Chicago might be known as the Second City, but it’s first in line when it comes to nurturing future Broadway shows. For more than a decade, Chicago has served as the proving ground for shows that are Broadway-bound.
“We have a tremendous audience base that is very interested in new work,” says Eileen LaCario, vice president of Broadway in Chicago. “We do more new work here than anywhere else.”
Indeed, the City of Broad Shoulders supports some 200 theatres, including five Tony Award–winning regional theatres, including the Steppenwolf Theatre Company and Chicago Shakespeare Theater, that have garnered national reputations for innovation. That, LaCario says, makes for a smart, sophisticated audience primed for testing new works.
That was the goal when The Nederlander Organization started Broadway in Chicago in 2000. Since then, the city has grown to be one of the largest commercial touring homes in the country, drawing up to 1.7 million people annually to see Broadway-bound shows. A full range of entertainment, including dance, musicals, and plays, is staged in five downtown Chicago venues: Bank of America Theatre, Oriental Theatre, Cadillac Palace Theatre, Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, and Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place.
The first Broadway in Chicago foray was a smash. In 2000, The Producers started in Chicago, where it was a huge hit, and went on to win even bigger on Broadway. Other big Broadway in Chicago successes include Monty Python’s Spamalot, Movin’ Out, and Kinky Boots.
Giving Back to Chicago
On August 18, Broadway in Chicago will give back to the city that has given it such warm support for the last 14 years with its annual free Chicago Summer Concert.
This iconic event, sponsored by ABC 7 Chicago and produced in partnership with the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs & Special Events, will bring performers from 15 shows to center stage at Chicago’s most iconic venue: the Jay Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park. While the Bean has become the symbol of Millennium Park, the Frank Gehry–designed Pritzker Pavilion is where the city comes together for entertainment — from watching movies on a giant screen to performances by the world-renowned Chicago Symphony Orchestra and live theater.
“This is our favorite night of the year, being able to share this rare gathering of Broadway performers with all of Chicago,” LaCario says.
This is the 13th year for the annual free Broadway in Chicago concert. Presented as part of the city’s Millennium Park Presents, the lineup for this year’s Broadway in Chicago Summer Concert includes performances by cast members from the world premieres of Amazing Grace, Dee Snider’s Rock & Roll Christmas Tale, and Emerald City Theatre’s Hansel & Gretel, along with the pre-Broadway world premiere of The First Wives Club. In addition, there will be numbers from the hit shows Annie, Disney’s Newsies, Rogers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella, Jersey Boys, Kinky Boots, Pippin, Beauty and the Beast, The Illusionists, Evil Dead, and more. Interspersed throughout will be video of the shows to help set each number in context.
As always, the show will open with the national anthem sung by the male and female winners of the Illinois National High School Musical Theater Awards competition. Jonah Rawitz, of northwest suburban Buffalo Grove, went on to win the national competition and take home the coveted Jimmy Award for best performance at the national competition, held on June 30 at Broadway’s Minskoff Theatre. The award is named in honor of James M. Nederlander, the legendary Broadway theatre owner and producer. The budding star also received $10,000 to further his education and will be eligible for a four-year merit and needs-based scholarship to attend the New Studio on Broadway, NYU Tisch School of the Arts Department of Drama, contingent upon acceptance into the program.
The National High School Musical Theater Awards were started in 2009 to promote the importance of theater programming in high schools, provide scholarships, and create a pathway for promising young performers to pursue a career in professional theater.
Jonah Rawitz will be joined on stage August 18 by Illinois’ top female high school performer, Julia Lindsey Whitcomb from Belvidere, Illinois. They will be singing to a crowd that is expected to number 10,000-plus sitting in the amphitheater seats and spread across the expansive lawn.
Chicago as a Theater Destination
Chicago doesn’t just send budding professional performers and future Broadway hits to New York. It’s also a theater destination on its own. Lou Raizin, president of Broadway in Chicago, works closely with the Chicago tourism office, Choose Chicago. Raizin is proud that “over 42 percent of Broadway in Chicago audiences come from out of state and, of those, 88 percent cite a show as the reason for their visit.”
Some shows, most recently Wicked and Jersey Boys, became Chicago hits and continued performing on the Chicago stage — Wicked for three and a half years and Jersey Boys for two and a half years. While there have been more hits than misses, not all Chicago hits have translated into Broadway success.
“Some wonderful shows, like The Pirate Queen and Sweet Smell of Success, were not embraced by New York, but audiences here loved them,” LaCario says. “Chicago feels a proud ownership of these shows. Our most recent pre-Broadway show, The Last Ship, has sailed to New York with great reviews from Chicago critics and audiences alike. These shows become a little like Chicago’s children and we have high hopes for this one. We like to take care of our own and we want them to do very well.”