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Looking for That Road Paved With...

The adage that “the show must go on” has acquired special meaning at the Orange County Performing Arts Center: Its heavily subscribed series of Broadway musicals is about to begin 4 months late.

Ever since Center management was forced to cancel a bus-and-truck revival of “Camelot” last November because star Richard Harris called in sick, the Broadway Series has been little more than a subscriber’s wish list.

“In our first 2 years, we ran nine musicals in a row and never lost a one,” says Center President Thomas R. Kendrick. “I keep trying to tell people that was unusual in this business.”

By this time last season, two musical revivals had already come and gone. Ditto for the season before that. But now, at long last, the current series will be launched in style with the national touring version of “Into the Woods,” the critically acclaimed Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine hit that is still on Broadway. It is scheduled to open Tuesday for a 6-day engagement.

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“The only way we won’t be there is if Costa Mesa suddenly disappears,” says Alan Ross Kosher, the road-company manager who is supervising the show’s transfer from the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, where it will close today after an 8-week run.

The sets and costumes will fill six 48-foot tractor-trailers, Kosher says, and the 40-mile move will get under way at the Ahmanson literally before the curtain comes down at the end of the second act. The move from start to finish is expected to take 20 hours. “We even have a certain amount of time built in for delays,” Kosher notes. “It’s sort of like a NASA launch.”

“Into the Woods” may not be as expensive or dependent on technology as “Les Miserables,” now on the road in three editions costing $4 million each (making them the costliest replications of a Broadway show in theatrical history, at least until “The Phantom of the Opera” comes along in May). But “Into the Woods” is still among the most deluxe and technically sophisticated shows ever designed for touring.

Tom Mallow, the principal producer of “Into the Woods” along with Miles Wilkin of the Pace Theatrical Group, says that putting the Sondheim-Lapine musical on tour took an investment of more than $1.5 million, about three times the cost of an average road production.

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“If you bring in a lot of tacky shows, the audience gets bored with them and the market dwindles,” says Mallow, who was dubbed “the king of the road” by the New York Times because his company, American Theatre Productions, is such a dominant player in the bus-and-truck trade.

Although Cleo Laine gets star billing, “Into the Woods” is primarily an ensemble piece about such fairy-tale characters as Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, a wicked witch and Rapunzel, Cinderella and her sisters, two Prince Charmings, Jack and his mother and their cow, and a baker and his wife. How does this production compare with the $4.5-million Broadway original?

“All I can tell you is that the authors seemed to like what was done with it more than what was done on Broadway,” Mallow says of Sondheim, who won a 1988 Tony Award for the score, and Lapine, who won a Tony for the libretto and has directed both versions.

“The show was a little too long on Broadway,” Mallow continues. “James tightened it up to make it flow better. A few words here and there. He made the story easier to understand in this version.”

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The physical production is also somewhat scaled back. It doesn’t have an automated “people mover” ramp or Rapunzel’s tower bursting out of the stage floor. Instead, original choreographer Lar Lubovitch revised parts of the show for the actors to walk or skip across the stage, and the tower now flies in from the wings.

“The other changes are so minor, you can’t really see them,” Mallow notes, adding that “Into the Woods” is twice as expensive as the two biggest shows he had put on tour until this season, “La Cage aux Folles” and “Sweeney Todd.”

He also points out that with travel and living allowances added to salaries, the payroll for the touring cast of “Into the Woods” comes to more than it does for the Broadway version.

In fact, the production values and casting quality of road shows have risen steadily during the ‘80s, by all accounts within the theater industry. And the audience for these New York exports--far from dwindling--has mushroomed. More people saw Broadway shows on the road last year than on Broadway itself--10.5 million compared to 8.1 million, according to estimates compiled by the show-business trade paper Variety.

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“The numbers on the road are staggering,” says Susan Lee, who heads the department of road resources for the League of American Theaters and Producers. “Frankly, we think those are conservative estimates. But you can see why producers care as much about what travels as what’s in New York.”

At the beginning of the ‘80s, by Mallow’s account, bus-and-truck productions were seen by about 150,000 people a week and did about $100 million a year in business. His own company accounted for nearly half, according to the New York Times. Today, he estimates, attendance has at least tripled, and the total bus-and-truck gross has increased sixfold because of higher ticket prices.

Pace Theatrical, which co-produces the Broadway Series at the Center, was spawned by that growth. Founded in 1982 by Wilkin, a protege of New York producer Zev Buffman, Pace brings shows to 24 cities and grosses $60 million a year. With 212,000 subscribers on its circuit, it has become a power in the bus-and-truck world.

"(We) look to Broadway to see what is being produced and what is workable,” says Wilkin, who has offices in New York, Texas and Florida. “We supplement that by creating other projects--revivals, pre-Broadway runs and some shows that never go to Broadway. That way we get enough on the menu.”

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Mallow figures that 24,000 people a week see 10 to 12 shows that Pace either books or produces. Besides “Into the Woods,” it has a handful of its own productions on the road: “South Pacific,” “The Magic of David Copperfield,” “Nunsense” and “Elvis: A Musical Celebration.”

On Broadway, Pace is also a co-producer of “Born Yesterday,” which recently came off the road, and “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway,” which just opened. And it has, in various stages of development, road versions of “Fiddler on the Roof, “Chess” and “Starlight Express.”

“Anybody who wants to plan a tour has to deal with Pace,” says Jim Thesing, executive director of the National Alliance of Musical Theater Producers.

“They do it soup to nuts. They not only produce the shows, they book the theaters. And they certainly have shown over the last few years that they are an investor or co-producer in any number of Broadway shows. The reasons are obvious. They want to tie up the road rights.”

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Traditionally, road shows were divided into first-rank national companies, which “sat” for months at a time in such major cities as Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Washington, San Francisco and Philadelphia, and bus-and-truck companies that played for a day or two at the whistle-stops. But these distinctions have blurred.

Thriving downtowns with large theaters, where the top road productions used to flourish, have tended to disappear. And so the number of first-rank tours have declined because most cities can no longer support lengthy runs of increasingly expensive musicals. At the same time, smaller cities and suburbs have grown, and markets that used to be good for only a few days are now good for as much as several weeks.

Orange County is a perfect example. Three years ago, the Center didn’t exist. Today, it consistently bags among the highest grosses in the country for 6-day stands of musical road shows. The Broadway Series, which has 16,817 subscribers, routinely racks up numbers not even possible on Broadway because of the Center’s large capacity (2,994 seats), its high attendance (better than 90% for musicals) and ticket prices only slightly lower than Broadway’s ($19 to $40).

“Cats"--the series’ biggest hit--did $1.5 million last season over two separate weeks. The previous season, “Big River” pulled $1 million for two consecutive weeks. On average, says Kendrick, a 1-week stand draws $625,000. For “Into the Woods,” he notes, “we’re looking to a gross in the $700,000 range.”

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By comparison, eight performances of “Into the Woods” during a recent week at the 1,282-seat Martin Beck Theater in New York grossed $216,974. At the Ahmanson, which has 2,071 seats and 73,427 subscribers (the largest subscription of any theater in the country), the show averaged $425,886 a week for the first 6 weeks of its run. That was “sellout business,” says Ahmanson spokesman Tony Sherwood.

Clearly, the Center is a money tree for road musicals. Kendrick calls it “the crown jewel” in the Pace network. Why, then, must the Center go more than 5 months since its last Broadway musical? (“Cats” departed on Sept. 25). And why are 2-week stands the exception in the Broadway Series rather than the rule?

“Scheduling,” Kendrick says, alluding to the problem of booking a single hall with orchestra, ballet and opera performances that often must be locked in at least a year in advance, at the same time that Broadway musicals frequently can’t be locked in more than a few months in advance.

Because Broadway revivals and exports commonly encounter routing problems, Kendrick says, “you must put aside more weeks for musicals than you ever will actually program.” A series of shows totaling 5 weeks means setting aside 10 weeks until the shows lock in their dates. “That is do-able,” he says. A series totaling 10 weeks means setting aside 20 weeks. That is not as do-able.

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“We’d love to book musicals for 2 weeks at a time,” says Kendrick, “because we are now forcing people up into the second and third tiers who would like to come down into the orchestra. Granted it’s cheaper in the tiers, but we know there are people there who would pay to come down.”

On the other hand, he says he doesn’t believe Orange County is much more than a 1-week market, although a Times Orange County poll last year found that 40% of all county adults and 43% of the “high culture” devotees prefer Broadway shows for their live entertainment.

“It doesn’t have the population base,” Kendrick argues. “Just because we sell out a 1-week format doesn’t mean we can do 2 weeks at that level. Nor does it predict what we’d get with a weaker vehicle.”

Of nine Center offerings during the first two seasons, three were current Broadway exports (“Big River,” “Me and My Girl” and “Cats”) and six were revivals (a pre-Broadway “Cabaret,” a post-Broadway “Singin’ in the Rain,” plus “Stop the World, I Want to Get Off,” “My One and Only,” “South Pacific” and “Can-Can”).

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Of the five shows scheduled this season, two are current (“Into the Woods” and “Anything Goes”), two are revivals (“Gypsy” and “Fiddler on the Roof,” both pre-Broadway) and one is an original creation (“Elvis: A Musical Celebration,” also pre-Broadway).

Are these shows the best that are available? By all accounts, yes. But depending on your taste--whether you prefer current hits or chestnut revivals--they may or may not be the musicals you want to see.

“It sounds like a representative season to me,” says Harvey Sabinson, executive director of the League of American Theaters and Producers. “Revivals have become very popular and ‘Elvis’ has not played New York yet.”

“That’s a great musical season,” declares Wayne Nichols of the Mechanic Theatre in Baltimore, which books as well as produces its own Broadway shows for 21,000 subscribers. “It’s revival-oriented. But that’s what’s out there now.”

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Others are less taken.

“I really wish you hadn’t asked me that question,” says “Into the Woods” producer Mallow. “Pace is a co-producer with us on some of our shows. So I’m not going to comment on their individual selections. But in general I’m not a fan of so many revivals. I would prefer to do current Broadway shows.”

Lindy Zesch of the Theater Communications Group, a service organization for the nation’s nonprofit regional theaters, also wonders about the season’s freshness.

“Just because it’s called a Broadway Series doesn’t mean it’s the genuine article,” she says. “It sounds like they’re getting a lot of warmed-over stuff as well as the guinea pigs on a tryout basis.”

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In the meantime, the variables of the road-show business as well as the vagaries of taste are keeping both Kendrick and Wilkin guessing about the future.

Wilkin predicts that “Les Miz” will play the Center for more than a week next season, “unless some routing problem comes up.” All Kendrick will say is: “It’s very possible.” Wilkin says he is eager to bring both “Chess” and “Starlight Express” to the Center. Kendrick says “Chess” is “not necessarily a show we would want” and “Starlight Express” is “a possibility, but not at the top of our list.”

Although Pace and the Center are partners in the Broadway Series, Kendrick points out that he has the right to refuse Pace offerings. This season, for instance, he rejected the non-musical “Born Yesterday” with Madeline Kahn and “A Chorus Line” with Donna McKechnie. He also turned down another producer’s “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” with Debbie Reynolds.

For all that, the Center has never presented a show in the Broadway Series that was not either booked or produced by Pace. “I’m not saying everything that comes through is great,” Kendrick said, “but it’s better than nothing and better than a lot of stuff you could get locally.”

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Moreover, the advantages of the alliance with Pace far outweigh any disadvantages, Kendrick says.

A case in point is the road version of “Anything Goes,” which is scheduled to open at the Center in September but was pulled off the road in January by its New York producers.

At that time, tour manager Eugene Wolsk told The Times that the show would be up and running again by this month in Chicago. It isn’t, however, and many theater insiders in New York are predicting privately that it will not go out again.

“Chicago was Plan B,” Wolsk now says. “The negotiations with Chicago fell through. Plan B was superseded by Plan C and Plan D. Right now we’re working on Plan E. I am still trying to find a star. If we don’t find a star, we don’t do the show. It’s as simple as that.”

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Except, of course, that a failure of Plan E would force another Center cancellation, leaving yet another gaping hole in the Broadway Series. So Wilkin has taken it upon himself to personally guarantee the show’s arrival at the Center.

“If (the New York producers) don’t do it, I will--and you can quote me on that,” Wilkin vows. “I’ll get the rights and do it myself. It’s going to come to Orange County if it kills me. If it kills them . When you run 24 theaters, you have the luxury of saying that. You can make it happen.”

That, it would seem, is Plan Z.

‘88-89 THEATER SEASONS AT OTHER ARTS CENTERS

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(all productions are musicals unless otherwise noted)

DENVER CENTER FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS, Denver

Capacity: 2,200 seats. Subscribers: 10,000. Subscriptions: $52-$152. Single tickets: $15-$45.

Elvis: A Musical Celebration (Sept. 13-18)

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Born Yesterday, a play (Nov. 15-27)

Into the Woods (March 14-26)

A Chorus Line (June 20-25)

The Unsinkable Molly Brown (July 18-23)

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Les Miserables (Sept. 6-24)

BALTIMORE CENTER FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS (the Mechanic Theater), Baltimore

Capacity: 1,600. Subscribers: 21,000. Subscriptions: $95-$255 (includes parking). Single tickets: $13.50-$42.

Born Yesterday, a play (Sept. 27-0ct. 23)

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George C. Scott as Clarence Darrow, a one-man show (Nov. 2-27)

Me and My Girl (Dec. 20-Jan. 15)

Lend Me a Tenor, a play (Jan. 17-Feb. 12)

Fame: The Musical (Feb. 21-Mar. 19)

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Steel Magnolias, a play (April 4-30)

Cabaret (May 9-June 4)

TAMPA BAY PERFORMING ARTS CENTER, Tampa, Fla.

Capacity: 2,400. Subscribers: 8,000. Subscriptions: $137.89-$175.76. Single tickets: $22.50-$35.78

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South Pacific (Nov. 1-6)

Les Miserables (Nov. 28-Dec. 1)

The Mystery of Edwin Drood (Dec. 27-Jan. 1)

Gypsy (April 4-9)

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Me and My Girl (May 23-28)

PLAYHOUSE SQUARE CENTER, Cleveland

Two theaters, with capacities of 2,800 and 2,098. Subscribers: 9,000. Subscriptions: $124-$137 (5 shows); $145-$160 (7 shows). Single tickets: $14-$35.

Me and My Girl (Oct. 4-9)

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Broadway Bound, a play (Nov. 15-20)

Forbidden Broadway (Jan. 3-29)

Into the Woods (April 11-16)

Steel Magnolias, a play (May 2-7)

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Les Miserables (Aug. 1-6)

One show to be announced

TENNESSEE PERFORMING ARTS CENTER, Nashville, Tenn.

Capacity: 2,400 seats. Subscribers: 8,000. Subscription: $66-$146; Single tickets: $11-$37.50.

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Can-Can (Oct. 18-23)

Elvis: A Musical Celebration (Nov. 15-20)

Nunsense (Jan. 10-15)

Me and My Girl (Feb. 14-19)

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The Mystery of Edwin Drood (Mar. 28-April 2)

Les Miserables (May 2-7)

CIVIC CENTER OF GREATER

DES MOINES, Des Moines, Iowa

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Capacity: 2,735 seats. No subscriptions. Single tickets: $17.50-29.50

Cats (Oct. 6-9)

The Mystery of Edwin Drood (Nov. 5)

My One and Only (Feb. 4)

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Nunsense (Feb. 28)

Into the Woods (Mar. 31-April 2)

AHMANSON THEATRE,

Los Angeles

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Capacity: 2,071 seats. Subscribers: 73,427. Subscriptions: $73-$154. Single tickets: $17.50-$42.50 musicals; $11-$35 plays.

Les Liaison Dangereuses, a play (Oct. 26-Dec. 18)

Into the Woods (Jan. 11-Mar. 5)

Hapgood, a play, at UCLA’S James A. Doolittle Theatre, capacity 1,005 (April 12-July 9)

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The Phantom of the Opera (May 31-open)

ORANGE COUNTY PERFORMING ARTS CENTER

Capacity: 2,994; Current subscribers: 16,817. Subscription: $90.50-$195. Single tickets: $19-$40. (The Center presents musicals only.)

Elvis: A Musical Celebration

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SEASON THREE: 1989

Into the Woods (March 7-12)

Elvis: A Musical Celebration (Mar. 28-April 2)

Gypsy (July 18-23)

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Fiddler on the Roof (Aug. 8-13)

Anything Goes (Sept. 19-24)

Cats

SEASON TWO: 1987-88

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My One and Only (Oct. 21-25)

South Pacific (Jan. 15-10)

Cats (May 3-8)

Me and My Girl (June 21-26)

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Can-Can (July 26-31)

Cats (Sept. 20-25)

SEASON ONE: 1986-87

Singin’ in the Rain (Dec. 23-28)

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Stop the World, I Want to Get Off (Feb. 3-8)

Cabaret (Aug. 4-9)

Big River (Sept. 8-19)


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