How Chicago lured 'Motown The Musical' away from Motor City
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You would think that Detroit would be the rightful place to launch the North American tour of "Motown The Musical." After all, the smash hit 2013 Broadway musical recounts the story of the African American-owned Detroit record label that broke barriers and helped launch the music careers of so many influential artists -- including Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson.
But instead of Motor City, it's the Windy City where the "Motown The Musical" tour begins. The show's 12-week run starts Tuesday, April 22, at the Oriental Theatre.
"Detroit is a great market, but Detroit cannot sustain 12 weeks of a show," said Kevin McCollum, a Deerfield native and a Tony Award-winning producer who, along with Doug Morris, was hand-picked by Motown Records founder Berry Gordy to coproduce "Motown The Musical" first on Broadway, and now on tour.
McCollum cited Chicago's robust summer tourism, its large population base and its dyed-in-the-wool theatergoing audiences as major reasons why the city was chosen to launch the tour over Detroit, which will instead be the fourth stop.
But the icing on the cake was the Illinois Live Theater Production Tax Credit Program, which offers financial incentives for show producers to choose Chicago or other Illinois cities to launch pre-Broadway world premiere tryouts or extended runs of established theater hits.
"It was definitely appreciated," said McCollum, who added that the tax credit program played a part in the producers' decision to rehearse the show's touring ensemble and to "tech" the production elements in Chicago rather than in New York.
The Illinois Live Theater Production Tax Credit Program was passed in late 2011 and offers up to a 20 percent tax credit for producers launching Broadway-bound shows here and for national tours that play eight weeks or longer (with at least six shows per week) in theaters with 1,200 seats or more. The reasoning was that hit Broadway shows not only provide employment for performers, musicians and stage crew, but they also boost hotel occupancy, dining, shopping, transportation and tourism.
"For our long-run shows, 42 percent of our audiences come from 100 miles away or more. And of those, 70-plus percent say their primary reason for being in Chicago is to see that show," said Lou Raizin, the president of Broadway in Chicago, which operates the Oriental Theatre, Cadillac Palace Theatre and Bank of America Theatre in Chicago's Loop and also presents at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University and the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place.
"It really turns out to be an enormous economic impact for the city and state from a cultural tourism perspective."
Since the Illinois tax credit went into effect, pre-Broadway world premiere musicals like "Kinky Boots" (2012) and "Big Fish" (2013) have made use of it, as did "The Book of Mormon," which launched its second national tour after a Chicago run of more than nine months. Upcoming pre-Broadway shows in Chicago this year include the Sting-composed musical "The Last Ship" and "Amazing Grace."
"To us, it's about the length of the run, not a normal tour," said Raizin, who emphasized that certain hit shows like "Wicked" or "Jersey Boys" could sustain extended runs in Chicago. "When we started Broadway in Chicago, Chicago was what the industry refers to as a 'bus and truck town' -- basically two weeks and the show is gone and the shows are few and far between."
Illinois isn't alone in trying to lure live theater producers. Louisiana was the first state to pass live theater tax credits in 2007, and Rhode Island followed Illinois in 2012. Louisiana's tax credits also encompass major concert tours and Cirque du Soleil shows, while Rhode Island's don't require show stays that are as lengthy as needed to qualify for Illinois' tax credits (which could be why the 2013 tours of "Once" and "Evita" launched in Providence, R.I., rather than Chicago).
Now New York is getting into the game. Starting in 2015, that state will be offering tax credits to aid tours and Broadway-bound shows launching at venues in upstate New York. In fact, "Keep Broadway in New York" was one of the slogans used to promote the legislation's passage this year.
"Now that you've got some real good and beautiful venues, all within a few hours drive from New York, we anticipate that the New York credit will be used," said Tom Ferrugia, director of government relations for the Broadway League, which represents theaters and producers throughout the country. "We've already been getting lots of calls from producers who have questions about it and how they can use it."
Yet, Raizin said theater lovers in Illinois -- and Chicago in particular -- shouldn't be too worried.
"I don't see us as waning in that competition," said Raizin about Chicago's world-famous reputation for producing theater. "When you look at the competition, you start to distinguish market by market and you'll see that we stand tall."