Something `Wicked' this way comes--indefinitely

TheaterEntertainmentMusical TheaterChicago RestaurantsBroadway TheaterWicked (musical)

In a major boost for Chicago tourism, Loop businesses and the Chicago theater community, the producers of the Broadway show "Wicked" are creating a dedicated Chicago company of the hit that will remain at the Oriental Theatre for months--and maybe even years.

"Wicked," a $14 million musical based on the prequel about characters from "The Wizard of Oz," already had announced a seven-week stop in Chicago beginning its first national tour, on April 2. But under this new plan--to be officially announced Wednesday at a Chicago news conference by a group of New York producers and theater owners--only the touring cast now will leave for their scheduled date in Los Angeles.

The physical set will remain in Chicago and a new Chicago-based company will take over after a pause of about 10 days for technical rehearsals. "Wicked" will remain open in the Loop as long as there is business to support it.

"We are making a major commitment to Chicago," said the New York producer David Stone, confirming his plans. "We'll be there as long as Chicago will have us."

Never before in contemporary Chicago has a touring cast been replaced after a period of a few weeks by a whole new slate of local performers, who then get open-ended Broadway-rank contracts without having to leave the Loop or their homes. And if "Wicked" can last two years, it will set modern Chicago-theater history.

That, of course, remains to be seen. But local theater leaders are heralding this new arrival.

"This is a terrific development for Chicago's fine community of actors," said Robert Falls, the artistic director of the Goodman Theatre. "It's a vote of confidence."

Based on economic-impact figures developed by the Theatre Communications Group, a national arts-advocacy group, a heavily sold two-year Chicago run of "Wicked" could easily be worth as much as $500 million in additional spending, much of which will go to the restaurants, retail outlets and parking facilities that surround the 2,200-seat Oriental Theatre, located at 24 W. Randolph St. and owned by Broadway in Chicago, a joint operation of Clear Channel Entertainment and the Nederlander Organization.

The Oriental was part of a $55.8 million Randolph Street Theatre District project completed by the city during the 1990s.

Local businesses, especially restaurants, are tremendously affected when a nearby theater is busy with a popular show. During the 39-week run of "The Lion King" in 2003-04, Chef Dean Zanella at the 312 Restaurant (which is next door to the Cadillac Palace Theater where "The Lion King" played), said the Chicago run of that show was worth more than $1 million in additional revenue at his restaurant.

Stone said the Chicago production of "Wicked," which is based on the novel by Gregory Maguire and features a book by Winnie Holzman ("My So-Called Life") and music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz ("Godspell"), represents a new, dedicated investment in excess of $10 million (that's on top of the Broadway investment and the ongoing national tour).

A Broadway model

With that investment, the "Wicked" company represents a new model for contemporary commercial theater in Chicago.

Instead of having to fill its downtown theaters with brief stops by oft-unreliable touring fare, Chicago now will get its own, permanent show using a Broadway model. "Wicked," which fought off a mediocre critical response in New York to enjoy widespread popularity and typical weekly grosses in excess of $1 million, already had virtually sold out its initial Chicago run.

The producers of the show now are gambling that local audiences--and Chicago visitors--will support a much longer run. They point to the success in New York--where the show, which opened in October 2003, already has recouped its investment and currently has in the bank some $30 million from advance sales.

Especially--but by no means exclusively--popular with teenage girls and women, "Wicked" routinely sells out on Broadway, regardless of the time of year or cast changes--the original Tony-nominated stars, Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel (who won one of the show's three Tonys), both now are gone from the cast.

The producers note that much of their New York audience comes from suburban families and also from the Midwest. And they point out that the author of "The Wizard of Oz," L. Frank Baum, was a Chicagoan.

"We think Chicago is our town for this one," said Mark Platt, Stone's major partner.

Ticket prices in Chicago will, on average, be $10-$20 lower than in New York, reflecting the difference between the two markets. But because the Oriental has about 400 more seats than the Gershwin Theatre, the Broadway home of "Wicked," the potential weekly gross remains about the same. From a visual perspective, the sets and costumes in the New York and the Chicago "Wicked" are expected to look almost exactly the same.

Long runs of Broadway shows are not new to Chicago. In the mid-1980s, "Cats" played the Shubert Theatre for 14 months and "Evita" lasted for 11 months. In 1996-97, "Showboat" (which did include some local actors, mainly in the chorus) lasted for a year. And with Donny Osmond at the helm, a dedicated Chicago production of "Joseph" played the Chicago Theatre for 18 months from 1993-95.

Few long-running productions

In the last decade, though, such so-called "sit-down" productions have vanished. Even "The Lion King" (which is returning later this year) came and went in much less than a year.

Furthermore, most of the long-runners in the 1980s and 1990s were conceived as a first stop on a national tour and featured out-of-town actors. And they were never slated to stay in Chicago indefinitely like the new "Wicked."

Casting has not yet been finished, but tryouts have been quietly going on for weeks. But much of the cast in the Chicago "Wicked" is expected to be locally familiar names. Under the rules of the Actors Equity union, New York actors willing to relocate to Chicago have the same eligibility, so the result likely will be a hybrid of New York and Chicago actors.

But Stone said he was dedicated to the idea of using at least a few Chicago theater icons, especially in the older character roles, such as the Wizard of Oz.

Actors will get big paychecks--by Chicago theater standards at least. Current minimums for a Broadway contract stand at double ($1,381 or more per week) the money an actor can expect to receive at most non-profit Chicago theaters. And assuming all goes well--which is a substantial assumption--actors can expect to be gainfully employed for many months.

"Chicago has a diverse and vibrant theater community," said Marj Halperin, the departing executive director of the League of Chicago Theatres. "But we've been missing a piece. This is that piece."

Stone, who also is the producer of the new William Finn Broadway musical "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," said that if the long "Wicked" Chicago stand is a success, he expects to create dedicated Chicago versions of other Broadway shows in his production stable.

"All being well," Stone said, "`Wicked' will just be the first."

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