December 3, 2010.By Chris Hewitt, Pioneer Press.
Live theater in the Twin Cities must be suffering in this economy, right?
Don't cry for Theater Latte Da, which just had its biggest hit with "Evita." Or for the Guthrie's "The 39 Steps," which just announced its second extension. And there's no need to break out the hankies for at least two other recent smashes.
"The 39 Steps" extended its run to Dec. 19 — and then Dec. 26 — when it became clear there weren't enough tickets to satisfy demand. The mystery-comedy's hit potential started bubbling months ago, when Guthrie staffers noticed subscribers were specifically choosing season ticket packages that contained the show.
"Once we started to see the renewal rate on subscriptions, we knew there was some traction," said Trish Santini, external relations director for the Guthrie. "The other place where we got confirmation, though, was that a lot of theaters in other cities are doing the show, and it's a hit everywhere."
Theater Latte Da's "Evita," which recently closed at the Ordway's McKnight Theatre, was scheduled for a five-week run but added two weeks before the first note had been sung.
"The week before we opened, we realized we had less than 15 percent of our total tickets still available. We needed to put more inventory in the market, so to speak," said Kimberly Motes, the theater's managing director. As a result, "Evita" sold more than 10,000 tickets, doubling Latte Da's previous record.
The results haven't been quite as dramatic for the Children's Theater Company's "Robin Hood," but the company did add an extra week when it became obvious that two months of Robin stealing from the rich and giving to the poor wasn't enough to meet demand.
And the Cabaret Theater at Camp Bar in St. Paul added performances of "Bye Bye Liver" as well.
What gives? The situations are different for each show, but they illustrate a few trends.
Three of the four shows are comedies; the other — "Evita" — is a musical. It never hurts to give audiences a show in which the lead character isn't going to spend two hours bemoaning the loss of her great love before being carted off to a mental institution.
"On the heels of a challenging election season, this show is a respite," Santini said of "The 39 Steps." "The Hitchcock thing (the show is based on a classic Alfred Hitchcock film) is a draw, just from what we're hearing from our patrons. And it's pretty evident from our description of the show that it's funny."
Bill Collins, managing director of the Actors Theater of Minnesota, which produced "Bye Bye Liver," describes the $19 ticket to his comedy about boozing as "a cover charge, basically, for an excuse to drink and party and have a good time."
"Our audience loves it when we commission new work," said Michael Harryman, director of communications for Children's Theater Company. "But we approach this like a business, and it is title-driven. You could not have (had 'Robin Hood's' level of success) with a title that didn't resonate with audiences.
"And when you put 'Annie' on stage or open the season with 'Bartholomew Cubbins,' as we did, you send a pretty loud message."
Three of the four extended shows are recognizable titles that come with built-in audience interest, and the fourth — "Bye Bye Liver" — is a play on a title audiences know. As a result, it's easier to communicate with audiences about the plays.
"Theaters are sometimes berated for focus-grouping seasons or for choosing seasons that are too safe," Harryman said. "But in this climate, there's no such thing as a safe season. The mix is important because you can tip too much to the other side if you do nothing but easily recognizable titles."
Motes said Latte Da might have lucked into the best of all possible worlds with "Evita," a popular title that had not had a major Twin Cities production since a touring company tangoed through town in 1999. The fact that it was an oddly familiar show for the usually adventurous Latte Da may have helped.
"I think people were wondering, 'I wonder what Latte Da will do with this show?' " Motes said.
The same can be said for "The 39 Steps." It recasts Hitchcock's sly thriller as a broad, vaudeville-like production in which four quick-changing actors play dozens of roles.
Said Santini, "Our cast has real resonance in the community. I don't think you can hear that Jim Lichtscheidl and Luverne Seifert will be in multiple roles and not expect something wonderful."
Harryman said it's crucial that CTC took a classic title and did something innovative with it. The theater's "Robin Hood," like "39 Steps," features four actors in multiple roles: "It's a very interactive concept. It's making people think about the context of the story and about the art of storytelling."
"At the end of the day — good economy, middling economy, bad economy — I think we all make choices based on what we perceive is a good use of our time and money. If 'The 39 Steps' speaks to people from the standpoint of, 'That's a fun way to spend a couple hours,' people will find a way to do it," Santini said.
Collins, who said social-networking sites such as Facebook and Groupon have helped move tickets for him, agrees that people are looking for a good time in exchange for their ticket dollars: "I'd feel differently if we were doing this business with 'The Merchant of Venice.' Then, I'd be thinking it was because the economy had turned around."
One thing's for sure. In the coming weeks — and as they plan their next seasons — ticket sellers from these theaters will be comparing notes. Motes says it's difficult to duplicate surprise successes — Latte Da won't try to dig up another musical about a South American dictator to do next year — but there are lessons to be learned.
" 'The 39 Steps' and 'Robin Hood' are really interesting, and I'm anxious to talk to those theaters," Motes said. "These hits tend to be a mix of things that come together in a perfect storm of artistic and marketing pieces. But there's also a buzz in the community. People are saying to each other, 'You've got to go see this show!' "
Chris Hewitt can be reached at 651-228-5552.
ABOUT THE SHOWS
"Evita" — Theater Latte Da, at Ordway's McKnight Theatre; closed Nov. 14; Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical about South American first lady Eva Peron.
"The 39 Steps" — Guthrie Theater, 818 S. Second St., Minneapolis; through Dec. 26; $24-$60; Alfred Hitchcock's classic, featuring a battling hero and heroine handcuffed to each other, becomes a comic thriller in which four actors play dozens of characters.
"Robin Hood" — Children's Theatre Company, 2400 Third Ave. S., Minneapolis; through Dec. 12; $20-$40; the beloved story, performed on a minimal set with four actors playing multiple roles.
"Bye Bye Liver" — Actors Theater of Minnesota, at Camp Bar Cabaret Theater, 490 N. Robert St., St. Paul; through Jan. 22; $19; a series of comic sketches takes a look at folks who overindulge in booze.