Making a Broadway show portable is a challenge

A play's tour difficulties can begin even before moving trucks roll

Fall Arts Preview / / Theater

September 10, 2006|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,[SUN THEATER CRITIC ]

"Let's take this show on the road."

It sounds so simple, it's become a cliche.

But in the most literal sense -- that is, mounting a touring production, also known as a road show -- there's nothing simple about it.

For instance:

What if the Broadway show that's going on the road is relatively small-scale -- like The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee or The Light in the Piazza -- but it's going to be performed in a gigantic theater?

Or, what if, like Wicked, the show is so massive that moving it from one city to another is a major production itself?

Or, what if it's a revival of an old chestnut, like Sweet Charity, whose appeal depends largely on casting a star?

And how do you keep a show fresh after it has not only played Broadway, but also numerous cities on tour?

Those are a few of the questions confronting the producers of these touring musicals, each of which is coming to the Baltimore-Washington area this season.

First to arrive, on Sept. 19, is William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin's Spelling Bee, which simulates a spelling contest. Producer David Stone felt strongly enough about its reception in Baltimore to begin the show's national tour at the Hippodrome.

Stone was general manager of The Graduate when that show played its American premiere here in 2002, and he believes many of the same factors that traditionally made Baltimore a strong Broadway tryout town also make it a good place to launch a tour.

He mentions the proximity to New York, which makes it easy for the creative team to travel back and forth, and he also cites the sophistication of the Baltimore audience.

"It knows what's going on in New York. It will understand the sharp and sometimes politically incorrect humor of Spelling Bee. We thought it was important to start in a city that would understand that before we start playing some cities that don't get Broadway shows all the time," he says.

Spelling Bee has already played extended engagements in Chicago, where the musical is in its sixth month, and San Francisco, where it just ended a seven-month run, prior to an extended stay in Boston beginning later this month. But the company coming to Baltimore -- after a preliminary regional-theater tuneup at Atlanta's Alliance Theatre -- will play as many as 70 cities over the next two years, and the Hippodrome will be the largest theater it has played so far.

The Light in the Piazza -- Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas' adaptation of Elizabeth Spencer's novella about a mother and daughter in 1950s Italy -- began its tour in San Francisco last month and has 25 bookings through June, including a three-week engagement at Washington's Kennedy Center this winter.

Maintaining the integrity of the Broadway original and keeping the show from becoming stale can be tricky over the long haul. But Ken Gentry -- producer of the Piazza tour and chief executive officer of NETworks, a Maryland-based touring business -- points out that, by its nature, touring ensures a degree of freshness.

"The road is quite unique in that every new city is like a new opening night," he says. "You're going to be judged with all fresh, new eyes every time you move the show. It's a huge taskmaster."

Spelling Bee has a couple of added advantages that help keep it new. For starters, the show involves audience participation. Each performance includes audience volunteers who compete alongside the actors. They may be eliminated after one word, or stick around so long that they almost become part of the cast; either outcome guarantees that the show is different every night.

"The other day, we had a former spelling bee champion, a kid. He really thought that he was there to win a spelling bee, and he just was very upset that we didn't go exactly by the rules," Spelling Bee director James Lapine says from New York.

Another built-in advantage is that local references and current events are worked into the Spelling Bee script at each performance.

"We just do a little research and try to make Putnam County a county somewhere near the city in which we're playing," Lapine explains.

Megamusical

In contrast to Spelling Bee, one of the toughest challenges facing most megamusicals is that they can't change a bit. In technically complex, scenery-laden shows such as Wicked, the set and lighting changes have to be as tightly scripted as the dialogue.

"Because of the technical nature, [Wicked] has to be the same every day or else someone will get hurt," says Stone, who -- along with native Baltimorean Marc Platt -- is also one of the producers of the Oz musical, which arrives at the Hippodrome in January.

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