What is the success rate of movies-to-musicals anyway?

I’m going to admit it.

Not only do I read Michael Riedel’s twice-a-week Broadway gossip column in the NY Post, but I actually enjoy his stuff . . . even when he’s cracking on one of my shows, and he certainly has.  Deep down the guy loves theater, like all of us, and frankly, some of his columns have been a lot more enjoyable to read than a whole bunch of shows I’ve seen over the years.

In last week’s column, Michael wrote something that made me want to dig a bit deeper.  While slamming Sister Act before it has even gotten to our shores, he said . . .

This is yet another one of those screen retreads that, with few exceptions (“Hairspray,” “The Producers”), have been draining the joy out of musical comedy.

When I read it, I nodded in agreement.  I think all of us feel that movies-turned-musicals are a more miss than hit business, right?

But let’s go to the numbers.

By my count, I’ve got 21 movie-to-musicals in the last 10 years.

And I’m also counting that 7 of them made money.

That’s a 1 in 3 recoupment ratio, which easily trumps the anecdotal average of 1 in 5 that we all quote.

Not so bad, right?  All of a sudden a whole bunch of you when straight to your Netflix account to see what you could turn into a musical, didn’t you?

Well, it gets better.

When you look at the number of those shows that might not have recouped on Broadway, but ran over a year (thus increasing potential subsidiary life, etc.), the number jumps to 14 out of 21.

Now Michael wasn’t talking commercial success . . . he was talking about his own definition of joy.  And, frankly, I know exactly what he’s talking about.

But from an investor’s perspective (and an audience’s as well, since longer running shows means more folks are seeing them), there has been more joy than we may want to admit.

Advice from an Expert: Vol. XVII. My Mother The Theatergoer.

There’s always a lot of talk about the Tonys in the weeks that follow the big show.  What numbers were successful?  Could we give the plays more attention and still hold the audience’s attention?  And who fit Katie Holmes into her dress?

But the most important question for the Producers out there is . . . after watching the Tonys, what shows does the public want to see?

All of us in the industry debate this question like crazy.  But what do we know?  Most of us don’t have a clue what it’s like to be a family of four from the suburbs interested in seeing a show on their next long weekend.  In fact, I would wager that the people making the product in our industry and the people seeing the product are more different than in most industries out there.

But that doesn’t stop us from guessing.

I was in the middle of a heated discussion about my own guesses on what the public wanted to see last week, when I realized it was time to go to the source.  I decided to go to what most advertising agencies would describe as the model of a “traditional” theatergoer:  a suburban female in her 50s-60s who sees 3-5 shows per year, mostly musicals, and pays full price.

And that theatergoer is my momma.  And she’s literally been in my backyard this whole time!

I called Mom, who, of course, had tuned in to the Tonys, and asked her if she would write a mini-blog for me about her perspective on this year’s show.  Most specifically, I asked . . . “Mom, after watching the Tonys, what shows do you want to see the next time you are in town?”

Here’s what Mom had to say . . . [my comments are in brackets] “I watched the Tony Awards a few nights ago.  I love the excitement, costumes, music – even the speeches.  I often get ideas about what I’d like to see on our next NYC trip.  Before I tell you what shows captured my attention from the way they were presented at The Tonys, I thought you might find it interesting to get a few additional details about my perspective (and some of these Kenneth doesn’t even know).  [Yes, she, and about three other people on the planet, call me Kenneth.]

  • My first theater experience was 50 years ago when I saw Annie Get Your Gun.  When the stage curtain opened, revealing a real live horse . . . I was hooked!  [When people see things on stage that they don’t expect to see: kids, animals, helicopters, it elevates the experience.]
  • As a teenager, I was addicted to buying show albums, and also listening to show songs popularized by famous artists.  I loved those album covers and the summaries of the shows on the back (King and I, Mame, etc.)  [Oh, if only popular artists were covering our tunes today.]
  • I was a teen in the ’60s, which put me in the proper emotional state to grasp the power of music.  It brought people together, challenged their thinking and even caused them to take action (Hair, West Side Story, Jesus Christ Superstar).  

And now, here are the shows that I wanted to see and the ones that didn’t interest me (there were many other shows that I had no opinion on – I’d have to learn more before putting them in the “to see” or “don’t see” category).  It’s important to remember that this is based solely on what I saw on the Tonys.  I might not see any of these shows, or I might see them all.  A lot of things may change my mind before I get to New York next, including what Kenneth thinks I might like to see or not.  [Good ol’ fashioned Word of Mouth trumps all, and I can’t believe she called me Kenneth twice in this blog.]

SHOWS I REALLY WANT TO SEE!

Memphis:  The music and the dancing were so exciting, this is at the top of my list.  (I have to admit that ‘Listen to the Beat’ sounded like Hairspray‘s ‘You Can’t Stop The Beat.’ but I loved the music and the dancing in that show, too!)  [Music, dancing . . . the keys to an audience-pleaser of a musical.]

Fela!:  I love the costumes, the music and the dancing.  The story (about using music to communicate) also seemed very interesting to me.  [See her comment about growing up in the ’60s.  What our audience lived through helped make them who they are today and influences what they want to see.]

Million Dollar Quartet:  Loved the music and the story idea and Levi Kreis’s performance.

Red:  I really liked the premise about the importance of art and what I saw of both Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne.  [Mom was disappointed to hear she wouldn’t get a chance to see this show because of its limited run.  I told her if she was disappointed, imagine how the Producers must feel.]

NAH, I’LL PASS

American Idiot:  To me, it seemed like a concert, and not a show.  I’ve heard about Green Day because my other son is in the music business, but I’ve never listened to any of their music before.  The music was interesting to me, but I’m not going to play it in my car anytime soon.

A Little Night Music:  I don’t know this show very well, so I can only base my thoughts on what I saw, but I wasn’t inspired.  I love ‘Send In The Clowns,’ but I didn’t learn anything else about the show through the performance.”
So there are Mom’s Tony Award Takeaways.

Now please remember, this is only one Mom’s opinion. And the opinions expressed here by my Mom are solely my Mom’s and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Moms everywhere or even me.

But she’s a Mom with a Mastercard, and she uses it to buy tickets.  So maybe we should listen to all of the Moms out there more than we listen to those of us on the inside of the business.

So . . . what did your Mom think?

[Update:  My mom came into the city this weekend unexpectedly.  Although she wanted to see Memphis, she ended up getting Chicago tickets instead (and special thanks to Michael at the Ambassador BO for helping her out).  Why?  “I thought your step-father would enjoy it more.”]

Three reasons why Glee is great.

There is no question that Glee is great for Broadway.  Here are three reasons why I love it:

1.  IT PUTS BROADWAY PEEPS TO WORK

The transition from theater to television is a lot more difficult now than it was in the early days of both industries.  Look at how many great Broadway actors are out there that you haven’t seen headlining in movies and piloting pilots.

And then along comes a show like Glee, and the casting directors can’t get enough from our pool: Lea Michele, Matt Morrison, Jonathan Groff, John Lloyd Young, Debra Monk and more.

The longer it runs, the more our folks will get a chance to lend their talents and their pipes to that program.  And then they’ll hopefully come back to Broadway and bring some fans with them.

2.  IT PUTS SHOWTUNES NEXT TO POP TUNES

“Where Is Love,” “Tonight,” “I Could Have Danced All Night,” and “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ The Boat,” are just a few of the showtunes featured on Glee, and these classics are smacked right up next to songs like “Can’t Fight This Feeling,” “Rehab,” and “Single Ladies.”

The line between pop and showtunes is being blurred.

Who knows, maybe we’ll go back to the days when major rock bands like, oh, I don’t know, The Beatles, sang showtunes when looking to make a big splash on television.

3.  IT PUTS SINGING INTO STORIES

So often I hear people say, “I just don’t get musicals.  People start singing.  What the?  People just don’t do that!”

For the most part, Glee chose the Jersey Boys model (or Altar Boyz model, for that matter) where the musical numbers are actual performances and not “sung scenes.”  Still, having a show like Glee helps audiences get used to the fact that music can be incorporated seamlessly into entertainment.
The movie musical has helped Broadway significantly over the past decade, with shows like Hairspray, Chicago, Phantom and Rent ALL adding years to their runs (and millions to their box offices) thanks to their movie counterparts.

Broadway now seems to be making its way into television, in a subtler way, but in a way nonetheless.

Let’s hope shows like Glee continue to merge the two mediums.

A sad day for Shrek.

Yesterday, Shrek confirmed what had been circulating the street all week: the ogre will be leaving Broadway and heading back to the swamp on January 3, 2010.

How could one of the most powerful entertainment brands of the last twenty years not survive on the Great White Way?  Too expensive?  Maybe.  Too much Hollywood influence?  Who knows.

I believe the closing of Shrek represents the end of an era; an era which attempted to capitalize on kids first, and put adults second.

Over the past year and a half, we’ve seen the premature closings of shows like Shrek, Little Mermaid, and even my own, 13.

All seemingly fantastic sells . . . except for the fact that they happened to be plopped right in the midst of one of the most difficult economic climates in our history.  And no demographic was hurt more than families of four from the suburbs.

When family folk were trying to decide on a show to see, here’s what happened:

– Shows that just the kids might want to see went out the window.

– Shows that appealed to both kids and adults went bye-bye as well (Grease, Legally Blonde, Hairspray, etc.).

What’s left on Broadway now is more adult fare . . .because the parents that are still going to the theater are leaving their kids at home (another reason why plays are doing so well).

Why do you think Disney doesn’t have anything in the immediate pipeline?

I don’t think you’ll see another animated feature making its way here anytime soon, do you?

Comedy isn’t the only thing that comes in threes.

Here is a set of three news items posted on Playbill.com in the last seven days that isn’t so funny:

  • Magic Theatre, San Francisco’s 42-year-old troupe that prizes risk over
    commercialism, has announced on its website that it is $600,000 in debt
    and will shut its doors Jan. 9, 2009, unless it raises $350,000.”  (read full article)
  • Massachusetts’ North Shore Music Theatre, which is currently presenting Disney High School Musical 2,
    announced Dec. 29 that without immediate philanthropic support, the
    not-for-profit theatre will close its doors after 55 years.”  (read full article)
  • Carousel Dinner Theatre, the Ohio equity theatre in operation since
    1973, has announced that it has canceled its 2009 season and will close
    effective Jan. 4.  (read full article)

The closing (or potential closing) of these institutions are even greater indicators of our turbulent economic times than yesterday’s “Black Sunday” here on Broadway.

These theaters have been around for an average of 44 years or a combined 132 years (For some perspective, Hairspray, one of our Black Sunday closers, ran for 6).  They’ve seen tough times, more violent wars, deep recessions, yet they always managed to muddle through.

But not this time.

Those of us here working on the Big Broadway tend not to worry about what’s happening in the hinterlands, but we should, because it affects us all.

Actors’ Equity Association just lost three major employers, and our investors and writers just lost three major distribution houses that generated hundreds of thousands of dollars in royalties every year.  That  means it just got a little harder to recoup shows and for writers to earn money post-Broadway.

And something tells me that new theatres aren’t just going to pop up in the next six months to replace them.

So keep your fingers, toes and eyes crossed that these theaters get their own version of a bailout because theaters around the country, whether they are in Boston or Biloxi are all connected to Broadway.

(We’ll be putting some of The Producer’s Perspective holiday cash towards the two theaters that are still making a go of it, and if you want to do the same, read the articles for the info)

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