In the next few weeks, Chicago's downtown theater district will be home to a bonanza of Broadway musicals.
Constantine Maroulis and Grammy Award-nominated R&B diva Deborah Cox star in a high-profile touring revival of “Jekyll & Hyde,” coming to the Cadillac Palace Theatre Tuesday, March 12, before it opens on Broadway for a limited run in April. The world premiere tryout of “Big Fish” — beginning April 2 at the Oriental Theatre — also has been announced as being Broadway-bound.
Two other musicals based upon high-profile films are making their Windy City debuts via post-Broadway national tours: “Priscilla Queen of the Desert The Musical” (March 19-30 at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University) and “Catch Me If You Can” (April 2-14 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre). And then, of course, there is the ongoing, critically acclaimed run of the nine-time Tony Award-winning “The Book of Mormon” at the Bank of America Theatre through at least Sept. 8, if not much longer.
In other words, Broadway fans are in for a feast. But it's also interesting to note how each of these musicals came to be here, reflecting differing touring trends of big-time Broadway musicals.
Long roads to Broadway
Chicago is used to hosting exclusive world-premiere tryouts aiming for Broadway and international glory.
The city has been the launchpad for smash global hits like “The Producers” in 2001 and “Spamalot” in 2004, but it has also seen flops that later limped through disappointing Broadway runs like “The Goodbye Girl” in 1992 and “Sweet Smell of Success” in 2001.
The jury is still out on Cyndi Lauper and Harvey Fierstein's “Kinky Boots,” which opens on Broadway this spring after its 2012 Chicago tryout. And though no one has seen “Big Fish” beyond workshops, the musical — about a fantastical Southern storyteller featuring a score by Andrew Lippa (“The Addams Family”) and staging by Tony Award-winning director/choreographer Susan Stroman (“The Producers,” “Contact”) — has already been booked for a fall opening in New York.
“Shows used to always open out of town before coming to New York City,” said Jeff Calhoun, a Tony Award nominee for directing the current Disney Broadway hit “Newsies” and the director/choreographer for the touring revival of “Jekyll & Hyde.”
Having an extensive pre-Broadway tour used to be commonplace in the 1940s, '50s and '60s. For instance, the 1960s American debut of Lionel Bart's British musical “Oliver!” paid off the producers' initial investment through a three-month pre-Broadway tour and a best-selling album.
For a time in the 1980s and 1990s, opening out of town became prohibitively expensive for several Broadway musicals for reasons ranging from complex scenery to the availability of stars. More often than not, though, opening cold in New York didn't allow enough time to fix a show's weak spots.
Producers and theater artists sought to develop new shows off-Broadway in workshops and in co-productions with nonprofit regional theaters. But many states — like Illinois — are offering tax incentives to lure Broadway producers to do major out-of-town tryouts again.
“There's just no substitute for time,” said Calhoun. “The longer you have to work on a show, ultimately the better you are.”
In the case of “Jekyll & Hyde,” Calhoun has been blessed with a 25-week pre-Broadway tour in which Chicago is the penultimate touring stop. It also has recognizable stars with Cox playing the prostitute Lucy and Maroulis — a past “American Idol” finalist and “Rock of Ages” lead — in the title role(s).
“For Constantine and Deborah to build up their stamina and to get ready for the enormous demands of each of their roles, this time has also been invaluable,” said Calhoun, who has been tweaking “Jekyll & Hyde” through its multicity tour. “In my experience, it takes about six months for an actor to get really good in a role, and so I think both Deborah and Constantine have appreciated this time to not only get as familiar with their characters as possible, but also just to exercise and do these herculean roles vocally.”
Nowadays, it's risky for a show to tour without major stars attached or an official stamp of approval for having “played on Broadway” — which an earlier version of “Jekyll & Hyde” did.
Randall A. Buck, the CEO of Troika Entertainment and the executive producer of the tour of “Priscilla Queen of the Desert,” said some shows don't need New York, while others do. He places the musical “Bring It On,” which toured Chicago last year, in the latter group.
“With 'Bring It On,' the authors and (producer) Universal Pictures felt that the reason the show wasn't necessarily doing the business they were hoping to do was because it didn't have a 'Broadway brand,'” Buck said.
He said “Bring It On” will have a stronger reputation now that it has played Broadway. “I'm in fact taking that show out on tour in January of next year, and we hope to tour Asia. There's also going to be a huge stock and amateur licensing for this, which might not be there if it hadn't had its time on Broadway.”
Two different touring scenarios are presented by the glitzy jukebox musical “Priscilla Queen of the Desert,” based upon the 1994 film about three female-illusionists traveling through Australia's outback for a casino gig, and “Catch Me If You Can,” the Broadway follow-up for “Hairspray” composing team Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman based upon the hit 2002 crime caper film.
After hit runs in Australia and London, “Priscilla” lasted more than a year on Broadway but didn't quite make it into the black financially. “Catch Me If You Can,” despite a Tony Award-winning performance from Norbert Leo Butz as an FBI agent in pursuit of the central con man, closed after a five-month run.
So sometimes touring allows for the investors to ultimately make back their Broadway investments. And since “Priscilla” and “Catch Me If You Can” both have recognizable film titles, they looked like good touring prospects.
One key difference is that “Priscilla” is going out as a professional tour with performers who are members of the union Actors' Equity Association, while “Catch Me If You Can” is nonunion.
“It's entirely driven by economics. An Equity tour is a more expensive tour and, if the market can bear it, it will always be my preference to go out Equity because they're easier to cast and maintain,” Buck said. “Why do we go out non-Equity? Because the market isn't willing to pay the higher rate for an Equity show. That made the determination right there.”
So catch all these Broadway musicals in Chicago while you can. And think about how much you'll save on skipping the airfare to New York.Copyright © 2013 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.