Tax credit luring pre-Broadway shows to Chicago
In this Oct. 11, 2012 photo provided by Broadway in Chicago, actors Stark Sands, left, and Billy Porter are seen in a preview performance of "Kinky Boots" at the Bank of America Theatre in Chicago. Illinois has a tax credit to attract pre-Broadway and long-run shows to the state. "Kinky Boots" has applied for the tax credit. (AP Photo/Courtesy of Broadway in Chicago, Sean Williams)
CHICAGO (AP) — The New York-bound musical "Kinky Boots" enjoyed a pre-Broadway run at a downtown Chicago theater this fall, but only after the state of Illinois lured producers with something that's scarce these days — money.
The Cyndi Lauper and Harvey Fierstein production that's based on a 2005 movie, along with a second musical, "Big Fish," were the first to apply for a certificate making them eligible for a state theater tax credit. Lawmakers slipped it into a package of tax breaks approved late last year for corporate heavyweights Sears Holding Corp. and the CME Group Inc.
The breaks appear to be doing their job: Producers say the credit — worth up to $500,000 per production or a cap of $2 million per year — was instrumental in their decision to bring the shows to Chicago instead of going straight to New York or previewing in Seattle, Toronto or San Francisco.
In the highly competitive business of attracting big-name, revenue-generating productions, Chicago theater officials say they're in talks with at least nine other productions.
The timing and principle of such a state tax credit primarily benefitting Chicago — given in the midst of Illinois' almost unprecedented financial crisis — has raised some financial experts' eyebrows. Currently, the state is nearly $8 billion behind in paying bills to social service providers and other state contractors; the state's employee pension program is underfunded by $95 billion; and Illinois residents are being asked to pay higher income taxes.
But proponents, who argued for the tax break for five years, now can point to "Kinky Boots" and "Big Fish" as evidence of success. They say the unique tax break brings Chicago something more than money — a show-business shine that generates buzz. Only Louisiana and Rhode Island have similar legislation, intended to bring shows to cities like New Orleans and Providence.
"From a bigger picture standpoint, it has huge impact to the city and state and that's the real motivation behind this," said Lou Raizin, president of Broadway in Chicago, which runs five theaters. "We're getting a bite of the Big Apple before they do and I love that."
Producers often like to test shows outside of New York before debuting on Broadway. It lets them gauge audience reactions and make updates, improvements and changes. But producers say an out-of-town preview can be pricey. Besides "Kinky Boots," Chicago has had two pre-Broadway shows since 2006 — "The Pirate Queen" and "The Addams Family," starring Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth.