Will Chicago be the out-of-town tryout for all of post-COVID Broadway?

Will Chicago be the out-of-town tryout for all of post-COVID Broadway?

 


Will “Six,” the lively pop-diva musical celebrating the six wives of Henry VIII, reawaken Chicago’s moribund downtown entertainment scene?

That’s the current hopeful thinking at Broadway in Chicago. And it would have a certain symmetry for your humble columnist here, being as “Six” was the last show I saw in a New York preview on March 11, the night before Broadway announced its pandemic closure.

That meant “Six,” previously seen at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, did not open as planned on Broadway on March 12. Its set has been sitting ever since inside the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, waiting for Times Square to come back to life. And I’ve pretty much been in my basement since, streaming instead of theater-going.

(This just in: It ain’t the same.)

But one intriguing and realistic scenario has Chicago’s Loop entertainment scene coming back about three months before Broadway’s.

In fact, one powerful Broadway producer suggested to me this week that the city could revert to its traditional and widely beloved role as the home of out-of-town tryouts, except that this time the tryout would be for the entire Broadway industry.

Perhaps, he suggested, Chicago could be a laboratory for some of the changes currently being discussed by Broadway producers — on-the-spot cleaning, safer backstage practices, avoidance of lines at bathrooms, social distancing in the lobby and reduced capacity in the seats. Among others.

That all remains to be seen. But Broadway in Chicago, the powerful Loop landlord and presenter, has, in essence, cleared the decks at its Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place for the exuberant British import that re-casts the various divorced, betrayed and beheaded spouses as glamorous superstars modeled on the likes of Beyonce, Rihanna and Celine Dion.

“Six" was supposed to play here this summer. That’s been nixed, along with pretty much every other summer live entertainment experience in the city, even if the cancellations have not yet been announced.

But whereas many of those attractions have either been postponed until 2021 or abandoned, “Six," like Catherine Parr, has survived.

Current plans call for “Six” to begin performances on Nov. 24 and run at least through next March. In order to make that happen, Broadway in Chicago had to clear the decks at its 549-seat theater, which meant nixing lesser attractions like “The Choir of Man" or “The Office: A Musical Parody." Many of those shows have seen their planned touring routings ripped into pieces, but the willingness to do that is still an indication that Broadway in Chicago is banking on “Six” as its long-running comeback.

Why? Well, “Six” comes with some baked-in advantages over shows like “Frozen,” which, I can reveal, will not be here this fall.

 

Samantha Pauly sings in the Broadway cast of "Six." The musical never got to officially open in New York but a production at the Broadway Playhouse in Chicago could be a way to bring back touring stage musicals.
Samantha Pauly sings in the Broadway cast of "Six." The musical never got to officially open in New York but a production at the Broadway Playhouse in Chicago could be a way to bring back touring stage musicals.(Liz Lauren photo)

 

Disney’s “Frozen” is huge, but “Six” is small in terms of cast and orchestra size and it is relatively low-cost. Its core demographic is the one least worried about COVID-19, which is teens and 20-somethings. The Broadway Playhouse has a relatively large lobby and a small capacity, which might make it easier to manage. At 90 minutes, there is no need for an intermission, which makes things like bathroom lines much easier. And the show can probably still make money with a reduced seating capacity.

Of course, it still remains to be seen if the authorities will authorize such a gathering, even in November.

But plans still have to be made. Heck, they’ve been made several times already. Why not draw up a few more?

Assuming there is some kind of autumnal green light for live performance (and that is by no means a certainty), “Six” probably will not be the first show back on the boards in Chicago. Some black-box storefront operations are ready to open up again with an audience of under 50 people — we might even see some of that in the summer — and the big players like the Goodman and Steppenwolf Theatre have their fingers crossed for shows in October. In particular, the Goodman is really hoping it can stage its annual production of “A Christmas Carol," also scheduled for late November.

But “Six” still will have particular symbolic value, especially if it ends up opening in Chicago before the very same show opens on Broadway.

Eyes from New York will turn to how things go with a Broadway musical at the Broadway Playhouse. And it’s a pretty fair prediction that the performers will be met with an enthusiastic groups of fans, finally freed from lip-syncing all those catchy numbers in their basements.

After that, Broadway in Chicago has “Moulin Rouge! The Musical” on its docket. That show, a vibrant and escapist entertainment, is set to begin performances at the James M. Nederlander Theatre on Dec. 17 and, ideally, play through the spring.

That is a much more complicated endeavor to stage, at least from today’s vantage point. The virus took a toll on many members of the New York cast this spring and that will be in the minds of the actors and their producers. On the other hand, the show would appear to be an ideal match for the post-pandemic market, if we are indeed post-pandemic by that point.

It is impossible to know for sure. But as I write, “Moulin Rouge!” is still on, with Scrooge set to grump it up around the corner.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

cjones5@chicagotribune.com

Chris Jones

Chris Jones is chief theater critic and culture columnist for the Chicago Tribune. He also serves as Broadway critic for the New York Daily News and a critic for WBBM-Ch. 2. His latest book is "Rise Up! Broadway and American Society from 'Angels in America' to 'Hamilton.'" He has a Ph.D. from Ohio State and lives in Chicago with his wife and sons.