On Saturday night, the Lyric Opera of Chicago officially gets into the business of Broadway musicals.
The Lyric's production of "Oklahoma," as directed by Gary Griffin, is certainly not the venerable opera company's first foray into the Broadway repertoire: It already has produced the likes of "Sweeney Todd," "Porgy and Bess" and "Showboat." But what's different about "Oklahoma" (aside from the arguable distinction between the music of George Gershwin and Richard Rodgers, the one perhaps being more operatic than the other) is that this production is in addition to the Lyric's regular subscription season. Thus, the opera company finds itself having to fill some 3,500 seats a night for 16 performances. That's 56,000 seats suddenly added to the Loop's inventory.
No wonder few of the big shows in town are selling out. There is, much as it pains me to suggest it, a bit of a glut of downtown musicals at present. The weather (as of press time) is nice. But it's not yet the heart of the tourist season. In fact, it's the tricky lull between the end of spring breaks and the end of school, the time when schedules are crowded with everything from communions to busy workdays to graduations. In New York, it always takes its toll on the weekly Broadway grosses.
Take a look at your choices this weekend. There's the final weekend of the touring production of the terrific "Anything Goes" at the Cadillac Palace Theatre. There's the final weekend of "Big Fish," the pre-Broadway tryout of an ambitious new musical (well worth seeing). There's "The Book of Mormon" at the Bank of America Theatre (the one show selling to capacity).
I pulled out my calculator and tapped away for a few minutes, figuring the number of performances and approximate seating capacities and would say there are roughly 35,000 seats on sale for Broadway musicals in Chicago's Loop between Friday night and Sunday afternoon. And that's not including the Joffrey Ballet's "Othello," trying to get attention at the Auditorium Theatre.
Additionally, let's not forget that downtown shows compete with suburban musicals. At present, both the Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace and the Marriott Lincolnshire have hit productions — of "Oliver" and "South Pacific," respectively. And both of those joints offer free parking. And did I mention the off-Loop "Pal Joey" or "The Pianist of Willesden Lane," just extended at the Royal George?
This should be a good weekend for Petterino's eatery and the Loop garages. But it's tougher for producers trying to get the proverbial butts in seats. There are only so many butts to go around.
Why has this happened? It seems illogical, especially given that many of these theaters are under common ownership, but the reality of the theater marketplace is that competition among shows is only one factor in a booking equation that has to take into account touring schedules, the availability of theaters, the availability of talent and any number of other variables. That's why you get a situation like last summer, when most of the theaters were dark at the peak of the visitor season, and the one like this weekend, when competition for your business is fierce. Especially when you add the Lyric.
That, of course, is very good for you. Almost all of these shows ("The Book of Mormon" aside) are available at a discount, if you work to find one. And who could complain about such a weekend of culture in downtown Chicago?
But while producers are not generally sympathetic sweethearts, you have to feel for them this weekend. They have no celebrities to move those tickets, as they do on Broadway. Yet they're bringing us some high-quality shows, all at once. So what are you going to see?