Celebration of Rhythm

The ever-popular 'Stomp' kicks off Broadway in Tucson's new season

Theater is bustin' out all over our desert burg. There are certainly plenty of homegrown shows, but Broadway in Tucson, a presenting organization that brings in touring productions of big, brassy Broadway musicals, is getting ready to pop the cork on its new season.

First up is a brief return engagement of Stomp this weekend; it's been through Tucson numerous times, and never fails to draw adoring crowds. Then comes Anything Goes, Cole Porter's tried-and-true musical, given an injection of new life a couple of years ago, when it won the Tony for Best Revival of a Musical. Memphis, which won the 2010 Tony for Best Musical, is followed by the return of Wicked, which, when it played here in early 2011, was a hard ticket to come by. Then comes Blue Man Group, also making a return engagement, offering their unique collision of comedy, music and technology. The season concludes with Million Dollar Quartet, a musical based on the recently discovered tapes of one unusual night when legends Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins gathered for a jam session at the famed Sun Studio in Memphis.

Broadway in Tucson is part of the 100-year-old Nederlander theater empire, which has produced and helped develop dozens of Broadway shows. It owns theaters across the country and in London, including nine Broadway theaters, as well as the Pantages and the Greek in Los Angeles. And it coordinates a nine-member group that presents touring productions across the country. Broadway in Tucson is part of that group.

According to Broadway in Tucson general manager Lendre Kearns, it's a complicated process to get these shows here, and to ensure they have a successful run.

"These shows close somewhere Sunday night, and they have to break the sets down, load up the trucks, and get here Monday so they can unload the trucks and get everything set for our opening on Tuesday," Kearns says. "And some of these shows travel with six, 12 or more trucks. So routing is an issue. That's why we can get some shows and not others."

Other factors include whether or not the Music Hall, where these shows are performed, is available on certain dates. "Maybe the Tucson Symphony is scheduled for the dates the (touring) show would be available to us."

And then there's the issue of "blackouts." Says Kearns: "Jersey Boys has been on our wish list for a while, but because it was playing in Las Vegas, (cities in) California and Arizona were not allowed to book a touring version." Kearns hinted that this might not be the case much longer.

Although the productions themselves are not developed in Tucson, there are numerous critical tasks associated with "facilitating their engagement here," for which the organization is responsible. "These groups travel with a small corps of technical folks, so we hire a lot of local professionals to help with load-ins and load-outs, lighting, rigging, costume repair, wigs, laundry, stagehands—you name it," Kearns says. "And we also hire local musicians, because the tour may come with a conductor and lead violinist, but not an entire orchestra.

"For one show last year, we had a payroll of $80,000 (beyond the costs of booking the show). When Wicked was here, they used $50,000 worth of hotel rooms. They traveled with 22 trucks, and we did a three-day load-in with a crew of 70 to 80 people," most of whom were Broadway in Tucson hires.

Kearns says the group strives to bring in a variety of shows, some with well-established fan bases, and some which are not so well-known.

Stomp belongs to the former category. A riotous celebration of rhythm, Stomp utilizes familiar objects—brooms, garbage can lids, hubcaps—as percussion instruments to create a unique and energetic show that appeals to all ages.

John Sawicki has performed in Stomp all over the world. A New Yorker and son of a drummer, Sawicki says he "was one of those kids who got in trouble at school for tapping pencils on their desks." As a young man, he played for a number of bands, but when his parents bought him tickets to see Stomp on Broadway, "It was like being a kid in a candy store." He hung out after the show and passed his business card around, which got him an audition.

"I got the gig," he says, and he has been "stomping" since 1997. "I love rhythms. I love playing beats, and I love having people smile at what I do."

All of what the audience hears is generated by the eight Stompers onstage. There is no additional soundtrack on tape supplementing what the Stompers create. "It's 100 percent legit," Sawicki says proudly.

And it's hard work. "Being a Stomper is like being a professional athlete," he says. "Injuries come with the job."

Sawicki knows: He snapped his Achilles tendon, which sidelined him for a long while. But during his healing process, he was able to work with Stomp creators Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas to develop a new show, Pandemonium: The Lost and Found Orchestra, which Sawicki calls "an orchestra of junk. You shut your eyes, and you think you're hearing the New York Philharmonic, but if you open them, you'll see a bunch of garbage and junk made to sound like orchestra instruments."

Stomp stays fresh, Sawicki says, because, although about 80 percent of it is structured, there is room for improvisation. "And the cast is multi-ethnic, so you have different rhythms from all over the world. We've got some new stuff in this show that you guys haven't seen before."

Sawicki also has a theory about why the show remains so popular. "We all share the rhythm of life, which is your heartbeat. Everybody has a pulse—that's as basic as it gets. There are so many different sounds in the world; everything around us has a kind of rhythm. What we do is take the chaotic sounds of the world and organize them. It's not just a lot of noise. It's really beautiful, what we do."