Although Broadway remains America’s theater capital, it’s rare when a musical opens there untested. This is not a new occurrence; most musicals have arrived on the Great White Way after a tryout period of some meaningful length, often in places as diverse as Atlantic City, Philadelphia, New Haven, and even Minneapolis (where The Lion King worked out its kinks). Producers knew they could maximize a property’s life if the production’s wrinkles were eliminated before exposure to New York critics and audiences.
More recently, however, the Broadway musical’s starting point has changed radically, as a glance at the current landscape demonstrates. Grey Gardens and Spring Awakening are transfers from not-for-profit Off-Broadway companies; Mary Poppins is an import from London; Company got its start in Cincinnati; The Drowsy Chaperone and the soon-to-open Curtains debuted at Los Angeles’ Ahmanson Theatre; and The Apple Tree, which opens next month at Studio 54 under the aegis of the Roundabout Theatre Company, was first presented two years ago by City Center Encores!
One of the season’s biggest hits, How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, has played for eight years at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre. But it has been so drastically re-conceived for its current Broadway engagement at the Hilton Theatre that producer James Sanna says, “It was like we opened cold on Broadway. We’ve changed 50 percent of the show.” Most notably, Sanna — a former Radio City Music Hall executive who knows about effective holiday presentations — had new songs appended to the score and he upped the ante on the spectacle: “It now snows on the audience,” he says.
Nonetheless, the traditional out-of-town tryout still exists, even if it can add millions to an already-high budget. John Breglio, the entertainment lawyer who has recently appended the term “producer” to his resumé with the current revival of A Chorus Line, says it was a no-brainer to take the show to San Francisco before coming to Broadway in September. “I made that decision right at the very, very beginning,” he says. “It was not a tough decision for me. I would never open any show without going out of town first; it would be virtually suicidal. Going out of town for at least four weeks is the bare, bare, bare minimum. If you can’t afford to do it, then don’t do the show.”
Actually, Breglio advises a six-week stay in order for changes to be made after the initial reviews appear and subsequent word-of-mouth builds. In the case of A Chorus Line, he mentions that the extended stay on the West Coast allowed the show’s primarily neophyte cast to grow into their roles.
Another believer in this time-tested ritual is producer Kevin McCollum, who brought his new musical High Fidelity to Boston earlier this fall. “It’s an expense to send your kids to college, too, but they become better people,” he says. “Plus, theater is alchemy. You don’t know what you have until you see it. You really need an audience as the final step.”
When McCollum says “audience,” he means a paying one, not a group of industry invitees. “Doing workshops in lieu of putting a show before a paying audience is a mistake. You’re usually seeing the show with fellow theater people.” McCollum chose not to be overly specific about the changes made to the show between Boston and Broadway, but it is known that the score to High Fidelity has been slightly altered and some minor cast changes have taken place in recent weeks.
McCollum likes Boston as a tryout city, he says, both for the enthusiasm of the audience and for its proximity to New York. However, he does have one reservation about playing Beantown; he believes that the critics there — and in other cities, too — make the mistake of assessing productions as if they’re finished products. “They don’t realize they’re a part of the process,” he says.
Hal Luftig, one of the producers of the already-departed Broadway musical The Times They Are A-Changin’, also insists that many developing productions need an out-of-town tryout. He trotted Times out to San Diego’s Old Globe last winter because he believed director-choreographer Twyla Tharp needed to assess every aspect of her realized vision before shaping it further. Indeed, she made major revisions to Movin’ Out between its Chicago tryout and its Broadway bow, which helped make that show a major success.
Not surprisingly, Tharp made many changes to Times between San Diego — where the show was much better received than in New York — and Broadway, including hiring a new supporting cast and a new leading lady. (Jenn Colella was replaced after the San Diego run by Caren Lyn Manuel, who was then replaced by Lisa Brescia during Broadway previews. Meanwhile, Colella ended up as the leading lady of High Fidelity) However, despite all of Tharp’s tinkering, the show closed in less than a month after almost universally negative reviews.
In January, Luftig will take his next production, Legally Blonde — based on the hit Reese Witherspoon film — to San Francisco for a month-long run before the show lands on Broadway in April to give the show’s creative teamp lenty of time to gain their equilibrium. Not only is Luftig dealing with a brand new musical, but award-winning choreographer Jerry Mitchell is making his bow as a director with the show, and the team includes composer/lyricists Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin, and librettist Heather Hach, all Broadway newcomers.
The journey should be equally useful to the show’s design team. Legally Blonde set designer David Rockwell recalls that he and director Jack O’Brien learned a thing or two about the look of Hairspray during that show’s Seattle warm-up and subsequently repositioned two towers vital to the show’s physical appearance. Still, Rockwell says, “Tryouts are not an opportunity for scrapping a set. What you want to do is replicate where the show’s going to end up.”
How The Pirate Queen will turn out remains to be seen. The Alain Boublil-Claude-Michel Schönberg mega-musical, which is scheduled to land at the Hilton Theatre in March, is finishing up its lengthy pre-Broadway run at Chicago’s Cadillac Palace Theatre. While the box office has been strong; the show earned some less-than-favorable reviews. As a result, writer Richard Maltby Jr. was invited to work on the book and director-choreographer Graciela Daniele was recruited to oversee the musical staging, although the production is still being led by Tony Award-winning director Frank Galati.
“We are delighted that two such respected and talented artists as Graciela and Richard have chosen to join us on the continuing voyage of The Pirate Queen,” producer Moya Doherty said in a statement. “Our director and authors have long-standing relationships with Graciela and Richard and feel innervated by the opportunity of collaborating with them.”
It’s worth noting that one of the past rationales for going out of town — to escape the Broadway-insider magnifying glass — no longer exists, thanks to the Internet. Quips John Breglio, “I could open A Chorus Line in Sri Lanka and someone would be there to comment.”