‘White Christmas’ hits Broadway

Limited run puts heat on musical

Producers are dreaming of “White Christmas” becoming a New York perennial.

After playing multiple regional runs over the last few holiday seasons, the tuner franchise — based on the 1954 pic with familiar tunes by Irving Berlin — has staked out a holiday berth on Broadway with an eye toward offering seasonal competish to “The Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular.”

But putting up a short run of a musical, with more than 30 actors and 24 musicians, comes with a whole slew of challenges, not least of which is recouping its $4 million capitalization in just 7½ weeks. According to producer Kevin McCollum, those constraints mean that “Christmas,” opening Nov. 23, needs to play to average audiences of at least 90% of capacity and gross $10.5 million total.

If it works, producers are hoping the show becomes as much of an annual Gotham draw as that giant tannenbaum that shows up every year at Rockefeller Center.

“Now we’re focused on making it a major holiday-themed New York attraction,” says John Gore, topper of “Christmas” producing org Broadway Across America.

Tom McGrath, formerly chief operating officer of Paramount parent Viacom, originated the idea for a stage version of “Christmas,” the Par movie-musical that starred Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye as a song-and-dance duo who put on a show at a Vermont inn.

The project migrated to touring outfit Broadway Across America through McGrath, now chairman of BAA owner Key Brand Entertainment.

With a new book by David Ives and Paul Blake and direction by Walter Bobbie (“Chicago”), “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” preemed in 2004 in San Francisco, where it proved a hit and brought in about $1 million in profit.

The next year, the backers made their “Christmas” list more ambitious.

Producers mapped out a complicated plan that saw a network of multiple, simultaneous stagings in venues around the country. In 2005 the show was mounted in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Boston. Buoyed by holiday success there, “Christmas” has since expanded to cities including Toronto and Buffalo, N.Y.

Coming to Gotham, though, has long been on the radar. Not only does the New York stint endow the brand with the imprimatur of a Broadway run, it also fits into a holiday niche the producers feel has not yet been filled.

“We’re a Broadway-style addition to the marketplace,” says McCollum. “We’re closer to a ’42nd Street’ for the holidays.”

Unlike the Radio City offering, “Christmas” is targeted more toward Rialto auds as a theater offering rather than a general audience spectacular. However, with its limited run, the Berlin tuner is offering fewer perfs, about 60 compared with Radio City’s 200-plus.

“Christmas” follows in the footsteps of “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” which carved out seasonal runs on Broadway in 2006 and 2007. The legit adaptation of the Dr. Seuss classic clearly demonstrated the power to draw big family auds, although the 19-day stagehands strike last fall made recouping impossible for the 2007 version.

Before the strike, “Grinch” had worked out a special deal with unions that allowed up to 12 perfs per week, which greatly increased the sales potential of the musical’s limited run. On the other hand, “Christmas” — thanks in part to its longer running time, which puts greater demands on its performers — is allowed to play the more usual eight or nine per frame, depending on the week.

McCollum hopes that if the show proves successful enough to come back year after year, new contractual structures can be banged out to help make limited runs more viable for tuners. “We owe it to ourselves to create an under-12-week contract for musicals,” he says.

In addition to the Rialto run, this year “Christmas” also gets productions in Detroit and St. Paul, Minn.

In terms of logistics, that means Bobbie has, for the fourth year in a row, helmed three simultaneous productions of the same show. The arrangement requires a hefty number of assistants staging each incarnation according to a pre-existing blueprint, with Bobbie coming in to polish the proceedings.

Like any new tuner, minor tweaks have been made to the show — but slowly. “I call this my fifth preview instead of my fifth year,” says Bobbie. “Anything we’ve wanted to change, we’ve had to wait a year.” A road incarnation of “Christmas” won’t materialize until next year, but it’s being prepped now. This year’s version in St. Paul serves as the prototype for the potential tour, so the tech process lays the groundwork for an itinerant “Christmas” next year.

Meanwhile, producers report that sales in Gotham are going well. The show had aimed to recoup over two years, but now it looks like there’s a chance they might manage it this year.

Sales for the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas look particularly strong. But in the current economy, nothing’s a sure bet.

“We’re not out of the woods yet,” McCollum says.

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