The Road More Traveled: Why Touring Broadway is Booming

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The theme of the Spring Road Conference 2017.

May is known for Cinco de Mayo, Mother’s Day and Tony Awards nominations, but it is also the month when theater producers, booking agents and presenters from across North America descend upon NYC for three-and-a-half jam-packed days to celebrate the touring industry, also known as “the road.”

This year’s Spring Road Conference, hosted by The Broadway League, the national trade association for the Broadway theater, was one of its highest attended in its 28-year history. As usual, Broadway shows that opened this season were in the spotlight, as these shows are already part of (or pitching to be part of) the 2018-19 touring season. However, the theme of this year’s conference, “Road Work Ahead” made it clear that the industry knows it must also focus on other areas beyond booking this season’s Broadway hits.

Touring Broadway has thrived in recent seasons. According to the League, touring grosses in the 2015-16 season reached $981 million, with shows playing 1,014 weeks to 14 million attendees. It’s a vast difference from the 1984-85 season, the first year for which the League has statistics. That season had a total gross of $226 million and 8.2 million attendees.

How does the road remain strong, given the multitude of other entertainment options out there? Why is theater still popular? The answer, according to Pulitzer Prize-winning and Tony-nominated playwright Lynn Nottage, one of this year’s guest speakers, is that theater “helps us understand our existence. It’s like oxygen. You cut off the supply, the culture withers and dies.”

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It depends on how we define diversity.

To maintain its relevance and fiscal health, though, the road industry will need to be mindful of changes in the cultural climate and respond accordingly in its programming and its messaging. For instance, in what ways are producers and presenters responding to issues such as the call for increased diversity in shows? What about greater audience diversity? Based on League statistics, as recently as the 2015-16 season 91% of audiences for Broadway touring were Caucasian.

The entrepreneur, author, activist, philanthropist and co-founder of Def Jam Records, Russell Simmons, who is developing a new hip-hop piece called The Scenario, was this year’s keynote. According to Billboard.com, The Scenario weaves hip-hop’s “groundbreaking rhythms, iconic songs and timeless ideas with a completely original story that will take audiences on an electrifying ride that celebrates hip hop culture.” During his remarks, Simmons expressed hope that The Scenario will bring in new, diverse audiences to the theater:

We’re responsible to promote this kind of inclusive thing so we can build this industry.

The Broadway production of Hamilton continues to influence our culture almost on a daily basis. Now that Hamilton will begin touring in the 2017-18 season and beyond, it will have a direct impact on the road industry for years to come in such areas as ticket pricing, accessibility and attracting new audiences. Hamilton is already having a tremendous influence on subscription package pricing and has sparked a surge in subscriptions where the show will tour, the likes of which the industry has never seen before. This is a good problem to have. Yet it’s one that will require balance if presenters hope to keep package prices accessible to people who cannot afford expensive seats while keeping subscribers happy.

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The road industry has been a boon to more than theaters and shows. When tours come to town, they have proven to be economic drivers for local economies — from Dayton to Des Moines to Syracuse to Salt Lake City. With presenting costs rising and facilities to maintain, and with concerns surrounding the possible defunding of the National Endowment for the Arts, what are road presenters doing to preserve and strengthen their relationships with state and local governments, which can provide the industry key support?

For insights, I caught up with two leaders in the touring industry, President & CEO of NAC Entertainment, Ltd., Albert Nocciolino, and The Kimmel Center’s Director of Programming and Presentations, Frances Egler, to discuss the current state of the road, how it has evolved and what “road work,” indeed, still lies ahead.

Robin Rothstein: You’ve both attended the Spring Road Conference for many years. In what ways has it evolved and how do you still benefit from it?

Albert Nocciolino: I helped start the conference over 25 years ago. There was a time when the Broadway League had very few road members… [it] wasn’t integrated into the Broadway League the way it is now.

RR: I heard this year’s conference was up to around 750 attendees?

AN: I don’t think we were even a hundred people back then.

Fran Egler: The conference is a wonderful way to connect with colleagues. Presenting Broadway across the country, you can be a bit of an island because there is usually only one Broadway presenter per market. You can also discover best practices from other markets and steal good ideas as often as possible. Above all, being able to see Broadway shows and also interact with their creative teams, actors and other professionals attached to the productions is the reminder we all need to know that we are working to connect the people in our markets with the best live performances possible.

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Al, what is the biggest change in the conference since you started it all those years ago?

The challenge is the pipeline.

AN: The fact that the New York community has embraced it as much as it has. In the beginning we were just talking to ourselves. Now the community is saying “We want to talk to you and tell you about our shows.” With the growth of the touring industry, there have become more opportunities for producers. There was a time when a show wouldn’t tour unless it played two to three years on Broadway and was a big hit — and by that I mean it had recouped, made money. So there are producers now that recognize that the road provides this distribution network, which gives their show another life that might be completely different from New York, where their show can make some money, enhance the title and make the ancillary rights down the road worth more.

RR: What shows are you particularly excited about for the road in 2018-19 and why?

FE: Hamilton, Hamilton and HamiltonWe have already announced Hamilton for our ’18-’19 season as an incentive for ’17-’18 subscriptions, and the impact is amazing. But it’s also a season of fantastic new musicals that I know audiences will want to see, such as Dear Evan Hansen, Come From Away, Groundhog Day and Anastasia.

AN: A whole bunch of shows — I saw Come From Away and it was just unbelievable. Also Dear Evan Hansen. But then you also have Groundhog Day and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Anastasia. All those shows will find their way on the road and will be very successful. And the revivals of Cats and Hello, Dolly! and Miss Saigon. There are so many shows on Broadway this season. So we’ll have an abundance of new shows next year and I think there will be a lot of opportunities for everybody.

Albert Nocciolino

Improving diversity has become a hot topic, especially given the Hamilton phenomenon. Do you feel there has been a lack of it on the road? Is Hamilton a game-changer in that regard?

AN: I think it depends on how we define diversity. I spoke to a high school group a couple of months ago that had all been involved in theater. They worked backstage, they helped make the costumes, they helped build the set and the teacher wanted me to talk about other professions in the theater besides actors, like general managers and agents and marketing directors and stage managers and sound designers and we talked about all that. And finally I said, “So how many of you have been to Broadway?” Not one. “How many of you have heard of Hamilton?” Everybody’s hand went up. “How many of you have listened to the music?” Everybody’s hand went up. “How many of you know the words to any of the songs?” Everybody’s hand went up. Obviously, nobody’s seen it. Now, there in itself is something that hasn’t happened since the ’50s with Sound of Music and West Side Story: an audience that knows the score of a Broadway show that they have never seen! And then you talk to an audience, regardless of their age, and you hear that the music speaks to them, the content speaks to them — an audience that would never have any interest in Alexander Hamilton. We’ve had other shows that have done that, like The Color Purple, Motown, Porgy and Bess, In The Heights, Spring Awakening. Not enough of them, but we’re getting more and it’s important to bring new audiences in.

FE: The challenge is the pipeline. Lin-Manuel Miranda had been working on Hamilton since 2008. Hopefully, producers, individuals, as well as organizations such as the [Independent Presenters Network] IPN and the John Gore Organization, will work to back quality shows that reflect the diversity that is America by supporting shows that reflect a broad array of artists and experiences. For Philadelphia, which has a very diverse population, we work to have productions onstage match the city that is hosting them. So it’s wonderful to be able to present The Color Purple and On Your Feet next season. For ’18-’19, we will have Hamilton, and we will work to make the rest of our season as diverse as possible.

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RR: Speaking of Hamilton, with the tour on the horizon, this has surely increased the number of people buying subscriptions and their cost in those markets where Hamilton will tour. How do you see these increases affecting non-Hamilton seasons? How will you retain the new subscribers who bought subscriptions primarily because of Hamilton?

AN: In my markets, I don’t have Hamilton until ’18-’19, but we announced this past March at our announcement events, “Subscribe now and you’ll be the first to a get a subscription for Hamilton the following year.” Even though we don’t have Hamilton until next season, our subscriptions have broken a record in Buffalo. We’re approaching 15,000. It’s clearly made a difference on the road. And then to the second part of that question, “How do we retain them going forward?,” we’re going to have shrinkage. We always do. Here comes Phantom, here comes The Lion King, here comes Wicked. You have these bumps, and then you come down, and then back up. That’s normal business. You have to manage your subscribers as customers no differently than any other industry does. You have to make sure they have the best experience they can have. You have to make sure that they know that they’re very special to you.

FE: We are conscious that package prices for our full seven-show subscription have increased. We find that Philadelphia audiences are not overtly price-sensitive when the programming is what they want to see. But we do need to be careful to ensure that there are prices at all levels so that patrons of all economic levels can subscribe and see our shows.

Fran Egler, awake and fueled with another cup of coffee. Photo: Robin Rothstein.

RR: How open are road audiences to controversial subject matter? Do you find that you need to educate audiences in advance? I’m thinking of a few recent examples, like Spring Awakening, The Book of Mormon and Fun Home.

FE: As Philadelphia is one of the largest cities in the country, content is rarely an issue with our audiences. They want to see the best of Broadway in their hometown, as soon as possible. They object much more to a bad production.

AN: It’s a difficult question to answer because every market is different, depending on where you are in the country. It varies with awareness of the show. My audiences are much more aware because they’re in New York and Pennsylvania. But I think what’s happened is that we’ve all done a really good job with a couple of things. Because we have all these marketing tools, we’re communicating to our subscribers in advance. They know that Fun Home won the Tony Award. They know about the content of the show. We brought somebody in from Fun Home to sing a couple of songs from the show at our announcement. This year after the Tony Awards, we’ll be feeding them information on all the shows. Then, as we go along, once the shows have been announced and they’ve bought subscriptions, they will get information one or two weeks before the show. But they also trust us. There is a credibility that has evolved.

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RR: Will less conventional shows have more of an “in” now because of Hamilton?

AL: I would say that a different way. I would say the growth of our subscriptions, whether it came from Phantom, Wicked or Hamilton, allows us to provide a lot of latitude in our programming. To be more inclusive of shows that maybe in the past we wouldn’t have been as willing to present.

In what ways are you seeing the effect of the arts on local economies and in what ways, if any, do you interact with government to gain support for the arts in your area?

FE: We have a good relationship with the city of Philadelphia. Our presentations drive a lot of revenue into local restaurants, bars and other businesses. The city does not offer any revenue support of the [Kimmel] Center, but we do work with them for policing and other coordination of activities. Our local Convention and Visitors Bureau, Visit Philadelphia, is a great promotional partner.

RR: Al, you were a driving force behind the Empire State Music and Theatrical Production Tax Credit Program. What was your involvement and how did it evolve?

AN: Phillip Morris in Schenectady and myself simply stole the idea from Louisiana, Illinois and Rhode Island. It occurred to us that Broadway is a New York product, but tours were going to other states to open their tours. We have a huge film tax credit in New York state where we gave $400 million in tax credits last year to the film industry if they produced their films in New York state. Why can’t we do the same thing for the theaters in upstate New York? Oh, by the way, every single one of those theaters in upstate New York are 60, 70, 80, 90 years old, and all have had $15 to $35 million in renovations to blow off a back wall for Phantom, to re-seat, re-light, new marquees, whatever. They’re all in the heart of the urban cores in every single one of those cities. So, we thought, why not lobby for the same initiative for the theater industry? We got a tremendous amount of support and went all over the state and the legislation went into effect at the end of 2015. And it’s worked. We opened six shows last September and we’re about to open six shows this September.

RR: Is there data on economic impact?

AN: We’re looking to have a press conference with the government to amplify it. We did a remount of Jersey Boys in Syracuse. I came back through Syracuse after the engagement and I was doing an interview at a TV station about economic impact and how Jersey Boys was in town for three weeks and they Skyped in the production stage manager for Jersey Boys live, and he said, “We loved teching in Syracuse! We came out the back door and ate in every single one of those restaurants while we were here. We can’t wait to come back.” It’s so obvious! They stay in our hotels, they hire our local labor, the cast and crew spend money in stores, they get per diems, they eat in all of our restaurants and they rented the theater, too. So the theater got revenue and the community got revenue.

RR: As industry leaders, what are the most important skills or habits you have developed that have helped you stay the course and succeed?

AN: Part of what contributes to my own personal desire to be engaged is my own business. So, for instance, if I don’t do anything about it, I don’t think anyone else is going to anything about it. It’s also about risk-taking, inclusion and being at the table. Staying the course means, at least in our business, to do the best work you can possibly do and deliver the best you can to your customers out there. Staying the course is making sure as an industry we still have the place we’re supposed to have. That we have a seat at the table. That we’re in the room where it happens. That can’t change. And I don’t think it ever will because we’ve become such a big part of the business.

FE: I would say always be kind, but don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself or your market. Touring Broadway is a small world and you are going to be working with the same group of people again soon, whether the show is a home run or a disaster. Nothing is certain except that it will eventually be curtain time, and you need to be sure that the show is ready, the audience is there and that you’ve connected them correctly. It’s just that simple.