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Managing Mary Poppins' tour around the country

When the fourteen trucks rolled up to the Paramount Theatre today, they were just part of the enormous endeavor that is the tour of the Broadway hit musical Mary Poppins
Photo: Joan Marcus
Besides gigantic set pieces like the 11,000 lb Banks house, costumes, lights, instruments, and all the equipment necessary to pull of the musical’s many magic tricks, seventy-seven people travel from city to city with the show.

It is, said company manager Steve Lukens, not unlike trying to move a small town. “We have four child actors, their parents, and a teacher. There’s ten dogs (who do not appear on stage) that are people’s pets. It’s a long tour and some cast members don’t want to be away from their pets for that long of a time.” As the company moves from city to city, Lukens’ job is to make sure that the business side of the tour runs smoothly. “That’s everything from the logistics of getting us from place to place to dealing with the labor unions in each city to making sure that we have all the necessary contracts with the venues,” he explained. In every city, he is the man behind the curtain, setting up a small office in the latest city to keep the show rolling to the next stop without a hitch.

Having children in the cast also means checking the state labor laws and making sure that the proper permits are made out. “Every state is a little different and having kids in a show does add work. But they also bring a great energy back stage that I love," said Lukens. "Our kids are professionals, and we treat them as such, but then they’ll bust out with a typical ten-year-old joke when you’re talking to them. It keeps people in a happier place.”

While on tour, Lukens is responsible for making sure that everyone arrives on time and finds everything ready to go. When the tour is making short hops between cities, many cast and crew members elect to drive themselves. But, for this latest stop on the tour, most had to fly and some had their cars shipped out to Seattle.

“This will be our longest jump, about 2,400 miles, between Columbus, Ohio, and Seattle,” he said from his office backstage in Columbus last Friday. “And so we need to time it precisely. After that, we’ll be going along the West Coast.” After stops in Sacramento, Portland, San Diego, and Salt Lake City, among others, the tour swings back toward the center of country. “Although this is the fifth national tour that I’ve run, I’ve only been to Seattle a couple of times,” said Lukens. “I’m looking forward to having some time to see the city.”

Lukens majored in theater in college, eventually deciding that he enjoyed the role of stage manager best. While working in San Francisco, he was offered a job as assistant company manager for Phantom of the Opera. “I became the company manager for the third national tour of Phantom. That was a humongous show. But if you can survive Phantom, you can manage anything.”

With a typical work day that starts around 10 a.m. and ends when the final curtain drops “usually around 11 p.m.,” it’s not an easy job. But coming into theater like Paramount, which regularly hosts big road tours, is less work than some other stops. “The great thing about the Seattle people is that everyone knows what they are doing, they anticipate what we need,” said Luken.