How important are pre-Broadway tryouts and dedicated Chicago productions to Chicago's cultural economy? Very. Especially since the business of touring theater has changed so very much.
As Lou Raizin, Broadway in Chicago's savvy president, well knows, pre-Broadway tryouts and dedicated runs are the only sure way to protect Chicago audiences from two major problems: the increased dominance of non-Equity productions featuring early-career performers, small orchestras and cut-down physical productions; and a risk-averse mentality on the part of producers that sees potentially popular shows like "War Horse"come and go in Chicago in a matter of three short weeks, to the detriment of economic interests in the Loop, ranging from business owners to the bartenders at Petterino's.
I've no idea whether "Kinky Boots," which announced its pre-Broadway tryout in Chicago on Wednesday, will turn out to be any good. To my mind, it will be interesting either way.
But if you take the plunge and buy a ticket, you can be confident that you'll be buying a Broadway-size production with a Broadway-size orchestra and a Broadway-size set (nobody wants to reorchestrate or rebuild anything for an out-of-town tryout). You will be buying top-tier Equity talent. And the creatives, which in this case includes Cyndi Lauper and Harvey Fierstein, no less, will be right there in the room. That's all for sure, or as sure as anything can ever be in the world of commercial theater.
Paradoxically, out-of-town tryouts offer certain guarantees.
And, in my experience, so do long runs. The Chicago company of "Billy Elliot the Musical" was superior to the original Broadway company, and I saw both a couple of times. The show was done right in Chicago, even if Chicago didn't take to it as much as some of us wished it had.
Come fall, Chicago audiences will be able to see a dedicated, long-running production of "The Book of Mormon," probably the hottest theatrical ticket anywhere in the world right now. When the debut stand of the first national touring production of that particular attraction (with its "South Park" bona-fides) went on sale in Denver last month, the 51,000 available tickets sold out in just five hours.
When single tickets go on sale in Chicago in March, where the run is open-ended, the inventory will be exponentially larger (although blocks of tickets will be released slowly, pumping up demand and pushing business to weeknights). But it's hard to imagine the show struggling to fill its houses for many months, if not years.
It's surely possible that this new company will be an inferior copy of the Broadway original, and if so, I'll be carping, believe me, but given the pedigree of the artists here and their reputation for quality and (paradoxically, again) good taste, I'd be amazed. "The Book of Mormon" will be a full-size Broadway company. The people who built it will be in Chicago, building it again. When people ask me about how to get tickets in New York, I usually suggest waiting for Chicago. Why not see the hungry new crew, working on surefire material yet still anxious to impress?
"Kinky Boots" is the first of what's likely to be quite a few announcements of pre-Broadway shows in Chicago during coming weeks and months (the Goodman Theatre, which offers the kind of prestige and buffer that commercial producers love, is also about to get in on this game manyfold). This will end a bit of drought, partly a consequence of the natural ebb and flow of the business and partly a matter of a lot of shows choosing to go directly to Broadway. Raizin argues that the modest tax incentive package passed by the state of Illinois late last year is beginning to kick in and attract producers.
Further evidence of that can be seen in Toronto, Chicago's natural rival in this world, where effort is being made to compete with that very package.
The changes in the road are complicated. The price of moving shows has risen, and demand is uncertain. One can sympathize. And hope for pre-Broadway tryouts and dedicated Chicago productions.
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