Wicked Closes in Chicago

It is expected that David Stone, producer of the unprecedented “Wicked” Chicago production, will announce on Wednesday that the show will ring the final curtain down at the Oriental Theatre following the 1,500 performance on January 25, 2009. By the time that they fly away on their broomsticks, witches Elphaba and Glinda will have cast their musical spells over more than 3 million theatre goers over the 3 1/2 year run in Chicago.

And the production, which had approximately $10 million in start up costs, will have taken in a staggering $210 million through their Chicago box office.

These numbers are more typical for an Indiana Jones or Harry Potter than for stage productions in Chicago. Then again the Loop’s rules for live entertainment have always been turned on their head by “Wicked.”

Stone said that they have done something in Chicago that no show before had ever done. He added that the show had changed the way that producers from New York viewed Chicago, which was now seen as a city that was for extended runs and not just for tours.

“Wicked” has unquestionably been an absolute stunning success without any true precedent. Even during the early 1990s when Donny Osmond appeared at the Chicago Theatre playing the lead role in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” doesn’t come close in terms of longevity or numbers. “Wicked,” which has offered very few discount tickets, has played routinely to sold-out houses. During the peak weeks the show has grossed up to $1.4 million and has rarely fallen under $1 million a week, even during the early fall or other slower periods.

Stone said that “Wicked” was closing while ticket demand was still quite high. Announcement of the closing by industry standards was early, but according to Stone the decision for closing in January was an irrevocable one, even if all the tickets were sold for every seat for eight months. In August, the final block of tickets will go on sale.

By closing the show in January, “Wicked” can take full advantage of a strong holiday season and at the same time not have to worry about getting through another winter and early spring season when demand might be starting to slow, which is something the producers think could happen.

Stone said they fully intended to sell each seat, but that they were not going to change their course. He added that they wanted to go out with a big bang.

Chicago businesses which rely on tourists will definitely be sorry to see “Wicked” close. Daniel Faylor, who is the general manager for the Petterino restaurant, said that the show had meant a great deal to the entire theater district and their business. He added that Wicked had brought a unique clientèle to the areas and lots of people who had never visited the Loop before.

According to Dorothy Coyle, who is the director for the Office of Tourism in Chicago, said that half of Wicked’s audience has been people visiting the city, and that they said that the main reason they had come to Chicago was to see the show.

Coyle added that residents from the neighboring states of Indiana, Iowa and Wisconsin often look to Chicago as being “their big downtown.” Many of them have visited Chicago before and already seen the shops and architecture. The only time they can be relied on to come back is if there is an event. One of the big advantages that the theatre brings is that the shows take place at night, as well as the winter, so that people are more likely to reserve a hotel room than to drive home on the interstate.

Coyle said that they always faced the need for giving people a compelling reason for visiting Chicago again, and that is why cultural tourism was so crucial.

It is hard to say whether “Wicked” is just an anomaly or truly an indicator that the Chicago market has changed permanently.

The musical show, based on the novel by Gregory Maguire and prequel for “The Wizard of Oz,” has also enjoyed huge success on Broadway in New York, where it is still playing. The musical is also running in London, Stuttgart, Germany, London, Melbourne and San Francisco. The worldwide popularity is reminiscent of the heyday for “The Phantom of the Opera.”

Jeffrey Seller, a New York producer, says it is a show that only comes around once in a decade. England has “Peter Pan” and the States has “The Wizard of Oz.” He add that “Wicked” taps into the meaning of friendship and what being an outsider feels like in a very visceral way, and that he was very jealous.

Seller said, in other words, that Chicago shouldn’t be expecting other shows like this to show up routinely and gross $200 million. Very few Broadway shows ever manage that. However Stone and Marc Platt, fellow producer, have provided some pretty hard evidence that when there is a show with sufficiently broad appeal, that the city of Chicago doesn’t run out of theatre goers. Lou Raizin, who is the Broadway in Chicago’s president, said that thanks to “Wicked” that they now had shows that were standing in line to get runs in Chicago that they had never been seen before.

L Frank Baum, The Wizard of Oz author, was from Chicago. And arguably, “Wicked” taps into a gestalt that is very Midwestern that involves loyalty, heart and friendship. And despite the show’s producers insisting that “Wicked” isn’t only a show that appeals to teenage girls, the core youthful audience has served the show well.

A careful review of the “Jersey Boys” weekly Chicago grosses, for example, reveals an average weekly take that is $100,000 less than Wicked’s. This is due to the fact that “Jersey Boys” is a show that relies almost exclusively on an adult demographic which can sell the premiere orchestra easily, but struggles at times finding people who are willing to sit in the rear balcony seats. Adults who are out on a big night on the town tend to want good seats only. A major factor contributing to Wicked’s financial success comes from the unending supply of young people who are both ready and willing to sit up in the auditorium’s cheap seats, while families who are splurging fill the orchestra seats. These types of show are golden for producers.

This season Broadway has been a rough one, with no real obvious “Wicked” successors in sight, although the upcoming fall appearance in New York of “Billy Elliot,” the hit from London, does look promising. Meanwhile, “Jersey Boys,” which has a similar Chicago commitment from producers, is successfully bopping along at Bank of America Theatre.

However, Chicago might not get another “Wicked” for years.

Seller said that as producers they never knew what they had. If they did we would use our own money, but it is the public that is in charge and not us, he added.

By Julie Harmon On March 26, 2008

All photos made available via creative commons licensing courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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