Film and legit tuner versions feed off each other

It’s becoming a biannual event. Around Christmas, a big Broadway musical gives birth to a long-in-the-works celluloid doppelganger that stands to goose the legit box office. Or just possibly, to hurt it. On the firing line this holiday season is the filmed adaptation of “Phantom of the Opera.”

Two years ago, “Chicago” the movie, re-energized receipts for “Chicago” the stage show. Only in retrospect was it a slam-dunk. “If the film’s poorly received, it could harm us to a degree,” producer Barry Weissler told Variety in an interview prior to the release of the 2002 Miramax movie. “A sour experience with the title ‘Chicago’ attached to it could cause us some trouble.”

Although Weissler claims the Broadway production would be running today even without the film, he adds, “We opened ‘Chicago’ in many more places around the world — Brazil, Italy, France, South Africa — all due to the movie.”

In Cameron Mackintosh’s somewhat less humble opinion, the legit “Phantom of the Opera” holds no fear of the “Phantom” movie, ready for release Dec. 22. ” ‘Phantom’ is probably as well known a musical as has ever been staged,” says the producer, “and it has been seen in far more productions and for a longer time than virtually any other.”

With the exception of an errant production in Budapest, the Andrew Lloyd Webber work has always found encasement in Hal Prince’s rococo production.

Film director Joel Schumacher hasn’t messed with that formula.

The legit “Phantom” looks to be impervious to other incarnations, even at the cineplex.

Two years ago, Weissler took full advantage of the “Chicago” tie-in. He sent promotion packages to the movie press and gave select critics a chance to see the show, with hopes they would mention it in their film reviews. “We’ve already snuck things into place so that people will be reminded this show is the genesis of the movie,” he told Variety at the time.

The “Phantom” people have no such plans.

“If ‘Chicago’ is an analogy, nothing would please us more,” says “Phantom” general manager Alan Wasser. But as he quickly points out, the two shows are alike only in that they are both tuners.

” ‘Chicago’ was a rebirth of a show that had been largely forgotten,” says Wasser, referring to the hit 1996 Broadway revival. ” ‘Phantom,’ on the other hand, has played for 16 straight years on Broadway. It has performed so long that last year it started running the tag line, ‘Remember your first time?’ “

Wasser says they haven’t commissioned audience surveys to see how many “Phantom”-goers are repeaters, but he expects that “almost all of them are.”

After 9/11, it took “Phantom” nearly 18 months to rebound. Now it is up 15% from the 2002-03 season, having re-emerged as Broadway’s best barometer of biz. When tourists are in town, its receipts are up. When they’re not, B.O. at the Majestic Theater is off, too. But never way down like such yo-yo shows as “42nd Street” and “Beauty and the Beast.”

Overall, tourists are back in Gotham — and with them “Phantom” consistently finds a berth on the Top Ten B.O. chart.

“But it is a different kind of tourist from the late 1990s,” says Wasser. Back then, they were well-heeled foreigners. “Today, they’re more domestic and budget-minded. There are good deals for ‘Phantom’ tickets. ‘Phantom’ is a reliable evening out in the theater.”

As for the movie, it will cause a little readjustment in the stage show’s now-famous tagline. Expect it to soon read “Remember your first time live?” Or something like that.

“We’re still working on it,” says Wasser.

While Mackintosh & Company are maintaining a circumspect distance from the “Phantom” movie release, over at fellow Broadway long-runner “Rent,” producers look set to eagerly embrace a forthcoming film version.

No matter that Revolution hasn’t officially announced that Chris Columbus is directing the film version in San Francisco with most of the original stage cast, and looking at a Christmas 2005 release.

“Rent” producer Kevin McCollum sees a win-win situation. “The story of ‘Rent’ appeals to the core moviegoing audience, which is 14 to 30, whereas ‘Chicago’ and ‘Phantom’ (appeal) to an older, more traditional theater audience.”

McCollum is also psyched that many of the original cast members (Idina Menzel, Adam Pascal, Taye Diggs, Anthony Rapp) are in negotiations to headline the film. “It is a complementary relationship,” he says. “The unseen character here is (creator) Jonathan Larson, whom all of these people knew.”

Kids who were 8 when Larson’s show preemed, only days after his death, are now 17 and ready to be introduced to the show via the movie.

In its sold-out days of yore, “Rent” at the Nederlander Theater entertained 400,000 theatergoers a year. If the movie does $20 million its first weekend, that translates into two million moviegoers. “Which is equal to five sold-out seasons on Broadway,” says McCollum.

Neither the “Phantom” nor the “Chicago” films stray very far from the stage version. McCollum hopes the same for “Rent.”

“By casting original members, it sends a great signal. It says Chris Columbus is looking to make it a theatrical film.”

Ditto Susan Stroman on “The Producers.” Under her direction, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick reprise their roles for the movie version. Filming begins February in Gotham, with Xmas 2005 the release date. The duo’s participation might beg more unflattering comparisons to their replacements on stage. Then again, if “Chicago” is any indication, the movie version could be seen as a preview of the real thing on stage, the initial $10 ducat an inducement or not to invest the steeper $50-$100.

“Rent” celebrates its ninth anni on Broadway in April 2005. “We’ll get to 10 without the film,” says McCollum. But who knows? “Rent,” the movie, could easily push it to 11 or 12.

With or without the movie, “Phantom” seems well on its way to the Big 2-0.

(Matt Wolf in London contributed to this report.)

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