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Before Broadway, Musicals Make a Detour to Test the Waters in Chicago

January 12, 2016 at 9:00 AM

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CHICAGO — When the director Jerry Mitchell was looking for a place to try out a new musical about a struggling shoe company saved by a drag queen, he picked Chicago because the city was familiar (Mr. Mitchell grew up in the Midwest) and the audiences friendly (compared with New York).

That show was "Kinky Boots," and after Chicago's embrace, it moved to Broadway and won a Tony Award for best new musical. So a few years later, when Mr. Mitchell was ready to see what theatergoers might make of a jukebox musical about Gloria and Emilio Estefan, he again chose Chicago — and after some nipping and tucking, that show, "On Your Feet!," also landed on Broadway, where it is pulling in more than $1 million a week.

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Now Mr. Mitchell is back in Chicago, for the third time in four years, using a five-week run here to find what works and what doesn't with "Gotta Dance," a Broadway-bound musical about older adults learning to dance hip-hop for a New Jersey basketball team's halftime show.

"I come to this town to do my work, so when I get to New York, I don't have to do the work," Mr. Mitchell said. "The performances get sharper, and everything just gets focused. Chicago, for me, is a great place to do that."

Over the last several years, Chicago has emerged as the go-to city for Broadway tryouts, consolidating a key position in the commercial theater industry as a stream of new musicals try to find their footing here.

The reasons are manifold. Most important, producers say: The city has a large population and a strong theater scene, meaning that there is a sizable base of experienced showgoers. And the audience mix resembles that of the Broadway audience: mostly female, older and more affluent than the general public, and with a significant dose of out-of-town tourists.

"You know you're seeing the actors, the sets, just the way it's going to be done in New York, minus the changes and tweaks, and it is a lot cheaper," said Roger Zawacki, a 66-year-old retired high school administrator and theater director who saw "Gotta Dance" in late December and then offered an endorsement on Twitter, calling it "so much fun that it made me want to be a senior citizen. Oh wait, I am."

There are other reasons as well. Several large downtown houses — in a newly revitalized theater district — are configured like Broadway stages, allowing sets built to be used here to be reused in New York. The State of Illinois has adopted tax credits to encourage local production of shows headed to Broadway. Labor unions, hungry for the related jobs, have embraced the challenge of making frequent changes to shows even after opening night.

And Chris Jones, the theater critic for The Chicago Tribune, is known for authoritative but also instructive reviews that producers say often help them persuade creative teams to make difficult but necessary changes.

Jerry Mitchell, the director of "Gotta Dance," also used Chicago to test the waters for the Tony-winning "Kinky Boots." Credit Joshua Lott for The New York Times
Since a rollicking tryout of "The Producers" in Chicago in 2001, more than two dozen musicals with Broadway aspirations have had premieres here. A vast majority have been at commercial theaters, although a handful have been at nonprofits; many have successfully transferred, but some flamed out in Chicago ("First Wives Club," which played early last year, appears to be the most recent example), while others transferred and then flopped ("Amazing Grace," "The Last Ship" and "Big Fish," to name a few).

Several more new musicals with Broadway hopes are on Chicago's calendar, including Nickelodeon's first theatrical venture, "The SpongeBob Musical," based on the animated TV show "SpongeBob SquarePants" and featuring original songs by pop stars including Cyndi Lauper, John Legend and the Flaming Lips.

Russell Hicks, the Nickelodeon executive overseeing that project, said that when he turned to theater experts for advice, "it was the consensus that was brought to us: Chicago is a great place to start."

Out-of-town runs are expensive — Mr. Mitchell said his tryouts cost $1.5 million to $2.5 million — but they are built into the capitalization of the ensuing Broadway productions. Audience feedback is assessed instinctively — are people in the seats laughing? crying? yawning? — but also, sometimes, more methodically, via focus groups and surveys.

"We've been at just about every performance, sitting in every section of the theater, to watch the audience watching the show," said Dori Berinstein, one of the producers of "Gotta Dance." Her co-producer, Bill Damaschke, added, "You become a bathroom stalker for a lot of anecdotal response." (So far, the creators have taken steps to make the 20-something head of the dance squad more likable, and have written new songs that they may introduce later on.)

Most of the commercial productions take place in one of the five theaters operated by Broadway in Chicago, a subsidiary of the Nederlander Organization, which has aggressively courted pre-Broadway tryouts (some of which later wind up in Nederlander-owned theaters in New York).

Lou Raizin, the president of Broadway in Chicago, cited the work presented at nearly 250 Chicagoland theaters, as well as the increasing number of Broadway-bound productions beginning here, to argue that the city is "now the third-most-important theater city in the world, behind New York and London."

And the theater operators have a partner in labor, which is eager for the associated jobs. "It's found money, and it's putting a lot of people to work," said Craig Carlson, a third-generation Chicago stagehand and leader of the local stage workers' union.

As in other cities around the country, there are several nonprofit theaters that are developing musicals with Broadway aspirations: Last fall, Chicago Shakespeare Theater mounted "Ride the Cyclone," a Canadian musical that has received strong reviews as it heads toward a likely production in New York, and next summer, the Goodman Theater is mounting "War Paint," a new musical that features the Broadway stars Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole as competing cosmetics industry titans.

There are also a pair of commercial houses in the suburbs, the Marriott and Drury Lane theaters, that are mounting musicals with Broadway aspirations.

"Until recently, we just did revivals, and some of our subscribers, who have been with us for 30 years, have seen some shows multiple times," said Kyle DeSantis, the executive director of Drury Lane, which began producing new musicals with New York aspirations last year. "It's nice to have new titles for them."

Drury Lane first mounted "Beaches," a musical adaptation of the Bette Midler film, last year, and this year is presenting "Hazel," a musical adaptation of the comic strip/television series directed by the Tony-nominated choreographer Joshua Bergasse ("Smash").

For actors, the Chicago tryouts are a challenge (many leave children with relatives in New York), an adventure (they tend to live in a few apartment buildings recommended by the production), and a chance to develop their roles.

"The purpose of being here is to change things, experiment," said Nancy Ticotin, a 58-year-old Broadway veteran ("Gotta Dance" will be her sixth show) playing Camilla, a character excited by trying to master hip-hop dance, as well as by a relationship with a much younger man. "Yesterday, I said to Jerry, can I say this word, instead of that word? He said, 'Try it!'"