The Out-of-Town Tryout : A Thing of the Past?

Chris Peterson

This past spring, producers of a new musical adaptation of The Honeymooners, scrapped its premier run at the Goodspeed Opera House in CT because they felt the production is ready for Broadway. 

While I heavily doubt that, this move is just the latest in the growing trend of shows skipping an out-of-town tryout before opening on Broadway. 

Producers of Something Rotten! felt the same way about their piece and opened while the dirt was still settling over the Side Show revival. The risk paid off as that show has gone one to see great financial success as did Motown: The Musical and The Book of Mormon both of which also opened "cold" on Broadway. 

This coming year, School of Rock will be the latest to try their hand at opening directly in the belly of the beat rather than out of town. 

So the big question is why? 

Well beyond the confidence of the producers, money is always part of the discussion. The rate of trying out a show at a regional theatre isn't what it used to be. Producer Ken Davenport had this to say about that on his own blog, 

"The regional theaters have become wise to the “enhancement game,” and what used to be a price tag of $1mm to the show’s bottom line, can now easily cost $1.5mm to $2mm!  Add that to a workshop and readings and you’ve got a Broadway budget with close to $3mm in development costs, before you’ve stepped into the city."

Something Rotten!

Something Rotten!

Another reason why shows have traditionally opened out of town is to build positive buzz around the show. In many cases this works, but sometimes it works too well and have a negative effect on the Broadway run. Just ask producers of The Pirate Queen and The Little Mermaid, two productions that had exceptionally strong out of town runs before bombing on Broadway. Amazing Grace had two successful runs in CT and Chicago before its disastrous run in New York thus far. 

One trend that has been growing is opening shows closer in New York, this way producers can attract the same crowd and pay less for the transfer of the show. Places such as Boston, Connecticut and New Jersey, especially the Paper Mill Playhouse, have become desirable locations to open a show. Newsies premiered there to a rousing response that led to its transfer for New York as did A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder in CT. Sometimes it's best to open your tryout in New York itself, like Fun Home and Hamilton did at The Public to enormous success. 

But while producers may have a confidence in their productions' readiness for the Great White Way, let's not forget what the try out is really for, it's to test a show in front of a live audience to work out the kinks. Shows that skip this vital step are putting themselves as gigantic risk once the show opens, just ask Spider-Man

While I don't see the out of town tryout practice ending anytime soon, don't be surprised if you see more productions open directly in New York in the near future.

Hero of 'Amazing Grace' Isn't That Heroic

Chris Peterson

If you've read the latest reviews of Amazing Grace, the new musical which opened tonight, you'll read that its got its share of problems. But the problem you might not be hearing much about is its most egregious one - that's the actual story of its main character, John Newton. 

Taking a look deeper into the actual history of this man, you realize that his story isn't as inspiring as this musical would have you believe. 

Amazing Grace follows the story of John Newton, an English sailor and later a captain of slave ships. He became ordained as an evangelical Anglican cleric and also wrote the hymns "Amazing Grace" and "Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken".

The musical touches on his time as the captain of a slave ship, when he was imprisoned in West Africa and his "spiritual conversion"("saved" in modern terms) where he then became an abolitionist and ended up writing the stirring title hymn. 

Now here is where the problems begin. 

The show would have you believe that John Newton's abolitionist inspiration came from surviving a violent storm. 

Some of that story is true, Newton's "spiritual conversion" did happen during a storm on his voyage home. However that storm happened in 1748, according to Newton's writing. In truth, he kept captaining slave ships for another six years after the storm and his "spiritual conversion". It also wasn't a "spiritual conversion" that caused him to stop sailing slaves across the sea but a debilitating stroke in 1754. And Newton didn't come out right away with his feelings of anti-slavery, it would be another 30 years before he spoke publicly on the matter. 

With all these creative liberties the musical is seemingly taking, presenting Newton as some hero, I feel it might be too much for an audience to believe. Which is a problem for a blatant faith based musical.  Presenting a character who came to believe that slavery was a bad thing because of God's intervention rather than common sense, seems a bit far fetched and boarder line pretentious. 

With these issues, it's a shame because the cast does include some heavy hitting talent. Josh Young is a budding Broadway superstar and has one of the best full throated voices since Michael Ball. Erin Mackey is also a star on this rise and from what I hear, Tony Winner Chuck Cooper gives another award worthy performance. 

Yet even with this cast, there are just too many issues about the subject matter for this to be a sure fire hit. And given the state of original dramatic musicals on Broadway, If this stays open after Labor Day, I'll be surprised.