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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Comments
  • Camille says:

    “(If you look closely at the musicals that came from regional theaters over the last couple of years, you’ll notice that none 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.)”

    I believe there are a number of California theaters that have been represented on Broadway over the last few years. Gentleman’s Guide (La Jolla to Bway in 2013), Side Show (La Jolla ’13 / KC and Bway ’14), Hands on a Hardbody (Old Globe ’12 / Bway ’13). Beautiful played an out-of-town tryout at the Curran in San Francisco before its Broadway run. And although there was a gap between the regional production and Broadway, Allegiance ran at the Old Globe in 2012 and is scheduled to come to Broadway later this year.

  • BroadwayBizGuy says:

    Some shows which received poor reviews out-out-town still made the move to Broadway. See “Urban Cowboy” at the now-defunct Coconut Grove Playhouse, http://www.nytimes.com/2003/03/29/theater/brief-run-for-cowboy.html. It will be interesting to see what happens to the “First Wives Club” adaptation, which received poor reviews during its premiere at the Old Globe Theatre, and again during a recent run in Chicago, Illinois. Some producers do not recognize their sunk costs.

    @BroadwayBizGuy

  • Paul Mendenhall says:

    I couldn’t agree more with all this. While it is true that you can’t judge a show until you see it on it’s feet, too many shows get produced when anyone with eyes could see they are not ready, simply because of the belief that everything can be worked out “out of town.” There is also the fact that regional audiences tend to be too forgiving, being flattered that they have been chosen to see a show first. And regional critics are mostly useless. Either they react the same way as the audiences, trying to curry favor with NYC players, or they fall into reverse snobbery, going all acidic and mean. None of them seem to have a clue how to be constructive. So what is there to learn? I love your idea of longer rehearsals with a break in the middle. Any show that can’t be “fixed” under those conditions and with a preview period probably is not fixable. This endless cycle of readings, workshops, tryouts and previews has got to stop.

  • Tom L says:

    And having a successful out of town tryout can hurt you if you don’t have the right investors. You won’t get the Broadway Theater you want and my have to stay in Toronto so you don’t take a Tony away from one of Broadway ‘ s 3 families.

  • David Merrick Jr says:

    Excellent post, but I can’t help think of Neil Simon’s comparing not doing an OOT tryout to having a gynecological exam in the middle of Times Square.

    Still, great to get this from the horse’s mouth. So to speak.

    • Paul Mendenhall says:

      I suspect Simon’s comment was made before the internet had turned the whole world into Times Square. There is no getting away from the spotlight now.

  • Jon says:

    I think the partnership model is becoming an interesting one. Paper mill Playhouse / Disney/ LaJolla is an interesting mix. Sometimes it works ( newsies) sometimes not ( hunchback). Roundabout and McCarter in Princeton have some interesting partnerships ( into the woods). Anyone talk to NJ Shakespeare festival lately? most of what they do, exceedingly well, ain’t the bard. Alternatively rather than thinking of it as a development process, perhaps a discovery process would be more useful. Who is doing outstanding original work ( Besides Chicago;s Steppenwolf) that could financially work on broadway? Check the WSJ, Terry Teachout is already doing the legwork….

  • Elisa Clayton says:

    I’m thrilled to hear that Broadway Producers are receiving diminished returns from out of town tryouts because our LORT regional theater has delivered some really boring seasons full of tryouts (i.e. “Bull Durham The Musical”, “Tuck Everlasting The Musical”, “Zorro The Musical”). I think you get the picture!

  • Patrick Oliver Jones says:

    I agree that costs are now outweighing the artistic benefits of an out-of-town tryout. We’ll see if First Wives Club will suffer from our tryout in Chicago. We did learn and change a lot of the show to make it more cohesive, and audiences responded in kind. But the critics were pretty harsh, some undeserved and some right on point. Broadway is susceptible to the same two factors of any theater across the country: money and venue. Without them a show, no matter how good, will never be more than just an idea.

  • Debbie says:

    “What about a “public workshop,” where you invite actual theatergoers to give you their thoughts” –YES! I’m shocked this isn’t done regularly for shows with Broadway ambitions. While theater is art, when a producer is putting lots of zeros behind it, it is also very much a business that needs to appeal to a paying customer. I am continually frustrated when I see obvious problems that could have been highlighted by a pair of fresh eyes without an artistic or financial stake. Living in DC, I’ve seen many tryouts recently where problems quietly noted by me or fellow audience members are echoed in black and white by influential critics.

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