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Question: When a Broadway show leaves Broadway and goes on tour, how much of the physical production — the sets, costumes, props — changes as it moves from theatre to theatre? -Steve Seitz, Cincinnati, OH.
When a traveling salesman leaves home, he or she must adjust to the various hotel beds and closets that become his or her temporary habitats along the way. A Broadway show is no different. Every theatre on its tour schedule has a different audience capacity, sightlines, stage width and depth, and wing and fly space. Sometimes the set used on Broadway is too large, too expensive to transport or otherwise unsuitable for the touring houses. So alterations must be made. Spectacle-heavy musicals like those presented by Disney Theatricals can present the biggest challenges. Mary Poppins presents a good example of how a show's Broadway set and touring set can differ.
"In taking Mary Poppins on the road, the biggest challenge was the set: how to take Bob Crowley's award-winning vision of the 40,000-pound Banks house and tour it," said Anthony Lyn, the musical's tour director. "Many shows simply take the Broadway set, condense it and send the show on its way. With Poppins, Bob and his associate, Matt Kinley, had the brilliant idea of not reducing what is seen on stage, but re-inventing it so as to provide audiences across the country with the same wonderful effect as the Broadway production. In New York, the Banks house literally fills the stage; on tour, the Banks house, although still considerable in size, is a cross between a massive doll’s house and a pop-up storybook."
Lyn continued, "At the start of the show, the house is closed and Bert opens it like the cover of a book to reveal a fully functioning home, complete with staircase, den and parlor. The house set moves at various angles and is even 'pushed' all the way around by Bert to reveal the kitchen set from the back side. So successful has this re-design been that the current 'sit-down' productions in Holland and Melbourne are using it in place of the original house design. Without a doubt, this is the largest set change we have incorporated from Broadway. The costumes and props remain the same."
Of course, there's not only a difference between the set used on Broadway and the one used on tour. Sometimes the touring set itself has to be altered from house to house. This has been the case with Chicago.
Unlike Mary Poppins, Chicago benefits from employing a minimalist design; the stage is dominated by a large band stand and little else in the way of scenery. This makes theatre-to-theatre changes easier.
"The Chicago set does not really change that much from theatre to theatre," said Gregg Kirsopp production stage manager of the musical. "Prior to entering a new venue, an advance trip has been done usually by the head carpenter and/or stage manager to check out the space and dimensions to be sure that the physical set will fit adequately within the venue's playing space."
Still, even with such a simple scenic design, specific theatre spaces do demand specific set and staging changes.
"The only time we had to make adjustments while on tour," said Kirsopp, "[was when] the back escape stairs for the musicians had to be cut from the set for that week as there just wasn't enough space for it to fit." In that instance, the musicians just entered from the front of the bandstand.
"Another alteration," explained Kirsopp, "was that sometimes the bandstand goes right up to the back wall of a theatre and there would not be enough room for an onstage crossover. So, a couple of entrances and exits would have to be made in the set. Instead of entering from the back of the bandstand, the cast would have to enter and exit from the side of the bandstand. These openings were already designed into the touring set."
As for props and costumes, Kirsopp said they remained the same.