The Whys and Hows of Broadway Transfers

April 1, 2024

To the audience of a Broadway show, what’s being presented onstage is crisp, harmonious, and expertly crafted. But in most cases, the production has had a yearslong journey to that polished final product—a journey that often winds through one or more other theaters.

Though musicals and plays can come to Broadway via many different routes, the majority of them transfer from regional theaters, off-Broadway, the West End, or national tours. In this 2023–24 season, there are 20 musicals premiering on Broadway, including brand-new shows and revivals. Every single one of those productions was previously staged somewhere else.

This tactic has become even more common in the wake of pandemic shutdowns, as the financial risks of mounting a show have increased. The producing and creative teams can get a feel for how their show works in an environment that has less pressure and requires less money. They can take time to gauge audience reactions to the work, read reviews, and analyze public interest and ticket sales. And the process can ultimately lead to big career opportunities for the dancers and actors involved.

Theater Matchmaking

Pre-Broadway runs of a show can help more experimental, outside-the-box productions find financial investors and Broadway theater owners who are interested in helping them have a future life. Mandy Hackett, the associate artistic director of The Public Theater in downtown Manhattan, has helped shepherd 15 shows from the famous off-Broadway venue onto Broadway, including Hamilton and this month’s Hell’s Kitchen.

a group of dancers on stage in performance
Hell’s Kitchen comes to Broadway this month after debuting at The Public Theater in downtown Manhattan. Photo by Joan Marcus, Courtesy The Public Theater.

“Broadway has expanded a lot over the past 20 years,” she says. “More diverse work is coming from the nonprofit world, and producers are getting more comfortable taking risks with putting up a wider range of adventurous work. But that means there are so many shows vying for theaters, and theater owners are getting pitched from all different places day in and day out.” Previous runs give everyone a better sense of which shows and theaters might be good matches—aligning what’s right artistically for the show with what’s smart for the business of the theater.

A Feat of Logistics—and Creativity

Once a theater gets officially locked in, the real heavy lifting of the transfer begins. It’s a massive undertaking that, among other things, includes the public relations team finalizing the show’s artwork for marketing and advertising, the box office setting ticket prices and rolling out a calendar for announcements and sales, and the production team planning when their load-in can start and what the company’s rehearsal schedule will look like.

While all of this is going on behind the scenes, the show’s creative team is also hard at work. Initially putting up a full-scale version of their show somewhere other than Broadway gives them a chance to see what doesn’t translate effectively from the page to the stage. This information is then used to make changes to the piece in another workshop or during their Broadway rehearsal process. These could be small tweaks, like script and choreography edits or a costume redesign, or there could be bigger restructuring involving cutting, adding, or rearranging entire scenes, songs, or characters. Sometimes creative-team members can also change—a new set designer is brought in to shift the aesthetic, or a different choreographer is brought in to adjust the movement style.

The new Broadway revival of The Wiz toured 13 cities over the past seven months before it sat down on Broadway this month. Matthew Sims Jr. is a swing in the company, and he’s glad their show had an opportunity for a test drive. “Since COVID, it feels like a lot of shows are hanging on by a thread. Closing notices come quickly, it’s more expensive to put up a show and harder to get audiences to come,” he said. “But with touring, we’ve gotten to see what speaks to people from different places and from different demographics before putting it all together on Broadway.”

Choreography, especially, often undergoes significant revisions during the transfer process. I’ve had the pleasure of working on the choreography team of two shows that transferred to Broadway from out of town: How to Dance in Ohio, which premiered in September 2022 at Syracuse Stage and transferred to Broadway this past fall, and The Who’s TOMMY, a revival that we staged at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago last summer and is opening on Broadway this spring. While preparing for these transfers, there were a few things we needed to consider: What are the dimensions of the new stage and how will that affect the spacing and movement we created in the regional versions? Were there any parts of our choreography that we weren’t fully satisfied with last time that we now want to update? If we have new set pieces, new dancers, or new costumes, what changes do we need to make to accommodate the updates being made by other departments? For both shows, our dance teams did a lot of work in the studio to revisit what we initially created and brainstorm new ideas we wanted to implement for the next iteration.

a man standing on a platform holding a book up in the air with a large projection behind him
A revival of The Who’s TOMMY (here and below) was staged at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago last summer and is opening on Broadway this spring. Photos by Liz Lauren, Courtesy the Goodman Theatre.
a group of performers on stage huddled around an open doorway looking towards the audience

Casting Variations

Changes may also be made to a show’s cast between a preliminary run and Broadway. Sometimes cast members need to be replaced for various reasons—the director or choreographer may feel that a performer wasn’t properly suited to the show, or maybe the dancer has booked another job that’s happening at the same time. Frequently, auditions are also held to add additional swings and understudies to bulk up coverage for a longer run. In the case of a transfer from London, using international talent can get complicated and expensive with visas, unions, and housing relocation fees, so often almost an entirely new company of American workers is needed.

Claire Burke, a casting director with Tara Rubin Casting, helped usher in last summer’s hit show Back to the Future from the West End. “While casting a transfer, there is already existing choreography and a set of skills that have been determined,” she says. “So instead of building a brand-new piece in collaboration with whoever we choose, we have to cast people who are able to do exactly what has been previously established. There can still be creative freedom and different interpretations, but it’s a balance between finding someone unique and still honoring the original piece.”

a group of female performers huddled together and staring at the girl in the middle
Back to the Future in rehearsal. Photo by Andy Henderson, Courtesy Polk & Co.

The Broadway Boost

The cast of a Broadway transfer will often, however, include many of the artists who have been attached since its early stages. The original dancers, specifically, tend to be integral to the creation of the show’s movement, and a lot of times the choreographer prefers to keep their ensemble intact.

And while a transfer is certainly not the goal for every show, being in a Broadway house brings with it the perk of potential widespread success, which can ultimately trickle down to all the hands that touched the production. Sims, who is making his Broadway debut with The Wiz, says he’s proudly enjoying the feeling of reaching the pinnacle of the industry and is excited for where it will all lead him.

The sense of community that can come from a big Broadway audience is also a boon for many artists. “I remember being in the Broadway house of one of the earliest transfers I worked on, and feeling how many more people were there laughing and applauding,” said Hackett. “Of course it’s equally as magical downtown at The Public, but there is something so cool about the increased scale of people gathering in that theater, on that day, to share in that moment together. It sticks with you.”