Tales from the Road
How Is Broadway Doing On the Road?
Grosses are hitting record highs in New York City, but something remarkable is happening with theatre across America.
Considering the records it’s been breaking from coast to coast, “Broadway” might just need an extra nickname. Along with the Rialto and the Great White Way, we should officially start calling it “the Longest Street in America.”
Legend has it that Paul Libin, the iconic theatre manager and recipient of a 2013 Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement, was the first to use that phrase, and even a glance at the current season proves he was on to something. More than ever, Broadway tours are taking the experience of Broadway across the country, giving millions of people a chance to experience New York City theatre.
More specifically: In the 2015–2016 season, a staggering 14 million people in more than 200 cities saw a touring Broadway show, generating $981 million in ticket sales. And when you consider recent successes—including the nationwide hunger for Hamilton, and Wicked’s $3.3 million holiday week in D.C.—those numbers are almost certain to keep climbing.
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“The increase in the volume of business on the road over the last 25 years is extraordinary,” says Albert Nocciolino, who presents Broadway tours in Pennsylvania and New York State and has produced multiple shows on Broadway. “There was a time when most of us has had five or six shows in our [annual subscription] series, and it wasn’t always the easiest thing to find the shows. Now you fast forward to next season, and we’ll have more shows than we’ve ever had touring the country. You’ve got five or six shows that haven’t even opened yet on Broadway that are booking dates for 2018–2019.”
This bounty reflects the theatre’s general surge in American culture. Whether it’s a major television network staging a classic musical or the cast recording of Dear Evan Hansen debuting in the top 10 of the Billboard album chart, there are signs that more and more people view theatre attendance as a natural part of life.
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When these audience members look for tickets, an official Broadway tour can seem especially appealing. “The brand of Broadway means something,” says Charlotte St. Martin, president of the Broadway League. “It’s somehow the ‘Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.’ It lets you say, ‘I know I’m going to get a certain quality of sets, a certain quality of costumes, a certain quality of talent.’”
That quality is key. As Nocciolino points out, “Many theatres across the country have invested millions of dollars to restore and renovate their spaces so they can house shows that tour. When The Lion King rolls into town with 20 trucks or Wicked rolls into town with 19 trucks and on and on, the patrons on the road are getting a show that’s just like what they’d see on Broadway.”
Crucially, though, patrons don’t merely see carbon copies of New York productions. Many times, plays and musicals are revised or re-staged for the road, so that they can take advantage of their new spaces.
Take Fun Home, the adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel that won the 2015 Tony Award for Best Musical. It started life at the Public Theater, was re-imagined for Broadway with an in-the-round staging, and then revised again for the tour, which began this season.
Kristin Caskey, one of Fun Home’s lead producers and now a vice president at Ambassador Theatre Group, values those changes. “Everyone took the job of putting this show on tour very seriously,” she says. “It is not the Public production; it is not the Broadway production. It is the best of what they learned in both of those experiences, re-invented for the road.”
When a Broadway production comes to town, the impact can be felt for miles. “It’s really a boost to those communities and their economies,” says Lauren Reid, CEO of the Theatre Division at Broadway Across America and vice chair of the Road at the Broadway League. “Ten to 20,000 people per week come to see a show, and so for the restaurants and the hotels and the local businesses, it can be really meaningful.”
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Research bears this out. According to the Broadway League’s findings, for every dollar a patron spends on a ticket to a touring show, they spend almost $3.50 at nearby businesses. To put it another way, $981 million in ticket sales last season translated to $3.2 billion in community-related spending.
Beyond the ticket sales, top-notch work, and local business support, a tour can leave a deeper legacy. At its best, when Broadway stretches across America, it reorganizes our perception of the world.
“That shared experience in our venues and the exploration of the arts on our stages creates a more connected community,” says Reid. “Anything we can do to help shape that experience is something we want to embrace. It’s our responsibility.”
Those shared experiences stick with people. Reid recalls seeing shows when she was a kid in Houston, Texas. St. Martin says, “I started working at 12 years old so that I could save money to go to the Dallas Summer Musicals. I lived for that. And then when I got to be a professional, traveling for a living, I would plan my trips around what was playing and where. That’s the kind of impact a touring Broadway show can have.”
Amy Justman has felt this, too. As an actor, she’s performed on Broadway many times—including this season in the cast of In Transit—and she recently traveled with the touring company of The Phantom of the Opera. In both cases, the audience’s enthusiasm was the same.
“On tour, we were consistently sold out and attracted lots of die-hard fans of the show,” she says. “When any of us wore our company hats or jackets around the cities we visited, people in restaurants or stores were often eager to ask us about the show or tell us they had tickets. It’s exciting to be part of such a theatrical institution.”
And it’s not just long-running favorites like Phantom that have that power. Any Broadway tour can bring people together for a night. Consider Reid’s recent evening seeing Something Rotten! in Boston: “I could tell it wasn’t as familiar to the Boston audience as it might have been in New York,” she recalls. “But it didn’t matter. They loved it. Hearing the laughter and sharing the experience with that crowd, who were getting everything and embracing this brand new show, was just incredible. It reminded me why we do this. America’s a mighty big country, and many folks don’t have the opportunity to make it to New York, but they can still be affected by Broadway.”
Watch highlights from that national tour of Newsies:
Mark Blankenship is the Director of Community and Content for Show-Score.