NEW YORK—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.