As the current Broadway season reaches its conclusion at the end of April, the buzz around town is about which shows will be honored at the Tony’s in June. Outside New York, the anticipation is building around the upcoming new road tours that will commence in the fall. That’s when theater-goers around the country get the opportunity to see the previous season’s Broadway hits in their own home towns. As Nederlander subscribers know, the winners of last year’s Best Musical and Best Play Tony Awards — The Book of Mormon and War Horse respectively — as well as Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Tony-winner for Costume Design, and Best Musical Tony nominee Sister Act, will all be out on the road this season.
The planning process for a Broadway tour starts about year ahead, says Jack Meyer, Vice President of Programming at the Nederlander Organization. This time last year producers and bookers were eyeing the productions newly opened on Broadway and assessing their viability for the road. Meyer, who is responsible for buying tours for Nederlander owned or operated theaters in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Jose, Tucson, Durham and North Charleston, says the process starts by compiling a list of what is going to be available and what might make sense for each particular market. “It depends on what kind of response the shows get in New York, and how well they do at the Tonys — although a Tony Award is not necessarily a ticket to touring. We look at costs and how many subscribers we have in each market,” Meyer explains. “There are financial as well as artistic considerations, but you can only plan so much, because ultimately it’s up to whether or not people buy tickets.”
A road production typically plays at a theater for eight performances — the exceptions being in major cities with large theater-going populations like Chicago, where The Book of Mormon is slated for a three-month run. Usually a show will close its run in one city on a Sunday night and open in another the following Tuesday night. In technical terms that means loading out of a theater in about four hours and loading into the new venue in eight; the entire operation, including travel time, has to be accomplished in less than two days. The logistics of taking a Broadway show on the road requires the planning of a small military operation. Michele Groner, Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Stage Entertainment, producers of Sister Act, says her organization has hired a separate company to take on this full-time job. “They have to plot the map and figure out with our presenter how long it will take, for instance, to get all the sets and costumes on a truck, how many trucks that takes, and how long it will take those trucks to get from one city to the next,” she explains. “There is also a lot of legwork to be done between the production and the booking arm.”
“We are selling the Broadway show and it is our obligation to deliver that same level of quality production to audiences around the country, so our goal is to replicate as closely as possible what is on Broadway,” says Randall Buck, CEO of Troika Entertainment, producer of the tour of Priscilla Queen of the Desert. The flamboyant musical about three drag-queens who take a cross-country bus trip across the Australian outback, boasts 500 costumes and features an actual bus on stage. Logistics for the tour, which starts January, are still being worked out, but Buck says, “the show has to be able to travel, of course, and there are subtle ways to engineer that. What would Priscilla be without the dazzling Tony Award-winning costumes? And, after all, the bus is the title character in the show!” Similarly, the signature element of Sister Act – the vaulting cathedral set, which houses the convent in which the night-club singer Deloris Van Cartier seeks refuge from mobsters – will certainly be replicated for the road, promises Groner. “There are obviously financial considerations in terms of making sure that the show can recoup and make some money, but we also want to have artistic integrity, and the sets and costumes are a huge piece of that for us,” she says.
With a road production the creative team often gets the opportunity to revisit a production and make tweaks and changes they may not have had time for prior to the Broadway opening and the fact is that many Broadway productions are constantly evolving creatively. Sister Act, for example, has had several iterations, starting in Atlanta, then in Pasadena and subsequently, a complete overhaul under its current creative team when the production moved from London to New York. Rae Smith, who received the Best Scenic Design Tony Award for War Horse last year, says that when they brought the show to New York they took the opportunity to address all the things they thought weren’t working so well in London. Now when it comes to touring the award-winning tale of the boy and his beloved horse, the creators are faced with a new set of challenges. “We don’t actually have scenery, but we have large moving puppetry objects – a tank, horses, carts and guns – and they need enough space to move on and get off,” Smith explains. And, as it turns out, it just wasn’t feasible to tour the revolving stage that facilitates the quick movements in both the London and New York productions.
“We had a session earlier this year in London with our new director, Bijan Sheibani, who is looking at this with fresh eyes, and we discovered that it was possible to do the cavalry charge, for instance, without the revolve,” Smith explains. “The thing is, we’ve gotten better since we first did the show in 2007 [at London’s National Theatre]. Sometimes it takes a bit of time to understand what you have known intuitively. Now, because we have watched it again and again, we have learned the language of the show and we could invent much more interesting puppetry. Without the revolve, the horses can move much more dynamically because the design has got better and better.” Smith reports that she has created a whole new set of drawings that will be animated for the touring production of War Horse, which will also feature new choreography and staging in some six or seven scenes. The remarkable puppetry, which so theatrically brings the horses to life on stage, is being reinvented for the tour as well. “It will be a very different show from any of the others. It’s going to be a kind of trainspotting thing,” she predicts laughing. “I’m already spotting the differences between New York, London, Canada and now the North American tour. Who knows which show is best — that is always a debate.”
By Gerard Raymond