Universal musical overtakes studio's top films

Everyone on Broadway knows “Wicked” does wicked good business.

But after five years on the Gotham boards, the perennial top dog of Rialto sales has racked up the kind of numbers that make Hollywood sit up: Universal Pictures, the studio that first optioned the 1995 novel and one of the producers of the tuner, says “Wicked” counts among its most profitable properties.

Period.

Since the legit industry is generally considered small potatoes next to the coin reaped by cineplex hits, it’s a gravity-defying feat for a legit franchise to muscle up into the ranks of its bigscreen brethren — especially with a potential feature adaptation still several years down the Yellow Brick Road.

Producers aim to keep the legit witch aloft by sustaining the sellout North American crowds to which the show has become accustomed. With four international productions growing to five in 2011, the musical’s global reach will continue to expand until slipping box office warrants contraction — whenever that is.

“We don’t yet know where the peak is,” says David Stone, the producer who spearheads the production team with Marc Platt, the former prexy of production at U who now has a shingle on the studio’s lot.

It all counts as stratospheric success for a show that didn’t initially look like a slam dunk.

When Platt picked up the option on Gregory Maguire’s well-reviewed novel, which explores the backstory of Oz’s green-skinned Wicked Witch of the West, he initially imagined it as a film until composer Stephen Schwartz convinced him it would work better as a tuner. From there creatives moved forward on the musical version, with Winnie Holzman penning the book and Joe Mantello directing.

“It was the first time we were part of the evolution of a stage project from start to finish, and the expectations were certainly modest,” says Jimmy Horowitz, co-prexy of production and  executive vice president of Universal Pictures. “From our standpoint, we were supporting Marc’s vision. But when we all first sat down at that reading, we knew it was something special.”

Now, on the eve of the musical’s fifth anniversary, worldwide reported grosses for “Wicked” have hit $1.2 billion. That’s higher than the global grosses for any of the studio’s top five films (led by “Jurassic Park” with $923 million worldwide), although those sums do not count DVD, TV sales and other ancillary revenues.

“Over the life of ‘Wicked,’ if things continue the way they have, it will be one of our most successful ventures,” Horowitz says. (Universal also is one of the producers of “Billy Elliot,” a stage smash in London and Australia and already raking in bucks in Broadway previews.)

Rialto cume of “Wicked” is fast approaching $350 million, while the total for all four of its North American companies is currently nudging $1 billion. Merchandise sales alone have topped $100 million.

The U.S. incarnations of “Wicked” have leveled out at four, including the Broadway original and the national tour, which has been out since March 2005, breaking house sales records in every city it’s played. Next year, however, some juggling will occur.

The Los Angeles incarnation, which has occupied the Pantages Theater since early 2007, will shutter in January to free up the theater, used by the Nederlander Org for its Broadway/L.A. series. That production will then move north and reopen in San Francisco in an open-ended run.

Also in January, the Chicago sit-down will close after a blockbuster run of 3½ years, and a separate touring production, the show’s second, will go out later in the spring to help meet ticket demand in secondary markets.

Outside the U.S., “Wicked” has planted its broomstick in London (since 2006), in Tokyo and Stuttgart (both last year) and in Melbourne, where an Oz production opened over the summer. A Dutch staging is expected in 2011.

The Gotham flagship, meanwhile, remains robust. Weekly tallies often surpass $1.4 million, and over Christmas 2007 the show logged $1.8 million, the highest weekly take in Rialto history.

According to producers, advance is at more than $30 million. That’s a top-tier sum for a new production, much less one that celebrates five years in Gotham at the end of the month — and one that advertises in the New York Times just once a year.

“That’s the great thing about the theater business,” says Horowitz. “If you get it right, you have an annuity that keeps earning year after year.”

It helps that the Gershwin Theater is, at 1,809 seats, one of the largest venues on Broadway. But it could be even larger: About 120 more seats remain behind a wall, erected to tighten the house for the 2002 revival of “Oklahoma!”

Unlike many shows on the Rialto, blocks of onsale tickets are limited to 40 weeks, rather than the 52 weeks common to many Broadway long-runners.

“It is very important to us that it is consistently sold out,” Stone says. “We want to keep it as tight a ticket as we can.”

The “Wicked” machine now requires a large team dedicated to quality control, with directors, choreographers, musicians and other creatives visiting each North American company once every four weeks to keep production values high.

But during the development phase of the musical, such far-reaching ambitions weren’t even on the radar.

After a rocky few months with the original creators following the San Francisco tryout in spring 2003, “Wicked” bowed on Broadway to divided reviews.

Sales, however, began to snowball after opening, and by the time weekly grosses defied a Street-wide downward trend during the 2004 Republican National Convention, it was clear the show was more than a soft hit. (The tuner recouped its hefty $14 million capitalization in 14 months.)

Although the musical has been labeled a teen sensation, devoted young girls seem to make up just one seg of a broad aud. According to a recent survey, theatergoers over 40 make up 45% of audiences vs. 25% who are 20 and under.

In North America, the show has built up a pop-culture profile rare for a Broadway offering since “The Phantom of the Opera” became a worldwide must-see, with the tuner figuring into recent plotlines on TV skeins including “Ugly Betty” and “Brothers and Sisters.”

“The show really found its way into the culture at a time when there was nothing else out there like it,” Horowitz says.

Producers attribute the musical’s enduring appeal to its clever backstory-of-Oz premise and its themes of friendship, sacrifice and the ways people are defined by the labels others place on them.

“Those are really big ideas,” Stone says.

A feature adaptation of the tuner remains a likelihood, but no plans are being developed until it appears the show’s sales arc has crested. Ditto theme park rides, cartoon series and any other potential spinoffs.

“The show is doing so well that you want to let that continue to play out as long as possible,” Horowitz says. “We haven’t yet started expanding beyond the core business.”

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