Elizabeth Stanley and company from “Xanadu,” coming to the Drury Lane Theatre at Water Tower Place.
This is supposed to be a nervous new year. In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re in the grips of a serious recession.
Broadway is in the tank—a slew of New York shows are closing in the coming days, including “Spamalot,” “Spring Awakening,” “13,” “Boeing-Boeing,” “Young Frankenstein,” “Hairspray,” “Grease” and “Gypsy.” And there is a raft of economic troubles elsewhere in the nation. Touring shows are having a rough time all across the country: ticket sales are down in many cities, presenters are cutting back shows, and the American Musical Theatre in San Jose, Calif, declared bankruptcy just a few weeks ago.
But in downtown Chicago, we’re suddenly reaching for a higher gear. There are an amazing number of touring shows headed to Chicago between now and Memorial Day. Just amazing.
My memory goes back a pretty long way (and have been doing some digging around the archives). So I’m feeling pretty comfortable saying there are more touring shows headed to Chicago this winter than any year in decades.
Just look at them all.
Broadway in Chicago is bringing “Grease” (Auditorium Theatre Jan. 6-18), “Monty Python’s Spamalot” (Auditorium Theatre Jan. 20 to Feb. 1), the Beatles tribute known as “Rain” (Auditorium Theatre March 3-8), “A Bronx Tale” (Oriental Theatre March 10-22), “Rent” (Oriental Theatre March 31 to April 12), “A Chorus Line” (Oriental Theatre April 14 to May 3), “Chicago” (Oriental Theatre Feb. 25 to March 8), and “Legally Blonde” (Oriental Theatre May 12-31).
Those are the short runs. Then there are two post-Broadway shows, “Xanadu” (Drury Lane Water Tower Place from Jan. 16) and “Mary Poppins” (Cadillac Palace Theatre from March 11) planning more extended engagements. Heck, “Xanadu” wants to be here for six months or more.
I’m still not done. Madison Square Garden is bringing two touring shows to the Chicago Theatre: “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” (Feb 11-15) and “The Wizard of Oz” (April 30 to May 3).
More striking yet, the Arie Crown Theatre, which has been out of the Broadway game for several years, is hosting a major new musical about the Scottish hero Rob Roy. This big-scale show, which comes from Canada and is titled “Rob Roy The Musical,” will make its world premiere at the huge venue inside McCormick Place Feb. 3 to March 15. A major, new historical musical would be a risky endeavor in the best of economic settings. To bow such a project in the current climate takes real McChutzpah in my view. It’s a remarkable slate, all in all.
So what’s the story? Is Chicago somehow recession-proof?
No. Look around at the shops and restaurants.
The surfeit of shows is mostly a consequence of an unusual convergence of factors. “Wicked” is closing Jan. 25, freeing up the Oriental Theatre. For the last couple of years, touring shows have struggled to find venues in Chicago, because the theaters have been full (“Jersey Boys” still croons eight times a week at the Bank of America Theatre). There was a backlog.
There was also a presidential election this fall, so some shows that would have been on the fall slate delayed their tours, so as not to compete for attention. And you always see more shows at the Auditorium in the winter, because that venerable venue gets locked up with dance in the fall and spring.
Other matters are in play. Madison Square Garden Entertainment, the relatively new owner of the Chicago Theatre, is just now getting the hang of local programming and stepping up the competition a little (it’s also able to strike better deals for itself by booking “The Wizard of Oz” in Chicago and in its theater inside the MSG complex in New York). And Arie Crown also wanted a piece of the action—this is a venue that has been aggressively courting new business.
And then there’s a truth that seems mostly recession-proof: Everyone wants to play Chicago. How all of these shows will do remains to be seen, of course.
It seems likely that the weaker brethren will crash and burn, given all the competition. But we’ll just have to see. For Chicago residents, the long-running shows have meant a log-jam. Perhaps there is some pent-up demand.
All in all, I see at least two benefits for the theatergoer. The first one is obvious—there are shows coming for all tastes. And the second? There’s no way all these shows will be able to sell all those tickets at full price. Not in this climate. So watch out, theater-lovers, for a whole lot of special deals.