Selling Angels

The national touring production of Tony Kushner’s epic Angels in America begins previews at the Royal George Theatre Center this week on an encouraging note: hefty advance ticket sales of more than $800,000. That’s by far the largest advance-sales amount in the history of Chicago off-Loop theater. Angels is priced at a $45 maximum for weekend performances ($40 midweek), also a record high for an off-Loop show. At capacity the $1 million production will gross $145,500 a week, with weekly operating expenses of just under $100,000. Were the show to sell out every week of its expected six-month run at the Royal George–a daunting task in this era of shrinking audiences–it could be in the black by the time it’s scheduled to depart, in early March of 1995. Of course, that means selling about 76,000 more tickets.

So far the show’s lead producers, who include Chicagoans Robert Perkins and Windy City Times publisher Jeffrey McCourt along with the team that mounted the Broadway production, have pursued a surprisingly mainstream marketing strategy. Says Perkins: “The work has a proven appeal and is attracting older, family kind of people, though it may not have the appeal of a mainstream musical.” Newspaper ads, all of which feature the signature image of an angel with outspread arms, have played up the show’s Broadway lineage and its Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning status, steering clear of any suggestion of the work’s highly sophisticated adult content, including simulated gay sex and blunt discussions about homosexuality and AIDS.

McCourt, who is overseeing the print campaign, has tried in the early stages to emphasize that the production is not a run-of-the-mill Broadway tour passing through town for a couple of weeks. In a few ads the angel is hovering over photographs of the Chicago skyline, photos McCourt commissioned in order to connect the production to the city in readers’ minds. Future ads will include photographs of specific Chicago neighborhoods and of the cast; one of the most dramatic will feature the angel bearing aloft the emaciated body of Prior Walter, one of the characters dying of AIDS in Kushner’s work.

Like the print ads, radio spots thus far have generally tried to play up the big-event aspect of the production and avoid detailing its provocative subject matter. (No television commercials are planned for Chicago, though one is being readied to hype the Broadway production in the waning days of its run.) And the producers’ choice of radio outlets clearly indicates how strong the push is to sell the show’s high-priced tickets to an affluent, mainstream audience that may not respond to frank talk about homosexuality or AIDS. Spots have been airing on a mix of stations that includes news-oriented WMAQ AM, classical WNIB FM, new-age WNUA FM, and, perhaps most surprising of all, WLIT FM and WGN AM, two stations with a proven appeal to older, conservative listeners. Long-standing WGN personality Roy Leonard (who has yet to see this show) has preached the gospel of live theater to a loyal, largely suburban following for years. His fans are one of the markets that producers of glitzy musicals and fluffy comedies traditionally hit hardest.

Whatever fate awaits Angels in Chicago, interest in the show has been growing in other places. Initially the national tour had been expected to stop in only a few carefully selected markets such as Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, big cities where Kushner’s work would presumably be welcomed despite its subject matter. But as interest in the tour has escalated, tour promoters in smaller markets such as Sarasota, Florida, and Iowa City, Iowa, have signed up for engagements, bringing the current total number of stops to 16. The elaborate moving scenery of the Broadway production has been simplified somewhat to enable the show to tour more easily.

Inept “Inc.”

Meanwhile the Tribune’s “Inc.” columnists continue their amazing ineptness regarding items on the Kushner epic. First there was the lead item reporting that Angels in America was coming to Chicago, which ran last May, many weeks after the producers held a press conference announcing that fact. Then last week came another item, this time so garbled that it was impossible to be sure what it meant. Under the headline “Working OT,” it read in part: “Unlike New York, the same cast will do double duty at the Royal George next month by working each production of Kushner’s two plays in the Angels series–Millenium Approaches and Perestroika–on alternating nights.” The item was apparently meant to note that both parts of the two-part production will open at the same time in Chicago, while in New York there was a six-month lag between the opening of Millenium Approaches and that of Perestroika, to allow Kushner to rewrite the second part. But since last October the Broadway cast has also worked overtime, so to speak, performing both plays in repertory.

Flores Strikes Again

Playwright, producer, and director Michael Flores, whose theater piece Andy Warhol: The Factory Years flopped at Cafe Voltaire earlier this summer, returns to the same space September 23 with The Good Time Girls. Unlike the Warhol piece, which Flores claims he labored over for months, the new play was written quickly and deals with three real-life women–Betty Page, Pamela Des Barres, and Heidi Fleiss–who used their sexuality to advance their careers. Flores succeeded in cutting a deal with the cafe’s general manager, Kelley Hazen, to present his new piece in the restaurant’s 99-seat basement theater even though the Warhol show abruptly closed three weeks early, leaving Cafe Voltaire with no show in its prime 9 PM weekend performance slot. Flores says he knew the show was in trouble when the audience plummeted from sold-out on opening night to a mere 20 people on the second night of the run. But the main reason for the sudden shuttering, maintains Flores, was the unexpected departure three weeks into the run of lead actor Charles Wimmer, who was cast in the role of Warhol. According to Flores, Wimmer seemed upset by the widespread negative critical reaction and questioned the merit of carrying on with the show. But Wimmer sees things differently: “The show was plagued with unprofessional behavior that [the cast] had gotten tired of.” Hazen says she has no qualms about turning the space over to Flores for another production, although this time the show starts at the less prime time of 7 PM. Adds Hazen: “[Flores] is a good salesman, and he dealt quite fairly with us when his actor quit and left him with no alternative.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jason Smith.