Even flops make money in amateur, stock productions

Don’t shed any tears for DreamWorks and its first Broadway venture, “Shrek the Musical,” which looks to lose an ogre-size portion of its $26 million capitalization when it closes in January.

The show can expect to recoup some of that money from its national and international tours. And when that money peters out, there’s another significant source of income: stock and amateur.

That “Mickey and Judy put on a show in the barn” kind of theater sounds quaint, but there’s nothing small about the money it can generate. Community theaters and high school productions don’t produce the instant big bucks of Broadway and tours, but the royalties paid to creatives, producers and investors are pure profit, and a behemoth show can bring in $1 million to $3 million a year for decades.

Plenty of Broadway money-losers have gone on to score in the sticks. As “Footloose” lyricist Dean Pitchford describes it, “Stock and amateur is the best-kept secret in show business. I’ve worked in records, film and TV, and people have no idea there’s this vast business going on out there.”

Joe DiPietro, book writer on “All Shook Up,” made a few thousand dollars in royalties during the six months the Elvis Presley jukebox tuner ran on Broadway in 2005. “However, I made tens of thousands of dollars from my first quarterly royalty check for the stock and amateur rights,” says the scribe. “I could barely make a living with ‘All Shook Up’ on Broadway. I bought a nice country house (from) ‘All Shook Up’ in stock and amateur.”

Theatrical Rights Worldwide prexy-CEO Steve Spiegel puts “All Shook Up” in the $1 million royalty range for its first year of stock and amateur, while he projects about $300,000 for the Johnny Cash tuner “Ring of Fire.” Pretty good for a Broadway show that put in only 57 perfs in 2006.

Thanks to their 2000 Broadway loser, “Seussical,” songwriters Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty rightfully call themselves “the king and queen of stock and amateur,” since that kiddie tuner now clocks in more than 700 productions annually in the United States, topping even “Annie.” Part of the trick to making “Seussical” viable was to chop 45 minutes out of its running time. Some years, says Flaherty, “it is the most performed show in America.”

That’s good news for the original backers and great news for the composers. Authors usually enjoy a 60-40 split between producers and investors in stock and amateur royalties for the first 10 years; that divide further favors the creatives in the following eight years. After those 18 years have ended, the authors get it all — in most cases.

“Shrek” is different. In an historic 2005 agreement (similar to what Disney signed with “The Little Mermaid”), the creatives were allowed to copyright their material, even though that work was based on a DreamWorks movie. In exchange, DreamWorks bargained to keep a much greater piece of the theater pie: Its participation in the show’s royalties won’t end at the 18-year mark.

The 100,000 U.S. high schools and 9,000 community theaters that perform musicals each year could push “Shrek” to profitability in two or three decades, if not sooner. (High schools pay a straight licensing fee, of up to $1,000 per production.)

It has been said that you can make a killing but not a living on Broadway. Stock and amateur provides the “living” part of that equation. For example, “The Wedding Singer” ran under 300 perfs in 2006, but has more than helped its composer pay the rent. “The show hasn’t made me a rich person,” says Matthew Sklar, “but it has allowed me to write two more shows in the last two years. There are usually 60-70 productions of ‘Wedding Singer’ being planned at a time.”

Composer Jason Robert Brown has a big money-earner in his “The Last Five Years,” which ran a few months Off Broadway in 2002. In fact, “I made more money last year from ‘The Last Five Years’ running at a theater in Denver than I did from the entire Broadway run of ’13.’?” But the biggie for Brown is another Off Broadway also-ran, which has done boffo biz in high schools: “?’Songs for a New World’ is the bedrock of my entire career and lifestyle. If the only validationI got in this business was from the reception of my shows in New York City, I’d be doing something else by now,” says the Tony winner (“Parade”).

Of course, it’s not just Broadway misfires that find a healthy after-life. A big Broadway hit like “Hairspray,” when it finishes its national touring days, will be eligible for stock and amateur, where it has a waiting list of 4,000 licenses. But, by comparison, “Legally Blonde,” which is considered a Broadway loser, opened four years after “Hairspray” and put in one-fourth the perfs — yet it already has a waiting list of 3,000 licenses.

Music Theater Intl. handles those two shows, and its topper, Freddie Gershon, expects the recent Broadway flop “Nine to Five” to also score since it has already gotten offers from several countries, including six-figure advances for a single overseas production.

“They loved the movie, loved the story of three women who get the boss, and they love the title song,” says Gershon. “That makes for a satisfying audience experience.”

“Minimalism” is often the operative word for success in stock and amateur. Will young theatergoers accept “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” without expensive hydraulics to make the car fly — or an actor undergoing the two-hour transformation it took to turn Brian d’Arcy James into Shrek?

Those are technical challenges that can make or break a show, but there are often solutions. “Little Shop of Horrors” languished until MTI invested in 15 giant, stage-enveloping Audrey plants; those 15 now travel America, to make the show easily stageable.

Spiegel says there’s “nothing as wonderful” as hearing a big Broadway producer say, “With this royalty check from stock and amateur, I’ve now recouped.” But it can take awhile.

R&H Theatricals spokesman Bert Fink says “Footloose” is “consistently in, or near, the licensing house’s top five (titles) out of more than 100 offerings,” including “Oklahoma!” and “The Sound of Music.” And yet, despite Pitchford’s success with the show, the original Broadway producers of “Footloose” reveal that it has not yet recouped, despite all the stock-and-amateur action.

With “All Shook Up” and “Ring of Fire,” the names Cash and Presley obviously sell tix outside Gotham. But what about those other music icons, the Beach Boys, and their jukeboxer “Good Vibrations,” which performed on Broadway for three months in 2005? No major licensing org has yet picked it up.

For plenty of tuners, no matter what their Broadway record may be, stock and amateur find them enticing. But will these titles still be high school perennials 50 years from now?

That seems to be the dream of every producer, including Margo Lion, who only “hopes that ‘Hairspray’ will be the next ‘Bye, Bye Birdie,’?” a show that has probably clocked in more high school perfs than any other.

So just what does “Bye Bye Birdie” do year in and year out in stock and amateur?

“I wouldn’t know,” says its composer, Charles Strouse, who also wrote “Annie.” “My four children own all my shows.”

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