Putting together a Broadway show is a matter of choices. It begins with the producer's selection of the property he wishes to foster and then continues ad infinitum from there. Some producers are loyal to certain directors, and will wait until the preferred helmsman is free before going forward with the project. That director may be loyal to particular designers or a special choreographer. Either the producer or director may envision the show as best suited to a specific Broadway house and will sit watch over the address until it becomes vacant.
So it is, also, with the tryout town. Most producers of big budget musicals recognize the necessity of taking the show on the road before braving Broadway audiences and critics. The out-of-town gig allows the creative team to work out production's kinks, throw out material that doesn't work, try out new material, and even recast parts if need be. But where to conduct these artistic experiments? The answer is never simple.
The options available are, if not myriad, then plentiful. Young Frankenstein recently decided to take its act to the far northwest corner of the continental U.S., Seattle, as a prelude to arriving in New York this fall. The Little Mermaid, the latest venture from Disney, chose far-above-sea-level Denver as its wading pool. Other cities popular with recent Broadway-bound shows include San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago. Each producing team had its set of reasons for picking the burg in question, and no rationale the same as any other.
One factor that is almost always in play is familiarity. Theatre producers don't like to venture into an unknown territory peopled by strange faces. "If you have your choice of regional theatre to go to," said Roy Miller, producer of the Broadway hit The Drowsy Chaperone, "you want to go where you have a good relationship with those people. Drowsy happened at the Ahmanson Theatre because [fellow producer ] Kevin McCollum had worked with them before. Also, [Ahmanson artistic director] Michael Ritchie and I worked together as teenagers as a summer stock theatre. This industry is all about relationships." Thomas Shumacher, the president of Disney Theatricals, was likewise quite comfortable with the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, having taken Disney shows like The Lion King and On the Record to the complex in the past before choosing it for the world premiere of The Little Mermaid.
But no producer has only one motive for selecting a tryout city. Another reason he chose the Center's Ellie Caulkins Opera House, said Schumacher, was because "you get a fantastic facility. This opera house is fantastic." He rhapsodized about the roomy backstage area, which will allow The Little Mermaid the elbow room required to finesse the musical's large scenic, costume and casting needs. At the same time, the Caulkins, unlike the Center's larger Buell Theatre, is an intimate space, closer in scale to the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, Mermaid's future Broadway home.
"The deck size we perform on is exactly the deck that we'll have at the Lunt," said Schumacher. "What we do backstage is we have two colors of decking in the wings. When we're just running a number trying to get it on its feet, we use as much space as we have back there. But we also have decking that is color-coded, so we have the exact dimensions of the Lunt. So as we refine the show over the summer, people know when they're standing on what would be 46th Street and when they're actually standing in the theatre."
A Quality Audience
Good relationships. Good facility. Seems like plusses enough to satisfy any producer. But no. There's still another reason why the Mile High City got the nod. "What you get in Denver is a town that actually knows what going to the theatre is," stated Schumacher. "If the town had a big theatre, but had no subscribers or mailing list, it wouldn't work. But Denver is a big theatre town. You have a lot of theatre being done here."
The character of the local audience is mentioned by many showmen as a pivotal factor in their decision to bring their attraction to one town or another. One can't blame them. After all, New York theatergoers are sophisticated and somewhat jaded; producers want a similarly cultured and experienced regional population on which to test their new goods.
Hal Luftig, one of the producers of Legally Blonde, found the crowd he was looking for in San Francisco. "San Francisco is very sophisticated," he said. "They have a lot of theatre. They're known to support the arts. That was very appealing to us. They see a lot and they were going to give us an honest response. Some cities are so happy to get any show, they'll applaud you reading the phone book."
John Breglio, producer of the current Broadway revival of A Chorus Line, also opted for San Francisco partly due of the quality of its theatregoers. Other reasons included the city's affection for his particular title — "San Francisco has always been receptive to A Chorus Line; they always want to see it," Breglio said — and one more sentimental issue: Director-choreographer Michael Bennett loved San Francisco. Breglio explained, "He went there many times with the show. He had friends there. He had roots there. It was the first place he brought the show after Broadway, with the original cast in fact."
While Schumacher agrees that a cultivated theatregoing base is a prerequisite for any tryout, he does not concur that one theatre city is any more literate than another.
"There's a difference if you're in a town that doesn't have any theatre," he asserted. "But if you're in Atlanta or Chicago or Dallas or Seattle — these are all towns that have huge, thriving theatres. These are all very similar in terms of the audience."
For much of the 20th century, Broadway producers found the sophisticated ticketbuyers they sought — as well as convenience transit to Gotham — in the cities that lined the Eastern seaboard. Boston, New Haven, Wilmington, New Haven, Philadelphia and Washington D.C. were the classic tryout cities of the Golden Age of the American Theatre in the '40s, '50s and '60s. Audiences in these cultural capitals were accustomed to enjoying the best efforts offered by Broadway leading practitioners, and critics such as Elliot Norton in Boston and Richard Coe in Washington wielded enormous influence in the shaping of Broadway-bound mountings.
While Boston and Washington are still occasionally used for tryouts, the road business over the past decade or so has moved steadily west. Metropolises like Chicago, San Francisco and Seattle are the favorites of 21st-century Broadway producers. The reason for this can be found in the breakdown of the gentleman's agreements that once existed between producers and the theatre press. In the past, reporters and critics generally respected a show's wish to be left alone as it was whipped into shape in New Haven or Philly. As aggressive journalists began to breach this hands-off period and issue reports from the front, producers journeyed farther afield.
"...People wanted to get as far away from New York as possible to get away from criticism," said Miller. "We went to Seattle and San Francisco." Eventually, however, there was no escape. When the Internet became a force, it didn't matter where you were. "Because of the internet," continued Miller, "the world's gotten smaller, and people are going to hear about what you're doing regardless."
"There were people at the first show [of Legally Blonde] posting on the internet during intermission," said Luftig, noting what is now a common occurence at out-of-town tryouts. Still, while a certain creative privacy is now a thing of the past, producers continue to favor times zones due west of Eastern Standard.
A variety of other elements that dictate town approval were cited by the producers interviewed for this article. Among them: the length of stay offered by the host theatre; a favorable financial arrangement with the owners of the house; and the relative experience or inexperience of the director (neophytes need more time, seasoned pros less). While no one mentioned the tryout track record of the town itself as a deciding factor, that is doubtless a concern. After The Producers tried out successfully in Chicago, the Windy City was reborn as a hot address.
One thing seems for sure. Despite the considerable cost involved in mounting a show out of town, the idea of doing without a pre-Broadway tryout (Xanadu notwithstanding) is unlikely to catch on in the foreseeable future. "Nothing tells you more about a show that putting it in front of an audience," said Luftig. "If you do that in New York, you have only four weeks. That sounds like a lot, but it's really nothing."