The problem with today’s out-of-town tryout and why they can kill a show.
After a very well received workshop, and after Side Show posted a premature closing notice, Something Rotten! pulled out of their out-of-town tryout to come straight in to Broadway.
How’d it work out for ’em?
Well, Rotten is one of the four Tony nominees in the closely-contested Best Musical race (and I heard many at this week’s Broadway League Spring Road Conference call it a favorite). And last week it did over $900k, even though it has no Hollywood stars and no branded movie-like title. In fact, it’s one of those rare breeds – a totally original Broadway musical.
Rotten isn’t the only show that has opted out of an out-of-town or their pre-Broadway tryout. Book of Mormon did it. The upcoming School of Rock is doing it.
Why are these shows choosing “the road” less traveled?
Well, first and foremost, they are obviously confident that their material will resonate with audiences without needing another gestation period. And that should always be a driving force between a Producer’s decision to do an out-of-town or not to. Are you ready? Or is a rehearsal period in NYC enough time to get you ready?
A not-so-distant second reason to skip an out of town is that these out-of-town tryouts are expensive, my dears! The regional theaters have become wise to the “enhancement game,” and what used to be a price tag of $1mm to the show’s bottom line, can now easily cost $1.5mm to $2mm! Add that to a workshop and readings and you’ve got a Broadway budget with close to $3mm in development costs, before you’ve stepped into the city. Now does it start to make sense why shows cost $13, $14 or $18 million? (If you look closely at the musicals that came from regional theaters over the last couple of years, you’ll notice that few of the California regionals are represented – because it’s soooo expensive to produce in that state! Looks like they’ve got a couple of droughts to worry about.)
Take that high up-front cost, and then factor in that the enhancement deal will also require a percentage of future profits to be paid to the regional, and it becomes even more of an expensive proposition. Of course, you get audience response, time to work on the show, etc. which can be priceless. But costs have gone up so much, Broadway Producers I know (including the guy typing this blog) are giving out-of-towns a second thought, and spending a lot more time crunching numbers.
But the third reason why I predict out-of-town tryouts may get more scarce over the next several years is because of that good ol’ theater crunch here on Broadway.
See, it used to be that if you had a show, you could say to the theater owners, “Hey, I’ve got a good show. I’m going to go out of town, and then I’d like to come in and open on Broadway next spring. Ok?” And then you’d get an “Ok,” and badda-bing, you’ve got a Broadway show.
But theater owners stopped promising a theater to shows going out of town long ago (obviously a few get through the gatekeepers, but that’s because there is usually a producing relationship hidden there somewhere). So now you’re taking your show out of town, with absolutely no guarantee you’ll get a Broadway theater. So, if the reviews of your show are not good . . . the chance of you getting a theater just went in the crapper. Badda-boom. Death. And maybe the show deserves to be dead if the reviews weren’t the best. But maybe not. Because isn’t that what out-of-towns are for? To identify issues and fix ’em? But with so many shows vying for so few theaters, bad reviews out-of-town could mean the end of your journey and the loss of your investment.
So all of a sudden, an out-of-town tryout that was designed to reduce your risk, has now increased it. And creative producers out there are starting to come up with other alternatives that are cheaper, don’t have ongoing profit participation, and don’t have too much exposure. Here are a few I’ve come up with:
- What about a longer rehearsal period – forget 5 weeks, what about 7, or 8?
- What about a longer rehearsal period with a week break in the middle, to allow the writers to catch up with the show?
- What about a “public workshop,” where you invite actual theatergoers to give you their thoughts, fill out surveys, etc. (My ex-boss and ex-prison cell occupier, Garth Drabinsky, did these all the time – and having witnessed one for Parade, I thought it was awesome.)
Out-of-towns aren’t what they used to be. And unless something happens to curb the costs, and decrease the risk, in the future there may not be many at all.
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