Paying Tribute Pays Off

While the music industry continues to brainstorm ways to make concerts an attractive and affordable way for people to be entertained, two industry veterans are taking a niche genre with unexpected cross-over appeal to the next level.

Agency for the Performing Arts’ Christine Barkley and Handshake Ltd. U.K.’s Stuart Littlewood teamed up about a year ago to present the touring production of “One Night Of Queen” in the U.S. and later this year “Abba Mania (The Original From London’s West End).” Both shows are gaining fans around the world despite being described as “tribute acts.”

Littlewood, whose agency represents “One Night Of Queen,” “Abba Mania” and others, told Pollstar he got his start in the genre because of artists he himself admired growing up.

“About 20 years ago I was the producer for a show called ‘Buddy’ about the life of Buddy Holly. It ran in London for 15 or 16 years [and] we did bring it to Broadway,” Littlewood explained.

“It really made me interested in that genre of show business. There are a lot of performers who have left these fantastic legacies of their music that needs to be kept alive and passed on to future generations.”

Barkley said she joined APA’s New York office about four years ago with the task of building up the company’s performing arts wing. As she added special attractions and theatrical productions to the roster geared for PACs, tribute acts weren’t on her radar until she heard about the Queen tribute Handshake launched in 2000.

“I found that [PACs] were having some success in the tribute world but they kind of steered away from it. They’re more of the, I guess you would say, ‘heady’ performing arts centers,” Barkley told Pollstar. “I formed a relationship with Handshake Productions [and] they had the show, ‘One Night Of Queen.’ We started doing a bit more investigating into what Handshake had done with this phenomenon in the U.K.”

Barkley, Stuart Littlewood and his son Todd Littlewood then collaborated to launch a 2008 U.S. tour of PACs in 35-40 cities for “One Night Of Queen,” featuring Gary Mullen portraying Freddie Mercury and band The Works portraying Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon.

Barkley said the tour was a success, attracting all age groups with ticket prices ranging from $25 to about $55, depending on the market.

“The response from the performing arts centers that took a stab at it was over the moon,” she said. “Right out of the gate we were playing venues from 800 to 2,500 seats. They sold out in many places. In 2009, we’ve done another 40-city tour with the same response.”

Both Barkley and Littlewood said that what makes “One Night Of Queen” and “Abba Mania” so popular and appealing is more than just the high-quality production values and distinct attention to detail – it’s the quality talent and the symbolic “trip back in time” these performers provide.

“With a lot of these artists, especially Mercury – one of rock’s legendary frontmen – very few people were able to see him before he passed away away,” Barkley said. “Now [Gary] Mullen gives [fans] the opportunity because he’s so good.

“If you talk to any of the venues who’ve had [the show], no one wants to look at this as a tribute band because it’s almost as if you’re going to an original Queen concert.”
Barkley added that her PAC-geared roster has also caught the attention of venues such as House of Blues, which she said has booked “One Night Of Queen” and “Abba Mania,” as well as fairs, casinos and festivals.

Littlewood said Handshake’s partnership with APA has helped make his ongoing mission to bring the stories of legendary artists to new audiences that much better.

“What the public seems to want in these uncertain times is something that they know. With the cooperation of Christine and her office, I think there’s going to be more [tribute shows],” he explained. “It’s rather like in the ’60s or ’70s when the ‘real thing,’ as it were – The Beatles, Queen and all those others – came across the Channel and were successful in your country.

“It seems to be repeating itself and long may it continue.”