Road presenters raise Broadway stakes

Regional companies take more active development roles

In the traditional Broadway model, New York producers create Main Stem fare that eventually fans out to the rest of the country via road productions.

But these days, regional players are increasingly involved in creating and producing the Rialto fodder that will later play on their stages.

Take the April 17 bow of “Wonderland” at the Marquis Theater. That tuner is the first to come from the Broadway Genesis Project, the new-work development initiative of Tampa’s David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts — an org that continues to take a leadership role as a general producing partner, with William Franzblau, in the Broadway incarnation.

The musical is just the latest in a recent string of shows backed by regional presenters getting in early on productions they hope to program in their own seasons father down the line. Pittsburgh CLO, for instance, has an active Main Stem producing slate, serving as a producer on “Come Fly Away” and “The Addams Family” last season and “Catch Me if You Can” this spring.

“Addams” production company Elephant Eye Theatrical is, in fact, closely affiliated with a consortium of regional presenters, Five Cent Prods., which pools funds to invest in Broadway. And the Independent Presenters Network, a web of venues in markets around the country, has also become a regular Main Stem investor in recent years.

Local orgs participate in Broadway in varying ways, and for many, their increased Gotham profile is still in the early, exploratory phases. But they all seem to recognize the value in deepening their involvement not just in the pipeline that feeds their stages, but also in the shows steered toward them.

“It’s our research and development,” says Pittsburgh CLO exec producer Van Kaplan. “We’re investing in the future to ensure that we’ll have titles that are fresh.”

Straz Center topper Judy Lisi says Broadway Genesis was born from the potential she saw in the combination of the org’s multi-venue production facilities and infrastructure with the demonstrably strong local market for Broadway shows.

A reserve fund of $4 million, drawn from surpluses from the company’s $40 million annual operating budget, was amassed over three years, while Lisi went on the lookout for a title with legs.

“The show I wanted to do would not be New York-centric but have a strong potential for an afterlife on the road, because that’s where our needs are,” she says.

Discussions with Frank Wildhorn about his work on a brewing contempo update of “Alice in Wonderland” led her to think that the show that would become “Wonderland” had the right mix of recognizable title and multigenerational appeal to do well on the road.

Tampa has already gotten a couple of early looks at the show. A well-sold 2009 production transferred to Houston’s Alley Theater, and after further development, “Wonderland” returned to the Straz Center for a brief return engagement Jan. 5-16 sporting new songs, a revised book, an expanded physical production and orchestra — and a Broadway house nailed down for the spring.

Per commercial producer Franzblau, also a general partner on the show, the advantages of the “Wonderland” model include not just a well-appointed and relatively shielded-from-Gotham place to develop a new musical, but also a rich vein of support from local investors.

“The business community in Tampa has been incredibly supportive and helpful in raising money,” he says of the show, capitalized at $15 million.

Stuart Oken of Elephant Eye sees further benefits in a commercial producer’s ties to presenters. “Five Cent helped give me a close relationship with the presenters around the country who book our shows,” he says. “And they put in a significant amount of capital.”

Meanwhile, regional presenters cite the potential benefits of an area’s pride-of-ownership in a show the market helped developed, hoping the early acquaintance will result in robust local turnout at the box office.

Kaplan notes that for Pittsburgh CLO (also one of the members of Five Cent Prods.), involvement in the New York producing world has given the theater a boost in profile, with attendant benefits. “By being a part of the industry and investing in Broadway, it kind of opens up the door to talent that we wouldn’t have access to,” he says.

For a regional presenter’s donors and board members, there’s also the enticing allure of behind-the-scenes access to Broadway shows affiliated with their org. And, of course, any extra revenue stream from a profitable production doesn’t hurt.

For many of the regional presenters and producers, the increased participation in the Broadway production line is driven by the stake each has in ensuring a robust Rialto slate.

“Sometimes a year’s shows on Broadway aren’t strong enough,” Lisi says. “That’s a big concern for us on the road, because we’re so dependent on high-quality touring shows.”

David Fay, head of Hartford’s Bushnell Center — also lead member of Five Cent — points out that theater offerings are among the most reliable sales magnets for arts centers that program shorter runs of less-popular performing arts, such as ballet or modern dance.

“To strengthen the Broadway product line as much as you can becomes critically important to funding your entire operation,” he says. “Having a more dependable new diet of shows is a big advantage.”

There’s also the benefit of a growing understanding between producers and presenters on either side of the Hudson, says Mike Isaacson of IPN member Fox Theatricals, both a St. Louis-based presenter and a producer (“Bring It On”). “There are many fewer boundaries now between New York producers and other producers, and a real respect for what the different needs are for New York and for the road,” he says.