Out of the Loop and in the Money

Off-Loop theaters have traditionally relied on lower ticket prices to lure customers away from downtown shows. But for high-profile fare, the price differential between Loop and off-Loop seems to be narrowing, which raises questions about what the market will bear.

This fall the Briar Street Theatre is getting a New York hit, and audiences will have to pay plenty to see it. Blue Man Group, one of this fall’s most talked-about productions, opens October 7 with a $46 top ticket, just $3 below the current top ticket at New York’s Astor Place Theater, where the show has been playing to packed houses for six years.

Most off-Loop producers also offer sharp discounts to attract audiences to midweek performances. But Blue Man is planning to buck that policy as well, charging $46 for almost all the seats at every Briar Street performance. The theater’s capacity is even being increased by 100 seats–to just under 600. Blue Man spokesperson Manny Igrejas says the pricing plan simply reflects the law of supply and demand: “When you have something people want to see, the prices go up.” Blue Man will actually cost more than either of two performance pieces at the downtown Shubert Theatre last season: Tap Dogs had a top ticket of $42, while Stomp topped out at $41.50.

Some who have seen Blue Man Group in New York doubt that the Chicago market will balk at paying $46, despite the fact that the show has no stars, a relatively modest physical production, and content that’s hard to categorize. “Blue Man is theater for the 90s, the kind of show that deserves to get that price,” says Steve Traxler of Jam Productions, who’s produced several off-Loop shows, including Forever Tango at the Royal George last summer. Many fans of Blue Man Group point out that its target market of young adults typically attends rock concerts rather than theater, and that concertgoers will pay top dollar to see an act, even in large venues such as the New World Music Theatre. Others say that quality off-Loop shows should start charging more for their tickets so customers will erase distinctions between Loop and off-Loop.

Still, many off-Loop producers are leery of breaking the $40 ceiling. “I’m afraid of it, and I don’t want to test it,” says Rob Kolson, coproducer of Always…Patsy Cline at the Apollo Theater. This summer Kolson lowered Patsy Cline’s top ticket from $38.50 to $36.50 because of low attendance. When Patsy Cline transfers to the Victory Gardens Theater in early October with its $38.50 price restored, a touring production of the musical Buddy will move to the Apollo. Kolson says he advised Buddy’s producers to keep their top ticket price under $40, and he expects that will be the case. He firmly believes that high ticket prices can have a negative effect on revenue. “If you charge more, it can actually make the total revenue that you take in drop.”

Fred Solari, general manager of the Athenaeum Theatre, also believes in keeping prices low. “We get so much price resistance,” says Solari, who thinks that low prices often increase the number of tickets sold. “Theater just becomes more and more elitist when you keep raising the ticket price.” Doug Bragan, who owns and operates the Ivanhoe, has doggedly kept his prices among the lowest in town for a large off-Loop venue. The Midnight Circus, now on the Ivanhoe main stage, has a top ticket of $18, while the long-running Late Nite Catechism tops out at $19.

Gone to Disney Land

Peter Schneider and Stuart Oken, two familiar names from the innovative off-Loop theater scene of the late 70s and early 80s, have wound up in a most surprising spot: Walt Disney Theatrical Productions. The Disney empire’s theater unit, which brought Beauty and the Beast to Broadway, is now putting the finishing touches on a stage version of The Lion King.

Though he hasn’t spent time in Chicago recently, Schneider ran the St. Nicholas Theater, one of the city’s most exciting venues. He decamped to London in the early 80s and then moved to Los Angeles, where he became involved with the Olympic Arts Festival before joining Disney and rising to the top of its animated films division. About two years ago Schneider took on Disney’s growing live theatrical operations as well, and he hired Oken to help develop new projects and maintain existing ones. Oken and his former business partner Jason Brett ran Chicago’s Apollo Theater and produced local theater for many years before they too left for Hollywood in 1985. Oken worked in film and television until Schneider brought him back to theater with Disney.

Reached shortly after The Lion King’s tryout engagement had opened in Minneapolis, both Schneider and Oken were upbeat: reviews were mostly favorable, especially in Variety, which raved, “Almost every scene unfolds with its own special magic, utilizing superb stagecraft and a dizzying, often mystifying array of theatrical techniques to bring the lion cub Simba’s adventures to life.” The positive response is especially gratifying to Schneider and Oken because they chose not to hire an experienced Broadway director or someone from the Disney theme parks. Instead they tapped New York-based avant-gardist Julie Taymor, who received one of the so-called “genius grants” from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in 1991. Schneider says Taymor was the logical choice. “It was inconceivable to do The Lion King in a straightforward, conventional sort of way, and Julie was the only person who had the vision to realize how it could be done.”

Schneider says he doesn’t miss not-for-profit theater; he enjoys having the money to do exactly what he and his team want. “This is what is more exciting for me at the moment.” Oken says he’s happy too, because he can present a show like Beauty and the Beast to audiences around the world: “We are thinking globally.” Recently Oken sat down in San Diego with the original Beauty creative team to discuss some changes in the touring production that will be unveiled at the Chicago Theater on October 17. New sets and changes in casting and choreography will help freshen the show, says Oken. Even though the two are now at the helm of an expanding, multimillion-dollar business, they insist that what they do is similar to what goes on in much humbler situations. Says Schneider: “We’re really just some guys sitting around doing theater.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Blue Man Group photo by Blanche Mckey.