- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 1, 2007

Two years ago, buying tickets for a ballroom dance expo wouldn’t have crossed Christina Romo-Leroux’s mind. Yet Sunday night, she bundled up, braved the bitter winds, and made the trek from Woodbridge, Va., to D.C.’s Verizon Center to soak in more than two hours of swirling, shimmying, sequin-strewn entertainment.

The event, she explained, had special allure for her since it was the live, touring spinoff of ABC’s hit “celebreality” show “Dancing with the Stars.”

“I got wrapped up in this in the second season — it’s so beautiful,” Miss Romo-Leroux said during intermission.

She was among thousands packing the basketball arena for a live jolt of the razzle-dazzle on stage far below, where brawny beefcakes like “Blossom’s” Joey Lawrence (who knew he was still such a babe?) spun leggy women in miniskirts at speeds nearing Mach 2.

More striking than the production itself, however, is the trend that the hit 38-city tour exemplifies. Traveling spectacles in this vein are now giving traditional music concert tours a serious run for their money.

According to concert industry trade magazine Pollstar, last year’s 100 highest-grossing North American tours included not just the Rolling Stones and Barbra Streisand (numbers 1 and 2, respectively), but also Cirque du Soleil (5), “American Idols Live” (19), the Cheetah Girls (44), Blue Man Group (55) and “Lord of the Dance” (78).

Of course, major concert tours offering more than just music have always existed — remember the Ice Capades? But “there are a lot more of these non-hit-single-based touring shows [now], many of them spawned by TV,” says Pollstar’s founder and editor, Gary Bongiovanni. “They’ve definitely grown significantly in the last 10 years.”

Some such shows, like Blue Man Group and Cirque du Soleil, have built slowly over time. They began modestly as homegrown productions with an edgy cachet, musical infusion and innovative stunts that earned them enthusiastic word-of-mouth — followed later by massive media coverage.

Others, like Disney’s “High School Musical” and Fox’s “So You Think You Can Dance,” have leapt straight out of the tube and onto the stage.

One might cite a variety of reasons for the success of all these shows: the health of the concert industry as a whole (2006 was a record-breaking year, with $3.6 billion in gross revenues, according to Pollstar), the products’ inherent quality and family appeal, or audiences’ growing demands to be stimulated by visual as well as audio elements.

Certainly all of these factors have played a role.

Yet Paul J. Emery III, founder of Emery Entertainment and executive tour producer of Blue Man’s current “How to Be a Megastar Tour 2.0,” has an additional theory. The music industry, he believes, has left the door open for newer concert formats by sticking primarily to the “traditional marketing avenues,” while nascent acts have learned to exploit a major shift in media.

“What’s driving things more in this area is television, not radio,” Mr. Emery says. “Music groups today, if they don’t go back and reevaluate their strategies, they’re not going to be here tomorrow.”

Whereas rock tours have historically relied on radio waves to generate buzz and sell seats, it’s no secret that radio conglomeration and increased homogeneity have shut out emerging acts — and that the recording industry has failed to fully leverage television and the new media to drive concert revenues. (Bands like the Fray who’ve utilized television licensing are the exception.)

Television is “what’s delivering the masses,” agrees Debra Rathwell, senior vice president of AEG Live, the company responsible for producing most of the latest TV-to-stage phenomena, from “Idols Live” to “Dancing With the Stars.”

Reality shows are the strongest evidence of TV’s power to promote novel touring concepts. With viewers in the tens of millions, popular on-screen talent competitions hit the concert circuit with huge ready-made audiences.

Consider: A tour like “Dancing With the Stars” can largely fill its 38 venues nationwide (assuming an average seating capacity of 20,000) by pulling in less than 5 percent of the TV program’s average 19 million at-home viewers. Not all that difficult when you factor in all the unpaid promotion such shows attract, with everyone from local news crews to E! Entertainment Television reporting breathlessly on everything from who got voted off to who’ll be in the road show.

Talk about a pre-sold tour.

Performance artists like Blue Man Group have also felt the propulsion that comes from increased TV coverage, thanks to arts-heavy programming on channels ranging from WETA to A&E.

Mr. Emery, who has worked with Blue Man Group for around five years — including on their earlier “Complex Rock Tour” — explains that while this particular troupe wasn’t born in RGB color, its drawing power has grown by leaps and bounds thanks to tube time.

Since the early ‘90s, Blue Man Group has often been featured on high-profile shows such as “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno”; they’ve done commercials such as their Intel Pentium campaigns; and they’ve starred in a PBS documentary.

Marketing and media aside, nontraditional tours have also been well received by promoters and the public alike simply because they’re different.

Venues and the people trying to pack them have been quick to adopt these novel products, explains Mr. Bongiovanni, because they broaden offerings and help reach new niches. From a promoter’s perspective, “diversity is really the name of the game,” he says.

For spectators, these shows are also a welcome change. On Sunday night, for example, Frederick, Md., resident Margaret Divico had come to “Dancing with the Stars” with her friend Mary Moffatt, whose son gave her tickets as a Christmas present.

Mrs. Divico explained, “You wouldn’t get me at a [rock] concert with all the loud music.”

But this, with the tuxes, twists and tosses — this was “great.”

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