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Broadway heads your way

Shows that made it there get a profitable change of scenery on national tours.

The Tony Awards, Broadway's highest accolades, will be televised Sunday - the night each year when Broadway is most clearly on the nation's radar. But in cities big and small, Broadway means more than a Manhattan street or the 40 stages that represent the pinnacle of American commercial theater.

Broadway, because of a vibrant schedule of popular national tours, is no longer confined to Broadway. Consider:

The national tour of Billy Elliot, a Tony winner still running on Broadway, is playing in Dallas. The cast is one of two Billy Elliot ensembles playing around the country.

Fort Lauderdale, let the sun shine in - in the box office: People are buying or holding tickets for the national Broadway tour of Hair.

Jersey Boys, a big favorite for almost three months in Philadelphia last season and set to return this year, is about to head to Cleveland.

Anyone for Broadway theater in Boise, Idaho? Well, you'll find the ever-popular Mamma Mia! there.

Mary Poppins has flown her umbrella into Sacramento, Calif., having already stopped at the Academy of Music; the 25th-anniversary tour of Les Miserables - also a hit in Philly this season - is touching down in Los Angeles; and Next to Normal is in Cleveland, on its way to Center City this month.

In all, 13 national tours from Broadway producers are on the road - and in a slower summertime week than those during the regular theater season. This is the legacy of the tryout system that benefited Philadelphia with constant stops for decades, until it faded in the '70s - tours that took shows out on trial before they hit Broadway.

As you can guess, it's much more profitable to take them out after they've made it there (some more successfully than others) and have a buzz, the sort of thing created in part by winning Tonys.

To be clear, these are not the productions you find on the annual roster at, say, the Walnut Street Theatre, where a full-blown staging of Miss Saigon now plays nightly, or the Arden, Philadelphia Theatre Company, or Media Theatre, which is devoted to the American musical. Those professional productions are locally financed and created specifically for audiences in this region by almost 50 companies producing professional theater here. The regional theaters do it for art, not for profit, and sell more than a million tickets a year.

"We have our own theaters, so this is a very plugged-in city, a market that really appreciates theater, and the high level of support here for theater is really astounding," says Matt Wolf, the Kimmel Center's programming vice president, who runs the Broadway series of tours in Philadelphia. "At the same time, we're close enough to New York that our audiences tend to know about titles."

Shows actually on Broadway - not the tours - sell about 800,000 tickets to metropolitan Philadelphians each year, according to figures tracked from zip codes in credit-card sales. Still, says Wolf, "a great deal of people do not want to go to New York and see shows. They consider Philadelphia the big city, and quality of the touring productions has reached such a high level, you're getting the same thing you're getting on Broadway."

The Broadway League, a trade association spearheaded by Broadway producers, calculates that in the 2008-09 season - when it most recently monitored tours - about 40 shows played in 192 theaters around North America (a few were in Canada) and generated $3.35 billion in the communities where they played. That figure includes the local artists and crew members hired by the shows - everyone from additional makeup stylists to load-in and load-out movers of scenery - and dining and parking expenses audiences pay for a night on the town.

If Philadelphia is an example, touring shows do very well. Jersey Boys broke weekly box-office records at the 1,800-seat Forrest Theatre. The tour of Broadway's South Pacific revival had "a smash week - over $1 million in gross, fantastic for a touring production," Wolf says. In the Heights had the highest weekly gross in its national tour - $700 shy of a million.

Perhaps the biggest sign of Broadway's touring success in Philadelphia comes from its increased visibility. Two seasons back, the Broadway series offered four shows to subscribers. This past season, there were six, plus three titles not included in the subscriptions. Beginning this fall, nine Broadway tour shows will again give their regards to Broad . . . Street.