon doctrine in Africa.

“At this point, it’s been seen by people all across the country and there has been zero resistance,” Rudin says. “Well, one person walked out. We’ve been quite disappointed by that.”

Most presenters — some of whom continue to worry about the yet-unseen impact of the latest financial stresses — see a long drop from the white-hot “Mormon” down to such other new touring attractions as “Sister Act,” “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” and “Catch Me if You Can.” But those titles — especially “Sister Act” — are seen as robust, especially since close attention is being paid to keeping costs reasonable.

“We’re especially excited about launching the tour of ‘Million Dollar Quartet,’ ” says Gina Vernaci, who books Broadway for the Playhouse Square Center in Cleveland (which, following further renovations over the summer, comprises a jaw-dropping 10 separate venues).

In concert with Cleveland’s Great Lakes Theater Festival, Playhouse Square is also launching a production of “Sondheim on Sondheim,” replete with the video of the man in himself created for the New York original. Thereafter, bookers and presenters will be able to see if this potentially low-cost revue is something with a touring future.

“We think ‘Memphis’ will surprise a lot of people,” says Jeff Chelesvig, prexy and CEO of Civic Center of Greater Des Moines, Iowa, where subscriptions just topped the 10,000 mark for the first time. That’s a common sentiment.

Although “War Horse” is a play — and recent history teaches that even high-profile plays struggle on the road — Weeks and others note that that this is one of the very few straight plays to tour in recent seasons to which you actually can take your kids.

Some of those kids would probably prefer “The Book of Mormon,” but they are not the ones buying the tickets.

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