The notion of the out-of-town tryout is as old as Broadway. It's the place where you first stage your new show and work out the kinks before you brave the cold critical winds of New York.
Historically, for most shows this amount to one city — be it Boston, New Haven, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco or Seattle. For very careful producers with deep pockets, a production may make two or three stops before reaching Times Square. The Broadway-bound Aladdin, for instance, has had mountings in Seattle and Toronto.
For Flashdance, the musical version of the 1983 film about an aspiring young dancer, three shows is just a drop in the bucket. The show launched Jan. 1, 2013, at Pittsburgh's Heinz Hall. Since then it has been to St. Louis, Louisville, Atlanta, Baltimore, Nashville, Minneapolis, Houston, Dallas and a dozen other cities. And it's not even close to done. It's playing Washington, D.C., through Jan. 19, and will then go on to Las Vegas, Sacramento, Milwaukee, Boston, Cleveland and several other cities, including that punchline of touring destinations, Peoria, IL.
The plan is for Flashdance to eventually make it to Broadway. (The show was originally announced to open on New York in August 2013, but that arrangement was called off.) But, for now, the producers and director are in no hurry.
"In the normal situation for a show in development, all the creators pay a lot of attention to audience reaction," said producer Marc Routh. "Usually, we're limited to, at most, a month's previews. You fix it in time for the critics performances. We haven't been under that pressure. We really learn from a vast network of audience members." "The show's been on the road the entire year," he added. "We have an unprecedented opportunity to watch the reactions of the audiences across America and make alterations."
"I don't know if an original show has ever done this," added Sergio Trujillo, the musical's director-choreographer. "It's a decision made by the producer. I knew it was an iconic movie and a darling of people in the 1980s. I thought, 'Why not bring it to the people and create a show that will cater to them?' They've been a barometer along the way."
Trujillo said theatregoers help him answer artistic questions like, "How much do you adapt from the movie?" and "How much do you take creative license?"
Both Trujillo and Routh have seen the production in multiple locations, and in each town, they gather ideas. Changes have been put into the show in Dallas, Hartford and Philadelphia. Twice last fall, the cast did read-throughs of revised scripts.
"The actors actually sang and read through a new version of the show and then performed an old version of the show" later that day, Routh marveled.
Every audience seems to teach the creators something about what the theatregoers want from a musical called Flashdance.
"In one of the sections of the show, the mentor to Alex is this older woman," related Routh. "We visit her in her apartment a few times. I was sitting next to a couple one night who were clearly enjoying the show. When the lights went up on the set of the old lady's home, this man audibly groaned. For me, that was a lightbulb moment: The audience really doesn't want to go back there. They like the character, because she pays off later, but they didn't really like going to this old lady's home."
As a result of that revelation, scenes in the apartment were eliminated, and the lady was incorporated into other scenes within the show's plot. "It's made the thing more seamless and integrated," said Routh.
Trujillo knew that the final dance sequence featuring welder-turned-dancer Alex would be critical. But he wasn't sure whether to duplicate the movie moment on stage or reinvent it.
"My original idea was to have Alex use different dance influences. She would begin to dance by herself and different dancers in dancing styles she had learned would appear to create a production number. What I discovered was the audience wanted to see her dance by herself. They have notions of that moment. They know what they want it to be. I changed it and now the audience explodes at the end of the show."
For both producer and director, relying more on audience reaction than critical reviews makes perfect sense for Flashdance.
"I think, clearly, Flashdance is a populist form of entertainment," said Routh. "This is never going to be the critics' darling. It's a show people are going to love and enjoy as an entertainment."
Though Routh highly values the creative dividends afforded by Flashdance's extended touring arrangement, he does not necessarily think it will be a common development model in the future.
"We have the ability to do this because Flashdance is such a recognizable title," explained the producer, "and we can do this without that Broadway imprimatur. Not every show can do that."
"I've been approached by another producer who wants to follow our path," told Trujillo. "It all depends on the brand name."