Family tuners: Big budgets, low payoff

'Mermaid,' 'Tarzan' create losses for studio

How different the Broadway landscape looked on May Day 2006. Disney Theatricals was flush with its long-running behemoths “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King,” and it had two more movie-to-stage adaptations ready to launch that year — “Tarzan” and “Mary Poppins” — with a third, “The Little Mermaid,” being readied for the Great White Way.

Other producers had tried to woo G-rated audiences, but all of them lost a lot of money on “Seussical,” “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” and “Little Women.” Only Disney knew how to take the formula of charging adult ticket prices to kiddie shows and making it work.

Until, of course, it didn’t.

The House of Mouse admitted it took a loss on “Tarzan” (486 perfs), and will do the same with “The Little Mermaid” (677 perfs) when it closes Aug. 30.

Today, Disney exec VP David Schrader refers to those two shows and “Poppins” as “the clump of three,” and he points out Disney never intended to continue at that pace and produce “one new Broadway show a year.”

Just how many Disney tuners could dance on the head of the Duffey Square statue has always been open to debate, and now Broadway has its answer: two, “King” and “Poppins.”

That raises the question whether there is room for another family show, such as DreamWorks Theatricals’ “Shrek,” which also will have a hard time recouping its humongous capitalization on Broadway.

In retrospect, “Beauty and the Beast” is to current Broadway what the movie version of “The Sound of Music” was to 1960s Hollywood: the super-successful show that spawned financial ruin for most imitators. Trying to replicate or outdo the physical spectacle of “B&B,” producers staged family musicals with weekly operating costs in the $550,000 to $700,000 range. “Shrek” and “Mermaid” can do those numbers during the summer and holiday sessions, but they tumble back to earth the other 38 weeks of the year.

“The family market was overstated,” says one Broadway producer. “And anyone rushing to do a family musical has to realize that if the best brand in the world (i.e., Disney) saw the limits, then how could anyone else succeed?”

Were “Beast,” “Lion King” and “Poppins” flukes? No, but it helped that “B&B” came first, before the market glut, and ran a phenomenal 13 years. “Poppins” is a nostalgia trip for baby boomers looking to relive one of the most beloved kiddie movie musicals ever. Even so, it’s a modest hit. Only “Lion King” garnered the kind of rave reviews that make grownups want to see it regardless of their having kids or not. Indeed, its auds are 80% adults.

In today’s market, a successful family musical is actually an adult musical that parents feel safe bringing youngsters: “Mamma Mia!,” despite its out-of-wedlock story, and “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Wicked,” despite their elements of horror. In the new Broadway season, “Spider-Man” and “The Addams Family” look likeliest to fit that mold — if they’re good.

No producer has yet been able to create the kids’ version of “Avenue Q,” “Next to Normal” or “Rent” — adult shows that operate between $250,000 and $350,000 a week.

It’s doubtful that Disney will try on Broadway.As Schrader says, “For the titles we’ve picked, there’s so much expectation. We felt we had to really deliver. Plus you add the name Disney.”

Off Broadway, MCC tempted fate with its tiny tuner “Coraline,” but at present there are no follow-up productions of the show.

On Broadway, no one is even trying to think small. Out on the road, fortunately, they are.

Director Jerry Zaks promises “minimal spectacle” for the new B.T. McNicholl and Dennis De Young musical “101 Dalmatians,” which will feature actors playing canines in Dalmatian-spotted street clothes. As for the set, “It will never get between the audience and the characters. The set will surround them.”

If there’s a coup de theatre here, it’s extremely low tech — dozens of trained dogs will appear at the end of acts one and two.

Last year, producer Ben Sprecher took the new Rachel Sheinkin, Rachel Portman and Donna di Novelli musical “Little House on the Prairie” to Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater, where it sold out for 12 weeks. For the upcoming tour, he’s keeping it very bare-bones.

“This is about a family that has nothing,” Sprecher says of the Ingalls brood. “It would be inappropriate to build fantastic sets. Our job has been to focus on storyline and the emotional connection between the family members.”

Sprecher says he wouldn’t tour the show without the imprimatur of Melissa Gilbert, who originated the Laura role on the popular TV series and now essays Ma. “We had to attach more than the brand of the title,” he adds.

“101 Dalmatians” opens at Minneapolis’ Orpheum in October, then tours for 22 weeks before playing the MSG’s WaMu Theater in April.

“We have nine weeks after New York,” says Lee Marshall of Magic Arts & Entertainment, which is producing with Troika. “And if we meet with good critical response and box office in our three weeks (at MSG), we plan to plop down on Broadway for the summer.”

Sprecher kicks off his tour in September at N.J.’s Papermill Playhouse (“so we could sleep in our own beds”), then takes the show back to Minneapolis (this time at the Ordway) and on to at least 40 weeks in various heartland venues. “Whether it comes to New York is up in the air,” he says. “It doesn’t need to come to New York.”

Sprecher puts his show’s capitalization at $4.5 million; Marshall says his is $6 million, but with a caveat. “If we had the advertising and load-in for Broadway, it would be $10 million,” adds Marshall, who puts his weekly operating costs in the $250,000-$350,000 range.

Even Disney has heard the siren call of less being more. On the road, its “High School Musical” did gangbuster biz, and the company may be on a similar trajectory with its long-gestating “Newsies.”

It’s hardly a new paradigm. Allan Carr, the original producer of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” dreamed of touring the show and making Gotham “just one stop,” a gambit that would avoid having the crix label it a dud. Which, of course, they did when the Nederlanders inherited the reins and made the mistake of opening “Sawyer” on Broadway.

The lesson seems to be: Why spend millions to crack a nut the size of Broadway?

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