You see it’s very rare in the UK anymore that shows get a non London try out, most big new musicals for the past couple of decades have just opened straight up in The West End. We used to do try iuts all the time, in fact Manchester was one of the most popular places to test a new show (one of the most famous was the disastrous Twang by Lionel Bart) but for the past few decades that has faded away, producers don’t want to spend money on taking a show out of town, they just want to get it to London.
Recently though there has been a few indications that maybe the UK is ready to start embracing this tradition that Broadway still do. We saw Mary Poppins play outside London first and Imagine This and Lend Me a Tenor – The Musical’ both opened in Plymouth for test performances first.
Personally I hope this is a tradition that comes back.
For those who don’t really know that much about a try out let me fill you in. Producers and Creative teams (now mainly in the states) will book a venue away from Broadway to open the show for 4-6 weeks. During this time they listen to what the audiences are telling them, a song does not work, a scene is too long or in some cases they hate a whole act. Along with reviews from the local critics they can get an idea of what kind of work they need to do on a show before opening it to the scrutiny of those New York critics. For example have you heard the song "Bring on the Men" from Jekyll and Hyde on the Broadway cast recording? Of course not, that song (along with others) was cut out of town. The same with "Right on Time" from The Wedding Singer and so on. These try outs are crucial and American Producers know it.
Re Ghost - I guess I can say I enjoyed the show very much but whilst watching it I noticed a few problems that really need sorting out. The great thing is though, the brilliant production team have given themselves all this time in Manchester and then a few weeks before opening in London to iron out the problems meaning they can open with the best show they possibly can in the West End by listening to what the audiences are telling them in Manchester.
New UK musicals have been few and far between recently, the handful that have opened the past few years seem to have vanished very quickly, producers now seem fearful of taking new shows in to the West End favouring American tried and tested imports or Jukebox Musicals, but maybe if we went back to the tradition of trying out shows away from the capital we could see more success stories. Yes it adds more money on to the budget for the show (though playing regional costs far less than London) but in that time you can iron out the kinks and decide if the show is good enough to play the West End.
Ironically small fringe companies are known for ‘trying out’ shows in small venues before moving them on to more well known fringe venues. Fringe companies who have little money know that if they are going to spend money on a new play in a larger fringe venue that it needs to be perfect before they do so, companies like those cannot afford to make mistakes. We have just opened Charles Busch’s’ Off Broadway smash hit plays Die, Mommie, Die! and Psycho Beach Party here in the UK at the small but brilliant fringe venue Taurus. After sell out runs on both and brilliant audience response we spoke to the audience to see what they thought. It was through that small try out run and listening to the audience that we are now moving Die, Mommie, Die! on to a new venue.
I’ve always loved this tradition, for Broadway producers its part and parcel of the producing process. Not all shows that go out of town make it to Broadway. Recently The First Wives Club which seemed like a sure fire success played California prior to hoping for a Broadway opening. After such negative word of mouth though the plans to move the show were scrapped. This would have saved the producers a fortune, imagine if that show went straight to the Great White Way? Recently a couple of shows tried opening without a try out on Broadway, Spider Man – Turn Off The Dark and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, both have been greeted with less than enthusiastic response.
So let’s hope that we see producers doing more regional try outs prior to London and that this increases the amount of new British Musicals that succeed. I have to take my hat off to the team over at Ghost on making such a smart decision, let’s just hope they listen to the audiences here, after all Manchester has some of the best audiences in the country and we like to let you know what we think.