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Who Dares Challenge Ticketmaster?/ New Face for the Hunchback

Steppenwolf's Eric Simonson finally gets the musical he's been looking for.

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Who Dares Challenge Ticketmaster?

Since gobbling up its competitor Ticketron in 1991, Ticketmaster has enjoyed a near monopoly in the U.S. as a ticket vendor for plays, concerts, sporting events, and other attractions. When Pearl Jam tried to boycott Ticketmaster in 1995, citing its rapacious service charges, the band had to cobble together a tour from odd venues, shut out from the majority of arenas and theaters by Ticketmaster's ironclad long-term contracts. That July the U.S. Department of Justice dropped an investigation into the company, pointing to new businesses that could provide competition, but since then no David has emerged to topple the Los Angeles-based ticketing giant.

The latest challenger could be Admission Network, a Canadian company that entered the Chicago market as ticket vendor for Quidam, the Cirque du Soleil production that opens this summer in the United Center parking lot. Admission Network was formed in 1988 by Cirque du Soleil and Microflex, a software company for box-office operations; its primary phone ticketing operations are located in Montreal, where the circus is also headquartered. At first the company focused on eastern Canada, picking up an impressive array of clients that includes the Montreal Expos, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, and the Quebec Symphony Orchestra. Then it branched out into Europe, selling tickets for Cirque du Soleil tours and establishing large services in France (France Billet), the Czech Republic (Tiketpro Network), and Austria (Osterreich Ticket Express).

But the big bucks are here in the United States. In spring 1996 Admission Network opened a San Diego office to sell tickets for the U.S. debut of Quidam in Los Angeles, and it hired Keith Kelly as general manager of U.S. operations. Kelly, a west coast management consultant, is new to the ticketing industry, but Admission Network boasts that its sales for Quidam doubled those of any Cirque du Soleil engagement handled by Ticketmaster in LA. Since then Admission Network has been setting up a system of phone and retail outlets to service the U.S. tour of Quidam; in addition to Chicago, it's selling tickets in Santa Monica, Orange County, Oakland, San Jose, Denver, Dallas, Houston, New York, and Atlanta. Right now all U.S. calls are forwarded to the company's Montreal phone room, which has a bilingual staff, but Kelly says that if he succeeds in picking up a couple of new clients, the company might decide within the next month to move ahead with a separate phone room in the U.S.

Surviving in the U.S. market, however, will require more than Cirque du Soleil, whose relatively brief engagements are limited to a small number of American cities. Kelly says he's roaming the country looking for business to sustain the company year-round. So far he's nabbed a few small clients, including the San Francisco Symphony, the Geffen Theater in Los Angeles, the Cleveland San Jose Ballet, Theater Under the Stars in Houston, and the Pioneer Center for the Performing Arts in Reno, Nevada. He wouldn't mind adding to his client roster in Chi-cago, but as Ticketmaster's formidable CEO Fred Rosen has pointed out, his company came to the Chicago market with some major customers already locked up, including the White Sox and the Cubs. Rosen refused to talk on the record about Admission Network's arrival here. But Kelly will need one hell of a slingshot: Admission Network sells 20 million tickets worldwide every year, while Ticketmaster claims to sell 70 million in the U.S. alone.

New Face for the Hunchback

Eric Simonson, an ensemble member of Steppenwolf Theatre Company, is the newest player in the saga of Dennis DeYoung's The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The Styx songwriter's first musical premiered last fall at the Tennessee Repertory Theatre in Nashville, and though it received some encouraging reviews, DeYoung and Fox Theatricals producer Michael Leavitt decided the show needed work before a larger production could be mounted at a different venue. Max Pirkel, artistic director for Tennessee Rep, bowed out after the show closed in Nashville. Simonson and DeYoung have been revising the book and score since December, and Leavitt hopes to have revisions in hand by mid-January.

Leavitt claims that only scheduling conflicts prevented him from pairing Simonson with DeYoung in the first place, but he stopped short of saying Simonson would direct the next production, which could open this spring or summer at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie. "I want to see what the book and score look like first," Leavitt explains.

In recent years Simonson has established himself as a director of musicals and opera: his Steppenwolf credits include The Song of Jacob Zulu and the Ladysmith Black Mambazo show Nomathemba (Hope), and he's directed productions of La Boheme, The Magic Flute, and Rigoletto in Minnesota and upstate New York. He says he loves DeYoung's score, and he's excited by Hunchback: "It's another opportunity to explore the theatrical form of telling a story through music." Initially Simonson was announced as director of Paul Simon's musical The Capeman, now in previews on Broadway, but the job eventually went to choreographer-director Mark Morris.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Eric Simonson photo uncredited.

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