Out of Town Tryouts- Yea or Nay? And Why?
It's no secret that it takes a Herculean amount of work to bring a show to Broadway. From workshops and labs to readings and rewrite after rewrite the road to the Great White Way has more traffic than Times Square.
There's one step that, though, that has a number of producers on the fence: the out of town tryout. Some shows manage to make a huge splash out of town, driving pre-sales due to buzz and exposure. Others face delays or suffer financial consequences. And then there are those that transfer from the West End or Off-Broadway. And then, there's the cold open. So what's the deal?
Out of town tryouts have certainly not fallen out of favor, and, of course, there's a trend in what towns are popular. Breaking down the musicals currently on Broadway:
|Ain't Too Proud||Berkeley, DC, LA, Toronto|
|Book of Mormon||Cold open|
|Come From Away||San Diego, Seattle, DC, Toronto|
|Dear Evan Hansen||DC, Off-Broadway|
|Hadestown||Off-Broadway, Edmonton, West End|
|The Lightning Thief||Off-Broadway|
|The Lion King||Minneapolis|
|Phantom of the Opera||West End|
What are the reasons for a tryout? Putting a show up away from the New York theatre scene provides the development process a certain amount of privacy. New York audiences are used to the best of the best and the critical reception can be brutal. Putting a show up in Chicago or San Diego can be seen as a way to try things out in front of a 'kinder' audience. Locations like Washington, DC and Boston are easily accessible to those in New York curious to check out the next big thing without the pressure of being an immediate hit.
When it comes to using the tryout period, Bright Star producer Joey Parnes told Variety, "From a purely developmental perspective, I believe that the best way to open a new musical on Broadway is to start somewhere else." Avenue Q and Rent producer Kevin McCollum added, "Anytime you add a real audience, one that pays, you will learn more about your show."
The fact is, practice makes perfect. The most basic rules of art follow throughout the development process: rehearse, analyze, perfect. The more you can do it and the more variations on the production process you can get, the easier it is to solidify a piece. Which raises the question: Why skip the tryout? It's true it's rare, as we can see from the current shows, which could be interpreted as an indication that cold opens lead to closed shows. This is not the case. Something Rotten! and School of Rock both enjoyed long runs on Broadway without the tryout period. Something Rotten! even had a tryout lined up but eschewed it.
What Parnes said previously comes directly from the developmental point of view. When contemplating a tryout, he continues, saying, "if you put the money back in: It's a good question. What makes the most sense?"
In the end, a lot of it comes down to money. How much does a show have to spend? Every performance costs a huge chunk of change, is it worth the risk either way?
Ken Davenport weighs in with his perspective noting that the biggest consideration when it comes to spending money on a tryout is: are you ready? If the show is ready, perhaps money can be saved. School of Rock sought out other methods of testing the show putting on a staged concert production. This gave the company a chance to make tweaks without having to completely restage a huge production, which costs money and time.
When it comes to Something Rotten!, the show ditched their tryout for this and another reason. A Broadway theatre opened up right as the show was coming together in its final form. Davenport notes that previously a producer could make a deal with a theatre owner to hold the venue until the tryout had finished. This is becoming more and more rare and it's a well known fact that Broadway real estate is scarce. Something Rotten! made the fortuitous jump.
And, of course, one has to consider that regional theatres hosting the out of town tryout often require a future cut of the profits. Every penny counts when seat sales drop.
The final reason we'll cover, though there are certainly dozens upon dozens, is the fact that without a promise of real estate upon the show's return to New York, far more is riding on the out of town tryout than before. Reviews can influence the show's chances not just with audiences but with investors and industry folk. The pressure to succeed out of town can very nearly negate the benefits of a tryout.
Somewhat unique to this is the Off-Broadway or West End transfer. Off-Broadway is the playground of the New York theatre scene where risks are more widely embraced and lower cost productions can find their groove in smaller venues. Coming from the West End is as good as saying you've been on Broadway already. These two areas give a show a chance to generate buzz when they've reached the final stages of the development process.
There's no simple explanation for why a show may or may not do a tryout and there's certainly no magic formula to guarantee success. Art is illusive. Sometimes the spark is there, and sometimes it just needs to be found.