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Plays Hit the Road for Theater Tours


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

As soon as a Broadway show becomes a hit, the producers start thinking about sending out a touring version. "Phantom of the Opera," "The Lion King," "Wicked" and "Mamma Mia!" are all on the road with multiple touring companies. But take note. Those are all musicals.

Bob Mondello noticed that this year, for the first time in more than a decade, there are a lot of plays out on tour, too.

Bob, welcome.

BOB MONDELLO: It's good to be here.

ELLIOTT: So living here in Washington, I guess, you've had an opportunity to see a play or two on tour.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONDELLO: A play or two. Yeah. I must have seen 30 or 40 of them in the first couple of years. I used to watch - you know, I started out seeing musicals when I was a little kid, as most people do, I guess. But back in the 1960s, a lot of plays went out on tours. There was "Cactus Flower," I remember seeing with Lauren Bacall. She had this great deep voice and she didn't mean anything to me then because I hadn't seen her movies, but you know, she was obviously a star. The audience was going crazy.

I saw "Barefoot in the Park" with Myrna Loy. Things have changed over the years, obviously, but back then they used to send a lot of comedies out on tour especially. And then of course, you know, that was the day when there were big Broadway plays like "Death of a Salesman" and all that sort of thing that also went on tours because they were big hits.

ELLIOTT: Why is it that in recent years it's been mostly musicals that have been on tour?

MONDELLO: For the same reason it's been mostly musicals on Broadway. They make a lot more money. If you have a big, splashy musical, audiences go to them knowing that they're going to be entertained. Plays suggest something more serious. They're not always more serious, but the idea is that that's serious drama. And that has mostly moved to television now and movies, and that's where that sort of thing goes.

ELLIOTT: What sorts of non-musical shows are we seeing on tour this year?

MONDELLO: Well, actually, we're seeing a bunch that are older ones. We're seeing "Twelve Angry Men," which was - it started as a TV drama. It's going out on tour this year with Richard Thomas and George Wendt, both from television. Richard Thomas, obviously, John-Boy from the "The Waltons." "Doubt" went out - now that's a newer play. That just won the Tony Award recently, and it went out with its original Broadway star, Cherry Jones.

Two older plays that went on - one is "On Golden Pond". Originally they were going to cast Richard Chamberlain and Hailey Mills, but they dropped out of it. And so they went with two television stars of a different vintage, Tom Bosley and Michael Learned. And then there's this amazing older show that - called "Legends." It was never a very good comedy, but it's about two older female stars who really hate each other. And so they cast in it - are tempted to do a new show. They cast in it Joan Collins and Linda Evans.

ELLIOTT: These two movie stars who hated one another on a television program.

MONDELLO: Exactly.

ELLIOTT: Years ago.

MONDELLO: And so that seems like great casting. And that's, you know, it's like a permission to mint money on tour, which is kind of funny.

ELLIOTT: So why is this year different, Bob? Why are we seeing more plays and not so many musicals?

MONDELLO: Well, it's kind of been an evolutionary process that got us to this point. Back in the '80s there were a lot big, splashy musicals, the mega-musicals from Britain that were so huge on Broadway that everybody wanted to see them - "Phantom of the Opera" and "Cats" and "Miss Saigon" and "Les Misérables." And so they could send out a lot of touring companies. The more recent shows don't have the same kind of cache. There's, you know - and some of them don't even tour, like "Avenue Q," which is a puppet musical, is a small show. And that decided not to do a national tour, but rather to sit down in Las Vegas. So the end result of that is that there aren't as many shows, musicals, out there. And producers in these various cities still have to fill out a subscription season, so these shows can slip in.

ELLIOTT: Opportunity to see a play.

MONDELLO: It's a very nice one. These are also - it's worth pointing out that a play cost a lot less to produce, even a show like "Twelve Angry Men," which has 13 actors in it. If you send that out on a tour, you don't - you're not also paying for an orchestra, you're not paying for a whole lot of different sets. It's a cheaper show to sit down with for a couple of weeks in a touring house.

ELLIOTT: NPR's Bob Mondello. Thanks.

MONDELLO: It's always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.
Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.
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