THE HIGH COST TO GET SHOWS ON THE ROAD
Broadway shows often seem to journey West by covered wagon:
“My One and Only” opened at the Ahmanson Theatre Friday about 26 months after it opened on Broadway.
“The Tap Dance Kid,” due at the Pantages in September, will have taken 21 months to get here.
“Cats,” now at the Shubert, took 27 months.
Three years will have elapsed from the Broadway openings of “Foxfire” and “ ‘night, Mother” to their scheduled openings here next November and March, respectively.
What takes so long?
Investors pull out, stars get movie deals, theater bookings fall through and big cities have unseasonal hurricanes, rain or invasions of locusts. Chicago is only available in the winter, and San Francisco is booked before and after Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, everybody’s calculating risks. Performers, sets and orchestras cost a fortune on the road, just as they do on Broadway. Except for a few musicals and Neil Simon comedies, most touring shows lose money. In short, producers confront the same sizable costs and risks that are killing Broadway.
Los Angeles also pays a price for being too good a theater town.
“When a producer gets a cast to go on tour and persuades a star, which is even harder, he saves the cherry on the ice cream sundae for last,” says producer Zef Bufman, the man who brought Elizabeth Taylor here for both “The Little Foxes” and “Private Lives.” “Los Angeles is a peak. It’s like opening on Broadway all over again. Until you get there, all the company talks about is getting to Los Angeles. And when you leave, all everybody talks about is going home.”
As a result, producers often tie up Los Angeles rights for premiere productions of such shows as “ ‘night, Mother” while lesser productions of the same show will tour in America’s heartland (see article below). Nobody wants to risk exposure to Los Angeles’ television and film industry without the best cast, sets and production that money can buy.
Given the low odds of success and the high costs of trying, such informed observers as Gordon Davidson, artistic director at the Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum, are writing obituary notices for traditional road tours. As Civic Light Opera subscribers have learned, a dearth of product too often results in tired revivals, dark theaters or both. Fewer shows opened on Broadway this season than at any other time since 1900, portending even worse touring conditions tomorrow.
As recently as the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, recalls tour veteran Amos Abrams, there were as many as 30 or 40 shows playing the road at any given time. “It was feasible then,” says Abrams, “for a moderately successful Broadway play or musical to have a national company. It didn’t have to be a Tony award winner to go out.”
But things changed. Costs went up on the road as they did on Broadway, and the trade paper Variety reports fewer than a dozen touring shows each week. “Because of the costs, you can only send out something you think has a major chance of making it,” says Abrams, director of road resources at the League of American Theatres and Producers. Abrams said shows today need “a strong Broadway track record or major stars and preferably both to get people on the road to pay the cost of a ticket.”
Big money is at stake.
Co-producer Harvey Klaris figures it will cost $1.5 million to open “Tap Dance Kid” in Los Angeles--about half what it cost to open it on Broadway. “My One and Only,” also cost about $1.5 million to put on the road, says co-producer Barry Weissler, and that’s with the Broadway cast. Had they started everything from scratch instead of waiting until the Broadway package was available, Weissler figures the investment would have been $3 million.
“Amadeus” lost “a substantial amount of money” in Los Angeles, according to Shubert Organization president Bernard Jacobs. “La Cage aux Folles” made a profit after nine months at the Pantages, says the show’s executive producer Marvin A. Krauss, but not enough to return its full investment of about $4 million. At the Shubert, meanwhile, Jacobs says that it will take “Cats” a full year of sold-out performances to pay back the $5.3 million it cost to mount the show here.
On the other hand, Los Angeles audiences also have sustained remarkably long runs of visiting Broadway shows. “A Chorus Line” played the Shubert Theatre for 79 weeks in the mid-'70s, surpassed only by “Evita,” which ran a record-breaking 104 weeks in the early ‘80s. Shubert executives expect “Cats,” which opened in January, to set new house records and are currently selling tickets as far ahead as May, 1986.
Most producers figure one to two years on Broadway before a show develops a track record, or the “legs” to tour. Beyond that, each show seems to have its own development history. “My One and Only,” for instance, was delayed “because it wasn’t financially viable” for the show’s original producers, says Weissler.
Weissler, who earlier co-produced “Zorba,” starring Anthony Quinn, concedes the producers’ first choice for “My One and Only” was not the 2,071-seat Ahmanson but the 3,100-seat Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. “Los Angeles was a prime city,” says Weissler. “When we decided we wanted to go, we scheduled the best available theater for our purposes. Period. Would we have played the Chandler? Certainly. We played it with ‘Zorba’ but the time was not available. Once the Ahmanson was in place, we felt it was the best place after the Chandler.”
The Shubert Organization, meanwhile, has shown an understandable reluctance to push out one hit musical at the Shubert to accommodate another. “ ‘Cats’ got (to Los Angeles) as quickly as it could,” says Jacobs. “Had ‘42nd Street’ been weaker than it was, ‘Cats’ would have gotten to L.A. quicker. And if it had turned out to be stronger, ‘Cats’ would have gotten there later.”
Looking ahead, says Jacobs, the success of “Cats” could wind up delaying the Los Angeles opening of the new Tim Rice/Michael Bennett musical, “Chess,” currently set to open in London next April and New York the following November.
But sometimes shows arrive on the Coast quickly. Los Angeles audiences will possibly see a local production this September of the current Broadway hit “As Is” only a few months after its Broadway opening. That play, about people dealing with the fatal disease AIDS, is a candidate to play the newly renovated James A. Doolittle Theater.
“It all came together at once,” says producer John Glines. “It’s very timely and very important that it gets out quickly.” Glines was partial to the Doolittle, formerly called the Huntington Hartford, because he earlier produced the long-running, very successful production of “Torch Song Trilogy” there. But while “As Is” may arrive here as soon as four months after its Broadway opening, it’s an exception. Even “Torch Song” took about a year and a half to get to Los Angeles. “We weren’t that sure about ‘Torch Song,’ ” Glines concedes in retrospect. “It took a long time to get any real attention and build audiences that let us know we really had a hit.”
Producers may also have their minds set on particular stars for particular shows. “Foxfire,” for instance, opened on Broadway in November, 1982, starring Hume Cronyn (who also co-authored the play) and his wife, Jessica Tandy (who later won a Tony for her Broadway performance), and Keith Carradine. The Ahmanson originally hoped to bring the entire company and director David Trainer to Los Angeles last year rather than this year, says Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson managing director Michael Rosen, but “the performers’ and directors’ availability conflicted with the time available at the Ahmanson last season.”
This season, however, the only star unavailable was Carradine--he had a film commitment, Rosen says. But come November the Ahmanson will re-create the Broadway production, including cast, director and designers. (The play was produced last season, meanwhile, at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre, but Rosen emphasizes that the Old Globe production did not involve “any of the Broadway elements” due at the Ahmanson in November.)
Will the Ahmanson present Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Thing” this season? Rosen says the show requires major stars “and the major star we wanted--Jeremy Irons, who created the Broadway role--had other commitments and is unavailable. If Bobby (Fryer, the Ahmanson’s artistic director) can pull in a major director and stars, then we’ll do a production as our third play next spring.”
A national tour of “The Real Thing,” meanwhile, bypassed Los Angeles, says Miles Wilkin, president of Pace Theatrical Group in Houston, because the touring company lacked a star of sufficient “caliber.” (Leading the cast of that company was Brian Bedford.)
Not that stars aren’t important outside Los Angeles as well. Although Bedford received good reviews in the touring “The Real Thing,” the producers associated with the tour say he failed to draw enough business for the show to break even, and the tour ended June 23 instead of continuing on into fall. “Unless you have a Neil Simon play, you really cannot count on a Broadway smash to be that strong elsewhere,” says Bufman. “And if you can count on it, it will take a Taylor or a Burton, a real superstar, to turn it for you.”
Waiting for the Tony awards can also slow down a potential tour. “A producer realizes he will have a stronger item to sell if he has a Tony winner,” says Abrams. “And since the Tonys aren’t until June, and you’re not going to want to send shows out during the summer when attendance is down, you wait.”
The Tonys played a key role in determining when “La Cage aux Folles” went on the road, for instance. “When you do a show, there are certain priorities,” says producer Krauss. “The first preview, opening out of town, first preview in New York, first performance in New York. There’s a natural building of energy, emotions and talent toward a goal. We opened and made our mark. Reviews were good and word-of-mouth excellent.”
Then, continues Krauss, things slowed down. “We were there . But after six months, you’re not the new attraction in town since other shows started to open. Then the Tony came (for best musical, 1984) and gave us a great shot in arm, and we decided now is the time to pack up our bags and go.”
After playing San Francisco for 14 weeks, “Cage” swept into Los Angeles in August, 1984, just a year after it opened on Broadway. The show closed at the Pantages in May, after doing slow business in its last weeks, but the original company continues on Broadway. A second company is touring the United States, a third is in Australia, and a fourth is set to open in London in spring, 1986. “The sun will never set on ‘La Cage,’ ” quips Krauss.
(Actually, it may also never set on “Evita,” one of several Broadway hits that stopped in Los Angeles before New York. Local theaters have also sent eastward such homegrown successes as “Children of a Lesser God” and Neil Simon hits, including this year’s Tony-winning “Biloxi Blues.” Such current Off-Broadway hits as “Orphans” and “Penn and Teller” also got their start locally.)
Even though Broadway’s musical slump continues, there are two shows playing that have yet to reach Los Angeles:
“Big River,” winner of seven Tonys this year including best musical, should be back in Southern California by next summer, says co-producer Edward Strong. He doubts that the musical would come here straight from New York since it is “logistically easier to get something started closer to New York,” but feels summer is a reasonable goal. “River, " which began at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., had a run at the La Jolla Playhouse last summer before going to Broadway, and Strong says he doesn’t know yet which L.A. theater would host the touring company.
Stephen Sondheim’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Sunday in the Park With George,” widely regarded as a sophisticated (read non-commercial) musical, isn’t attracting the same kind of interest as “Big River.”
“It is probably the most intelligent piece of musical theater ever put up on a stage,” says Jacobs. “But of course there are just so many people that have IQ’s of 200.” He concedes that the intricacies of both its sets and substance would make it difficult to tour, but insists: “We just haven’t made that decision.” Jacobs says present plans call for “Sunday” to continue running on Broadway--they’ve now recouped 80% of their investment, Jacobs says--but there are currently no plans to tour it here or elsewhere.
Producers of smaller, serious plays have a different set of concerns. Many debate between touring their shows themselves or licensing them out for independent productions, in part because not enough people outside New York and possibly Los Angeles are rushing to see serious drama anymore. Even with Mercedes McCambridge and a Pulitzer “ ‘night, Mother’s” 32-city tour last fall “didn’t do as well as hoped,” confirms the touring company’s co-producer, James Janek. “We had as much going for it as we could.”
That’s because so many shows today are simply not “boffo, smasho, runaway hits like ‘Cats,’ ” says Davidson. While some local producers argue that these small plays would indeed succeed were they produced in smaller theaters rather than 1,000-seat houses like the James A. Doolittle or even larger houses, Davidson feels that “the support system” of subscription-ticket holders (like that of the Taper) is a necessity.
On David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Glengarry Glen Ross,” for instance, producer Elliot Martin is currently debating between two L.A. theaters--the Doolittle, under joint Taper/UCLA management, and the Nederlander-operated Henry Fonda Theatre. Martin says his decision will rest in part on which can deliver the best promise of subscribers. “If you book a show into a city without a subscription base, you’re playing Russian roulette because you don’t know if it will sell, and you have no base on which to build sales.”
The best of all possible worlds, of course, is to offer your own plays to your own theaters and subscribers, as the Shuberts and Nederlanders have done for years. Producers Bufman and Pace also own theater chains, in the South and Southwest, respectively, and new partnerships are emerging to link producers and theaters.
In the same way that regional theaters have sent more and more shows to Broadway, they and others are now figuring out more efficient ways to move shows from Broadway and elsewhere.
Pace Theatrical is talking with the Nederlander Organization about establishing a circuit for “prestigious straight plays with star packages” that could play Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas and Washington. Pace’s Wilkin says: “hopefully this concept is being very vigorously pursued by Jimmy Nederlander” and would involve obtaining commitments from stars for 10 or 12 weeks.
Klaris thinks such cooperation could mean quicker arrival of shows--producers will be able to stop waiting to reach the break-even point on Broadway and instead rely on theater owners around the country for help. As Klaris sees it, the producers get cash advances, the theater owners get shows to offer their subscribers, and audiences see plays before they’re old hat.
The Nederlanders, for instance, helped pay for the coming run of “Tap Dance Kid” at their Pantages Theatre, says Klaris. “If it weren’t for their assistance, I don’t think we could mount this company.”
Music Center Operating Co. president and chief operating officer Allan Colman says that MCOC is exploring a consortium with the Kennedy Center and the Denver Center for the Performing Arts to see if they can coordinate their schedules to take a show from New York through all three centers or launch a show at one, take it to the other two, then go to Broadway.
“And if we’re successful, the shows we’re working on can go to some of the centers that expressed interest, such as Cleveland, Dallas, Chicago, where they may not have enough money to mount their own shows. . . . And if a producer knew that he could take a show and run it through three of our theaters and between them put in 20 to 26 weeks on a show, he’d have enough of a base to take it elsewhere.” Several producers, he says, are “very interested.
“The whole production world is changing,” says Colman. “We’re going to be a lot more aggressive at filling our dark time.”
BROADWAY TO L.A.
New York plays that subsequently opened (or may open) in Los Angeles, and their bicoastal opening dates. “CATS” L.A.: JAN. 11, 1985 N.Y.: Oct. 7, 1982
Michael Allen-Ross as rocker Rum Tum Tugger with admiring groupie.
LARRY ARMSTONG / Los Angeles Times