Singin' in the Rain has a well-traveled history. It began, of course, as the legendary film musical of 1952. In 1985, the movie became a Broadway musical, playing the Gershwin for about a year and picking up two Tony nominations. Then, in 1994, the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, NJ, deciding the material was “fit as a fiddle,” as one of its songs goes, decided to put on the show again.

And that was that. There have been touring versions of the Broadway version down the line but nothing like a fresh look at the show. Until this past winter, when the musical packed its bags and headed west, with bits and pieces of some of its earlier stagings still intact. Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre donned the famous raincoats first, from February 12-March 5; then the co-production moved south to Sacramento's California Musical Theatre, for a two-week run that concluded on March 20. It's not the first time the two companies have worked together to put on a show; in January 2004, the theatres hosted a production of Dreamgirls (toplining American Idol favorite Frenchie Davis), which originated at the American Musical Theatre of San Jose, CA.

With so many touring productions hitting the high notes at these non-profit institutions, each a musical theatre legend in its own city, why bother putting on a show at all? In the case of Singin' and Dreamgirls, the individual parties, each drawn to the material, had room in their schedules to accommodate homegrown productions of shows that were otherwise not westward-bound from touring entities. Michael Miller, the executive producer of American Musical Theatre, says Dreamgirls grew out of conversations with the New York-based National Alliance for Musical Theatre (NAMT), a 20-year-old organization that fosters the development of the artform. “Everyone got around the table to talk about how to do great shows together and save money,” says Miller, who has also worked at Paper Mill. Co-productions, which can reduce rehearsal, scenery, and costume costs, seemed a viable answer.

In an economic climate generally unfavorable to the arts, “companies working together can produce on a scale that we would not be able to do on our own,” says Scott Klier, production manager of California Musical Theatre. Adds Andy Luft, production supervisor of 5th Avenue Theatre, “The only way to keep up the aesthetic value of a show, to the level that a ticket buyer expects from a touring production, is to share the costs on them. Dreamgirls was the first time we gathered theatres together to create an alliance.”

In the east, says Miller, co-productions are nothing new. Paper Mill, he says, did two per year. But the East Coast has more of an established Broadway touring infrastructure, and companies like Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera, a Paper Mill co-partner, have ample space to store the sets and costumes of up to 25 shows, a rarity out west. But, thanks to a registry on the NAMT website (www.namt.net), companies nationwide can now more easily figure out where existing sets and costumes for, say, productions of 1776 and Camelot are, and arrange how to bring them into their town.

And, given what Luft calls “good allies” at other regional theatres, costs can be split in other ways besides full-out co-productions. “Since everyone has different schedules, finding a show that we all like and haven't done too recently is often the biggest challenge, and certain shows will sell well in one market and not another,” says John Breckenridge, producer and chief operating officer of Houston's Theatre Under The Stars (TUTS). TUTS self-produced a production of Singin' in the Rain last December, but shared the set, shipping costs, and the expense of refurbishing original costumes sourced from Paper Mill with 5th Avenue and California Musical Theatre. “Last year, TUTS, Paper Mill, and 5th did a variation of a co-production, sharing the costs of the physical production for My Fair Lady, but each using our own casts,” Breckenridge says.

[Where the mounting of new work is concerned, the results of a musical partnership can also flow Broadway's way. A decade ago, TUTS, 5th Avenue, and the Alley Theatre in Houston pooled more than $2 million in preproduction costs to transform Jekyll & Hyde from page to stage, a process that ultimately saw the show, a “monster” regional hit, head east for the Plymouth Theatre in 1997 for a near four-year run.]

Theatres are often loathe to talk about the bottom line. But Luft, who relates that the producers of the Broadway-bound Hairspray tossed out $300,000 worth of sets when the show tried out at the 5th Avenue in 2002, gladly spills the stats on Singin'. “The physical production came in at $750,000-$800,000, which is fairly modest,” he reported from Sacramento, where he had gone to help set up that production. “The local running costs for each theatre were $250,000-$300,000, including marketing, so each theatre was able to bring the show in for $1.25 million-$1.3 million each, where if we had to produce it on our own the cost would be $1.9 million to $2.1 million each.” Besides the cost savings, he enjoys co-productions for the human element. “They make for a happier bunch of stagehands because they do more work. My theatre has more all-out road dogs than any other and a co-production really takes full advantage of their irascibility, and my own,” he laughs.

For artisans, a co-production means career exposure in another city and the chance to design what is essentially a tightly scheduled “mini-tour,” with draconian load-in and load-out times to aid the amortization of costs and stay within budgetary projections, among a handful of partners. [A “mini-tour” between production partners may last 11 weeks, compared with a 20-30 week Broadway tour.] Lighting designer Tom Sturge, who illuminated Singin' and Dreamgirls and traveled to each venue to re-tech the show, says that “pre-planning and taking each venue into account early on in the design process leads to successful co-productions.” 5th Avenue, he says, tends to be the most challenging venue; while it is the size of many Broadway houses, it is smaller than, say, California Musical Theatre, and has no wing space stage right and little wing space stage left. “Singin' in the Rain looked a little better in Sacramento than Seattle because of a few changes in the FOH hang that added more sparkle (750W vs. 575W ETC Source Fours®) and a lower near boom box position that added some nice low sidelight for the dance numbers,” Sturge says, adding that the show “traveled from Seattle with all the overhead and deck electrics, with a separate FOH plot for Sacramento using house and rental equipment.” Laughs Luft, “Sacramento is like a country club compared to us, with tons of storage space and none of our need to fly everything on and off.”

On a co-production, costumes tend to fly in from all over the place. Dreamgirls was able to avail itself of several well-preserved hand-beaded gowns, costing $30,000 apiece, that became available when a planned London revival fell through. Singin' was designed with a set sourced from Paper Mill, which is where some, but not all, of the 240 costumes came from, relates 5th Avenue costume designer Lynda Salsbury. “Paper Mill isn't a rental theatre; if something gets worn out, it goes out. And Gregg Barnes, who designed the costumes for that 1994 production, gets a royalty but otherwise doesn't want to be involved. It's old news for him [his latest work, for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, is now on Broadway]. So I looked at tapes and read the script, the usual process, mindful that our production had a new opening, going from black-and-white costumes to color. And then I started pulling — from Paper Mill, from period costumes from the Goodspeed Opera House in Chicago, and the Costume Collection. But I had to redo the leads, and I actually did feel as if I were redesigning it, gluing and pasting as much as I was from so many sources.”

Due to scheduling conflicts, there will not be a Seattle/Sacramento co-production next season, but Luft affirms that the season after that will have one. “It's a way not to do the same old same old every year,” he says. Adds Klier, “it's in everyone's best interest to collaborate where they can, to provide shows for audiences who have grown accustomed to a certain production value.” And, of course, co-productions give a venerable property like Singin' in the Rain one more chance to “Make ‘em Laugh.”

Robert Cashill is a former editor of Lighting Dimensions.