Tyler Perry and cast in “Madea’s Farewell Play Tour,” the last hurrah for Perry’s irascible character. (Courtesy Tyler Perry Studios)
Tyler Perry’s most famous character leaves a trail of sold-out shows as she nears the end of her final tour
Tyler Perry’s Madea character was not supposed to be the star of the touring stage shows and movies that eventually became a $500 million juggernaut. In the original 1999 play, “I Can Do Bad All By Myself,” the always loud, often tough, sometimes violent and mainly loveable matriarch of the Simmons family was supposed to be onstage for only two minutes. But the last-minute cancellation of the star of the show forced Perry to take on all of the star’s lines at Chicago’s Regal Theater that night. The crowd roared, Madea stole the show, and a franchise was born.
Twenty years later, Madea has appeared in 11 stage shows and 11 movies. The current stage incarnation, “Madea’s Farewell Play Tour,” is on the last legs of a 17-week tour and Perry has said this is the last run for his popular character, which developed a reputation for filling theaters and pleasing crowds, particularly urban audiences.
VenuesNow spoke with the production about bidding farewell and to several venues that have hosted the Madea plays over the years about the character’s legacy and the difficulty in replacing her.
Arthur Primas has been the tour promoter for the entire 20-year run of “Madea” stage plays.
“We’ve been doing this since 1999,” Primas said. “The first 12 years we did one every year. After year 12 we did it every two years because the movies were filmed in-between.”
Also changed over time is the amount of shows in the routing; they went from doing 40-week tours to 17-week tours.
But many of the names among the cast and crew have stayed the same. “Two to three of the actors have constantly been here. Many crew members have been with us since the start,” he said. “People are loyal to Tyler Perry because he treats everyone with respect.”
Primas has seen many changes over the years. “The shows have evolved tremendously,” he said. “The first show we had 10 cast members, the set cost $10,000, and there were 35 people in the cast and crew. One of the first cities we played was Rochester, N.Y. Tyler Perry is so involved that when I drove up, there he was unloading the truck. We’ve come a long way.
“This has grown into a large production with moving sets and outrageous costumes. It takes 11 trucks and eights buses to move the show and the 80-person cast and crew around.”
Primas has been most impressed with how the sets have gone from fixed sets to moving feasts for the eyes.
“We’ve got LED screens and moving walls,” he said. “The set was static when we first started but there’s nothing static about the current sets. They’re moving constantly. These are pieces of art, and it’s been this way for the last 10 years.”
While the audience appreciates the high-tech sets, what they really appreciate is seeing Tyler Perry on stage, according to Primas.
“The movies are great, but I meet a lot of people who have gone to the movies and love them, and I tell them, ‘If you haven’t seen Tyler Perry live, you have not seen Tyler Perry.’ The connection with the material and the audience and the vibe are like nothing you’ve ever seen. There’s a reason why this character is so loved by the fans.”
Primas fondly recalled some of the early shows. “The first show, ‘I Can Do Bad All By Myself,’ had such deep meaning and connected with the audiences,” Primas said. “People thought ‘Madea’s Family Reunion’ was a teaching moment. Same thing with ‘Madea Goes to Jail’ or ‘Madea Gets a Job.’ In these shows Tyler actually talks directly to the audience and they feel the message he’s trying to send.”
Primas also remembered an early date when one emotional performance at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta almost brought down the balcony. “The crowd was so enthusiastic; they were stomping and cheering, and I looked up and I could see the balcony moving up and down,” he said. “I thought it was going to break off.”
Primas also had fond recollections of shows at the Beacon Theater in New York City, L.A.’s Dolby Theatre and the Fox Theatre in Detroit.
Atlanta is Tyler Perry’s home, and the Fox Theatre in Atlanta played an instrumental part in the success of the franchise. The theater took a chance on Perry in 1999 before anyone knew who Madea was, and it’s been a stop on every Madea tour ever since. Tyler Perry Studios sits in the Greenbriar area of southwest Atlanta and includes 200,000 square feet of sets and office space.
Fittingly, the Madea story will end where it started and will raise its final curtain in Atlanta. Perry will take the stage as Madea for the last time with six shows May 22-26 at the Fox.
“The show has been coming to his theater so long it predates me,” said Allan Vella, president and CEO of the Fox Theatre. “The show has been playing here for 20 years. Tyler Perry is an institution in Atlanta.”
“The city at large is proud of him,” Vella said. “He’s a great rags-to-riches American story. He is beloved and a very important member of the community. He’s put his time, money and effort into investing back into the city. He’s very generous and a quiet philanthropist.”
“Ticket sales for the shows are robust, and every Madea event sells 100% capacity,” Vella said. “The demographics of the show vary wildly. It skews urban, but Madea has touched a nerve in many communities.”
Vella said theaters will miss Perry’s trademark character as much as audiences will.
“It’s miraculous that Perry still takes the time to play live theater when much of his time could be devoted to movies, which is probably more lucrative. Even more amazing is that Perry and his team are very easy to work with and that Tyler Perry has no attitude.”
Tickets are priced by Live Nation, which is co-promoting the tour with Perry’s production company. “It’s the same pricing as our Broadway package,” Vella said.
Vella said Madea will be difficult to replace. “There is no up-and-coming Tyler Perry. No one is producing this product for this audience, and we’ll miss it dearly.”
Madea is also coming back to Brooklyn’s 3,000-seat Kings Theatre. The historic 1929 venue closed in 1977 and reopened in 2015 after a $95 million renovation in time to book “Madea on the Run.”
“It’s our second Madea show and I wish there would be more,” said Kings Theatre General Manager Tyler Bates. “The shows are fantastic and have all sold out, mostly without any advertising. There is a lot of organic interest in the show.”
Tickets at Kings Theatre range from $50 to $140.
Merchandise is a brisk seller at Madea shows, and the house gets a small percentage of the revenue, as do all the venues it plays in.
“We’re excited to be hosting it and excited to serve the community with this kind of A-list production,” Bates said. “There is world-class talent coming through these doors, and this is helping us expand the live theater conversation out of Manhattan and into Brooklyn.”
Primas has mixed emotions about the end of the road. “In one sense we’ve been working constantly for 22 years. In another sense, how do you start over with something that’s gone on this long? But mostly I want to say thank you to the fans for the loyalty and the support.”
Is this really the end of Madea? Primas thinks Perry means it when he said that this is the last play.
“Make no mistake — this is farewell tour, and when we end this, it’s over.”