After the yearly hoopla of the Tony Awards, producers of hit musicals start plotting their next move: national tours that brings the excitement of Broadway to cities across America and beyond.
To get an inside look at how multimillion-dollar musicals hit the road, Broadway Direct spoke with the masterminds behind a trio of award-winning shows currently prepping their first national tours: Kinky Boots (winner of six 2013 Tonys, including Best Musical), Pippin (winner of five 2013 Tonys, including Best Revival of a Musical), and Newsies (winner of two 2012 Tonys, including Best Choreography).
“Many people can’t get to Broadway, so it’s important to take the finest work to audiences outside New York, which adds an extra layer of luster to the Broadway production as well,” says Kinky Boots producer Daryl Roth. Propelled by Cyndi Lauper’s Tony-winning score, Harvey Fierstein’s heartwarming script and a cheeky chorus line of men in drag, Kinky Boots is set to begin its tour in September at the Smith Center in Las Vegas.
On the local level, an acclaimed show that began life on Broadway “attracts people to their hometown theaters, and when they see something they like, they’re more likely to go again,” says Mimi Intagliata, Disney Theatrical’s director of production and point person for the October launch of the North American tour of Newsies. “I grew up in St. Louis, and I remember seeing Carol Channing in Hello, Dolly! and the national tour of Annie at the Fox Theatre. I loved going to shows with my family.”
A road company may even help support its Broadway counterpart, says Alecia Parker, now in her third decade spearheading tours of shows produced by Barry and Fran Weissler. As the Chicago revival continues its astonishing worldwide run (with grosses of more than $1 billion), Parker is prepping Pippin for a national tour launching in September. “Everybody who lives in, say, Cleveland won’t be able to see Pippin in the two weeks it’s there,” explains Parker, “but they might travel to New York later and remember the show that came to their hometown.”
Beyond attracting audiences, hitting the road means big business for Broadway plays and musicals: In the 2012–2013 season, touring productions in 200 cities across North America grossed $877 million, representing attendance of 13.7 million people, according to the Broadway League. The Lion King alone has been seen by more than 15 million theatergoers in its North American productions — 70 million worldwide — and has grossed more than $1 billion across North America and $5 billion around the world.
With numbers like that, it’s no wonder Broadway producers are willing to truck tons of scenery and fill planes with cast and crew, crisscrossing the country in stops of a week or longer. “It’s a lot of moving parts and pieces,” says Intagliata, who began her career more than 20 years ago as a stage manager for small “bus and truck” tours of classic shows like West Side Story. For a major national tour, a road crew of about a dozen people is responsible for dismantling the sets, lighting, and sound equipment after the Sunday evening performance and getting it to the next city in time for a Tuesday night opening.
“Imagine a weekly school trip with a cast of 30, plus sets and costumes and lights,” says Kinky Boots producer Hal Luftig, whose national tour of Evita is currently making its way through three southern states. “Flights get canceled, a truck breaks down —sometimes actors almost miss a cue because they get lost backstage!”
Savvy producers like Luftig and Barry Weissler have become more adept at making sure their shows are road-ready from the start. With Pippin, says Weissler, “very little is changed” from the Broadway production, adding that that sometimes the tour comes first, as in his Tony-winning 1989 revival of Gypsy, starring Tyne Daly. On the road, “we put the set on a deck that can be moved in and out quickly, but the show looks the same.” In the case of Newsies, the set’s giant steel towers are being re-engineered in larger pieces to ease the job of loading them in and out.
A hit musical’s first national tour must never seem like a second-rate experience, producers agree. “You are seeing the Broadway production in your city,” Luftig says flatly. “You can go to the Des Moines Performing Arts Center and you’re seeing the same costumes, same choreography, same sets and lights, same orchestrations.” The cast will be different, of course, but that’s not a huge issue in shows that aren’t star-driven, including Pippin, Newsies, and Kinky Boots.
The final, all-important pieces of the tour puzzle? Scheduling and marketing. Producers work with booking agencies and local presenters to lock in theatre dates and subscription packages, then go to work to attract audiences. Each show produces a photo gallery, video previews, ad spots, web content, and printed promotional material, and local papers frequently interview cast members in advance of an engagement. The goal is to make theatergoers comfortable buying tickets to a show with a title that’s unfamiliar — or, in the case of Stephen Schwartz’s 1972 royal fable, too familiar.
“A lot of people have seen Pippin done in high schools,” notes Alecia Parker, “so we’ve worked hard at the message that this is a newly conceived, Tony-winning professional production” featuring acclaimed circus-inspired staging by Diane Paulus. A high-energy ad spot for Newsies emphasizes Christopher Gattelli’s award-winning choreography.
The Kinky Boots team commissioned market research “to allay the fears of people who might be skittish about buying tickets to a show with the word kinky in the title,” says Luftig. In addition to showcasing Lauper’s score, promotional material stresses the inspirational friendship between shoe factory owner Charlie Price and boot-loving drag queen Lola. “It’s important for people to know that this is an entertaining show with a huge-hearted message of acceptance, and characters you fall in love with,” says Roth.
Love is the emotion mentioned most often by the pros behind this year’s big-budget musical tours. “I love the challenge,” Alecia Parker says of guiding huge trucks through the midwinter polar vortex or dealing with a flu epidemic on the road. “I loved everything about this show from the beginning,” Daryl Roth says of Kinky Boots. “I went to Catholic school and got the ‘call,’ but it was to go into theater, not to become a nun,” Mimi Intagliata says with a laugh.
Many of those love affairs with the stage began far away from Broadway. “If you poll people who work in the theater industry, 90 percent of them will tell you about a show they remember seeing at their local theatre, whether it was a community production or a tour,” says Hal Luftig. “People see a show in their city and they get hooked.”