Tuner’s ‘Life’ lessons

It’s one thing to talk up the likely hits of the upcoming season, but legiterati have a lot more fun keeping their eyes peeled for potential disasters. This fall, many Broadway connoisseurs of schadenfreude are hoping for the worst from “In My Life.”

The new tuner, set to open Oct. 20 at the Music Box, does send up some red flags. It’s written, composed and directed by jingle writer Joe Brooks, best known for his catchy work in advertising (“Dr. Pepper, So Misunderstood”) and the sentimental worldwide hit “You Light Up My Life.” The plot involves a romance between an idealistic young woman and a musician with Tourette’s syndrome, all framed as a reality-opera mounted in heaven for God. Industry wags add that Brooks, in a move that marks the show as a true vanity project, is putting up all the money himself.

Turns out that last bit isn’t quite true. While Brooks is indeed doing the legwork that most producers would do — he assembled the design team, which includes costume designer Catherine Zuber and lighting designer Christopher Akerlind, both 2005 Tony winners — the estimated $7.2 million capitalization for the production comes from a Wall Street financier and philanthropist.

Described as a man who likes to remain “behind the scenes,” the investor does not want to have his name attached to the project. He’ll be listed in the program as Watch Hill Prods.

This shadowy figure, a Brooks acquaintance, began financing the project after he was invited to an initial reading in Brooks’ living room in February 2004. Following a series of readings that he also funded, he decided to put up all the money for the Broadway mounting.

The backer has invested in other Broadway productions, such as “Chicago” and “Annie Get Your Gun.” Still, a lone funder who prefers to remain anonymous doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in “In My Life.”

As for Brooks’ response to charges that the show is a vanity project: “I don’t think about it,” he says. And why bypass an out-of-town tryout to head straight for Broadway? “I’ve had all my luck in New York.”

Jonesing for ‘Junie’

Theatreworks/USA prides itself on crafting wholesome theater for young auds, but that doesn’t mean its execs can’t run a shrewd business. The 45-year-old org, whose bread and butter is the original touring shows adapted from popular children’s books, has discovered the power of extending a popular brand.

Case in point: “Junie B. Jones,” their musical based on Barbara Park‘s series of novels. Income from the show’s first year in New York and on the road totaled more than $2.1 million; the strong shows in their active repertoire usually take in about $500,000 per annum.

There are more than 28 million copies of Junie books in print, and they’re a near-constant presence on bestseller lists. “But she’s a brand that hasn’t been exploited in TV or movies,” says Ken Arthur, managing director of Theatreworks. “There are the books, and there’s our musical.”

Propelled by Junie’s pre-existing popularity, the tuner single-handedly saved Theatreworks from extinction last year, when the org teetered on the verge of shutting down in the wake of a $300,000 contribution shortfall and skyrocketing gasoline prices.

The profits of more than $1 million from the first year of “Junie” are helping Theatreworks establish a presence in New York with a season at the Lucille Lortel. It kicks off in November with an encore presentation of “Junie.”

The troupe is also having luck with its stage version of “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie,” another book property not yet staked out by the likes of Nickelodeon. Touring productions of that show, along with tours for the two road companies of “Junie,” are sold out through the 2006-07 season.

Also attracting business is the company’s one-hour adaptation of “Seussical.” The full-length version may have flopped on Broadway, but for young audiences, Arthur said, “there’s a great demand for Dr. Seuss.”

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