Out of town tryouts - are they as useful as they used to be?

Broadway Legend
I was reading the thread on HOLLER IF YA HEAR ME and it was interesting how many people commented that the show could have benefitted from an out of town tryout, rather than 'opening cold' at the Palace with only a couple weeks of previews. Certainly the benefits of opening a show out of town are many: the chance to work out story and technical kinks, the chance to gauge an audience's response to the songs and the book, etc.

Yet many shows choose to open cold on Broadway; The Book of Mormon and Women on The Verge come to mind right off the top of my head. The Book of Mormon has ended up a smash hit, Women On The Verge, not so much.

Producers often state that the rising costs of associated with mounting a musical often makes it unfeasible to open a show out of town. It's also been mentioned that one of the biggest advantages of opening a musical outside of NYC - privacy - has been rendered obsolete with the advent of the internet and social media. While producers used to take shows out of town in order to let the creatives work on the piece away from the the prying eyes of the New York theatre community, these days thanks to blogs and sites like BWW, everyone in NYC can almost instantly know (and often judge) all the details of a show trying out on the west coast.

Obviously an out of town engagement (or lack thereof) isn't at all an indicator of a show's commercial or critical success, as there have been plenty of shows that have had tryouts and then flopped in New York, and vice-versa. But is it a crucial step in the life of a show, especially those with complex and intricate technical requirements like Spider-Man? It's interesting to think about.

"You drank a charm to kill John Proctor's wife! You drank a charm to kill Goody Proctor!" - Betty Parris to Abigail Williams in Arthur Miller's The Crucible
Updated On: 6/18/14 at 05:07 PM
Broadway Star
I can only talk of my experience with If/Then. It was the first show I saw as an "out of town tryout" and let me tell you… they needed every second of the time in DC! It definitely benefitted them 100%. But it also helps when you have actors who WANT to get better. We went twice in DC and every person who stage doored asked opinions of what we thought and what we wanted to see improve etc. both times that we stage doored. It was actually really fun getting to talk to the cast and have actual conversations about the show.

Awesome discussion question though. I'm interested to see what others have to say!
WhizzerMarvin TrinaJasonMendel
Broadway Legend
I still think it's rare that a musical opens cold on Broadway, and The Book of Mormon is the successful exception.

Of the 12 new musicals this season the following had try-outs/pre-Broadway tours:

First Date
Soul Doctor
Big Fish
Gentleman's Guide
Bridges of Madison County
A Night With Janis Joplin
Rocky (German production)

After Midnight played at City Center as The Cotton Club Parade for a while, but I guess that's not technically an out of town tryout.

Only Bullets Over Broadway truly opened cold on Broadway without an prior productions.

Like you mentioned, a tryout gives no guarantee that a show will be a hit, but it's a very important step in the process. If creatives didn't feel that way, the practice wouldn't still be so prevalent.

I think what has changed the most from decades past isn't that technology allows more people to hear about the tryouts, but that the creative team is unwilling/unable to make the changes big and small that are needed.

When you read about out of towns in the 50s, 60s and 70s the creatives didn't mess around. Songs were cut and/or replaced. Actors/directors/choreographers/book writers were let go- Congratulations Miss Logan! Roles would be written out or beefed up. Things would actually be fixed, or at least a valiant effort would be made.

Some changes are still made today in the move from the road to Broadway, but often it's just cosmetic stuff and not getting at the real issues.
Marie: Don't be in such a hurry about that pretty little chippy in Frisco. Tony: Eh, she's a no chip!
Broadway Star
One that come quickly to my mind is The Addams Family. There were drastic changes from Chicago to Broadway. While the show was sill not a hit with the critics anyone will say it was a hell of a lot better than it was in Chicago. And the fact that even after it closed they kept working on it shows they really did want to make the show the best it could be. I honestly think the show was best on the tour. Which is what you would expect from 3+ years creating a musical.
Broadway Legend
Some changes are still made today in the move from the road to Broadway, but often it's just cosmetic stuff and not getting at the real issues.

Interesting point you raise about creatives sometimes not being willing or able to make bigger changes to their shows. I can understand ( a little) being unable to make major structural changes to a show if it's due to something like technical demands - although I don't agree with it.

"You drank a charm to kill John Proctor's wife! You drank a charm to kill Goody Proctor!" - Betty Parris to Abigail Williams in Arthur Miller's The Crucible
Updated On: 6/18/14 at 06:01 PM
WhizzerMarvin TrinaJasonMendel
Broadway Legend
gleek- I would argue that The Addams Family is a prime example of the creatives NOT making the necessary changes to fix the show before Broadway. Sure, they cut and replaced some songs, but that stuff turned out to be just like pushing around some unappetizing food on your plate with a fork.

They didn't make any of the big structural and tonal changes that oh so desperately needed to be made before coming to New York. The idea that the characters would think they needed to act "normal" was so flawed and showed a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes the Addams Family funny. The audience knows they're weird and different, but they don't. That's a large part of what makes it funny.

Setting up the story as a very lazy La Cage ripoff was a big mistake, and this needed to be completely revamped before playing another performance. (The subplots were equally awful: Morticia is worried about wrinkles and aging? Really?)

Marie: Don't be in such a hurry about that pretty little chippy in Frisco. Tony: Eh, she's a no chip!
I completely agree about If/Then, PromisesPromises. I saw it the first and the last weekend in DC and then when I was in NY recently. They've made a ton of changes, small ones while in DC and big ones before Broadway, that have made the story much, much cleaner and easier to follow. As much as I enjoyed it in DC, I thought the first act dragged a bit, but didn't feel that way at all in NY.

Updated On: 6/18/14 at 06:22 PM
Mr. Nowack
Broadway Star
Very interesting topic. There have been a few shows that were reportedly disasters out of town but became major hit once they opened on Broadway, HELLO DOLLY and FIDDLER ON THE ROOF being two major examples.

Some blame the unsuccessfulness of the original DEAR WORLD on too many revisions during the out-of-town tryouts, trying to make it into something it wasn't (although personally I think it must have been expectations).

I think one of the earliest shows to opt for an extended preview period instead of an out-of-town tryout was WISH YOU WERE HERE because of the impracticality of modifying two theaters for the swimming pool.

Even if the internet does allow for all the details to get out while a show is playing a tryout, it still limits the amount who actually see it. I like to think that most people might take these comments into consideration, but still hold out on full judgement until they actually see the show.
I was previously known as Mr. Nowak (Joined: 5/20/13).
Phantom of London
Broadway Legend
Shows used to do try outs all the time, as a mini Pre-Broadway tour, where they would play Newhaven, Philadephia and Boston, shows used to die on the road as well and not make it to New York.

However a try out can give you a false sense of security and ger critical acclaim in the try out town, but then get trashed in New York.
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Broadway Star
Mr. Nowack, what else do you know of the pre-Broadway FIDDLER? I'm really interested.
Broadway Star
I agree Addams had problems in New York but in my opinion, still better than Chicago. The point I was trying to make was that they never stopped working on it. I personally love the show. I think that the tour was the best version. All of the little plot lines have now been put into 2 main plot lines. The Chicago run may not have helped a ton when transferring to NY but when you look at the big picture the show did nothing but benefit from it's time in Chicago.
Featured Actor
Big Fish also comes to mind. The show received mixed reviews at best out of town and yet little was changed when it opened on Broadway. It might as well just opened in cold in New York and saved the money if nothing was going to be changed.
Broadway Legend
I find it fascinating the cases of shows that have tryouts and then open in New York in worse shape than they did out of town. Lestat and Wonderland immediately come to mind.

Everything I've heard and read about Lestat suggests that the San Francisco version was better than what opened on Broadway.
"You drank a charm to kill John Proctor's wife! You drank a charm to kill Goody Proctor!" - Betty Parris to Abigail Williams in Arthur Miller's The Crucible
Broadway Star
This is a little step to the left.
Many on here, and obviously elsewhere, seem to have very astute and wise comments on what is good and what seems to be 'wrong' with a show.
So, why if it is so obvious to many, then why don't the people who are in a position to fix/change things to make things work in this preview period, very often don't ?
Does what I'm trying to say make sense? We can see the obvious, but 'they' can't/won't ?
Broadway Legend
I saw Lestat in San Francisco, and from my perspective, most of the problems were fixable. I'm not sure what went wrong after SF.
"Don't patronize me, alright?" - BroadwayStar4
Broadway Legend
I had a part time gig at Macy's down the street from Lestat in SF, and a lot of people ended up shopping instead of going back to see Act Two.

I do think that an audience has a distance from the material that a creator can never have, which is double-edged. From one perspective, we have no investment in the work and can think it would play better without certain variables. But, at least in the case of original works, we really have no way of knowing what the creators want it to be, so what seems like an easy edit to the audience is a house of cards to the creative team, since the song we may not like sets up the emotional arc to them, and is what gives the character the ability to make the choice they do two scenes later.

In Stephen King's On Writing book, he discussed revisions and said with any creative work, if some people love a passage, and some people hate it, then that debate always tips in favor of the creator of the work leaving it in.

With If/Then, they certainly changed the show a lot from DC to previews to opening, but ultimately they need to get it as close as possible to the vision they had for the show. I'd rather something messy and alive than something massaged, pretty, but with no edges. And, follow Stephen King's rule, if some people like it, and others don't, the original vision wins.

When I saw the second preview of The Anarchist, I immediately knew it was in trouble and had no chance of improving, since I had Mamet sign one of his books on his way out of the show. In a show that no one seemed to love, he asked if I had been to the show, and I said I had, and he replied, "Weren't they just amazing tonight? They nailed it." And if the creator/director loved it, it seemed pretty obvious he wasn't planning to tinker with it during previews.

To tie it to the original premise, though, I see the out of town preview as the time for the creative team to see their show get up on its feet and shape it to clarify their vision. That requires an audience. So, the need will never go away. I'd argue that BWW isn't really indicative of most people's experience. Most people will be surprised to find out After Midnight did close, won't know Honeymoon in Vegas is coming in next, won't know how it performed at Paper Mill, won't be predicting that it won't stay open long based on JRB's track record, etc. They aren't tracking out of town previews, reading the reviews it got in previous incarnations, etc., etc.

They also aren't questioning how committed Disney is to Into The Woods by tracking trailer placement 8 months in advance.

Not to mention that Aladdin had bad reviews out of town, and now has $18M in advance tickets sold. Wicked was just OK in SF and didn't get critical raves in NY 10 sold-out years ago.

So, I think they still have a place, even if the times have changed. Social media can shape perceptions, but the team still needs to put in the same work as before, even if that means the tepid out of town reaction becomes part of the narrative of a show in a way it hasn't before.

But at the end of the day, the creative team needs to put a show up on its feet to try and get it as close as possible to their vision. Whether that process used to be more opaque and is now under a glass dome doesn't really affect their work, or it shouldn't at least.
formerly oasisjeff on here.
Broadway Star
Just remind me not to have a disagreement anytime with you 'haterobics'-your insight and knowledge is AWESOME.
Broadway Star
I think Addams Family just opened too soon in New York - I haven't seen the touring version but I hear it's a better show than the Broadway version.

But in New York - the main problem that they had was that they had Nathan Lane and I believe they risked losing him if they held up the show opening any longer, so everyone opened knowing the show was not ready..and then you are stuck. Once it opens, you can't change anything.

But they did continually make changes for the tour.. had to make the changes at the tour that ultimately worked better..or so I have heard...so I agree with you^^. In this case, Broadway was part of the tryout in a sense.

I don't think the Addams Family is a great show but I did like it much more than many others.
Broadway Star
There are a handful of shows right now doing pre-Broadway tryouts in one way or another:

The Last Ship -Chicago
The County House - LA
This Is Our Youth - Chicago

Broadway Legend
I actually think Next to Normal is one of the best examples. It didn't follow a typical path, for sure. It opened off-Broadway. It was campy and crazy, but had some solid moments. It then went to DC where it was toned down for an earthier more realistic approach. Same design, basically the same direction. Performances tweaked. Then it opened on Broadway much the same way.

I think a lot of the decisions aren't based on what's good for the show, but what's feasible with what they have. Obviously they aren't going to cut the car in Bullets even if those scenes don't totally work because they've spent the money. They've got the darn car, they might as well use it.
Brave Sir Robin2
Broadway Legend
Sometimes an out-of-town tryout can hurt a show. 9 TO 5 was MUCH better in Los Angeles.
In further response to your question SweetLips, I imagine show creators/directors/etc sometimes fail to see the (seemingly) obvious because of extreme familiarity with the material. There are shows, or songs/moments in shows, which I was bored or baffled by at first, but grew to understand and love over many repeated watchings/listenings. If I were a director taking on one of those shows now, I think it would be a challenge to keep my original recognition of the show's problem areas in mind, rather than taking for granted that first-time audience members would 'get' most everything in the show the same way that I do now, bazillion replays later.
Mister Matt
Broadway Legend
Big Fish also comes to mind. The show received mixed reviews at best out of town and yet little was changed when it opened on Broadway. It might as well just opened in cold in New York and saved the money if nothing was going to be changed.

Ditto that with The Pirate Queen. The show needed a massive overhaul and little was changed. And I don't know if anything could have helped Sweet Smell of Success.
"What can you expect from a bunch of seitan worshippers?" - Reginald Tresilian
Broadway Star
It's not whether the tryouts are as useful as they used to be. A tryout is as useful as the team wants it to be. If they're willing to make changes, for example, like Kinky Boots. Then yes, it's useful. If/Then and Next to Normal are also good examples of the tryouts being used to improve the show.

And then you have shows like Big Fish that don't do enough. For example, replacing Katie Thompson as the Witch was not the problem. The song was the problem. They did a little bit of work but several cuts should have been made that weren't.
Broadway Legend
I'm interested what changes hit shows like The Producers and Hairspray did that was the result of the tryouts before they went to Broadway. I know Wicked cut and added songs and replaced actors and Aladdin made significant changes as well.

Broadway Legend
Hairspray and The Producers made very few changes following their try-outs- it was more tightening the material than fixing it.

But Big Fish had been in development for years, yet the problems with it were so obvious.

Next To Normal was significantly overhauled after its initial debut as Feeling Electric at the Cutting Room and NYMF, and then moreso when it had full productions.