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Wandering wonder of stage

Unique rights deal allows musical to travel

Seems like you can’t walk into a regional theater these days without tripping over a Wonderette.

Roger Bean, co-producer/writer/director behind doo-wop tuner “The Marvelous Wonderettes,” has turned his Los Angeles and Off Broadway hit into a mini-franchise, spawning a Christmas-themed sequel (“Winter Wonderettes”) and a spinoff slated for a Los Angeles commercial run. (Latter starts previews July 27 for an Aug. 7 opening at Hollywood’s Hudson Mainstage Theater.)

Those are just three of the six shows — all crafted around existing songs with a high nostalgia factor — that Bean licenses out to regional theaters around the country with an innovative do-it-yourself rights management kit.

Meanwhile, “The Marvelous Wonderettes” continue to chirp Bean’s carefully selected golden oldies at Gotham’s Westside Theater, where they’ve been singing in four-part harmony since last September for an audience that includes the boomers that grew up listening to the tunes, as well as their kids and grandkids. The show frequently does gangbusters biz at the TKTS booth and shows no signs of slowing down.

The musical follows a foursome of girls at their 1958 prom, where the male vocal quartet that was scheduled to perform (the Crooning Crabcakes) can’t make it, forcing the gals to go on and sing 1950s hits such as “Mr. Sandman,” “Lollipop” and “Dream Lover.” In the second act (set 10 years later), they burst into “Son of a Preacher Man” and “It’s My Party” to explain the troubles in their lives — all of which seems to suit audiences hungry for a lively lineup of pop standards just fine.

The upcoming tuner “Life Could Be a Dream” features the hard-luck Crabcakes in their very own show, in which they try to win a radio contest that just may earn them their lucky break.

“It’s like Tolkien,” Bean jokes about the interconnected musicals. “Theater nerds can have endless discussions about what characters show up where, and why.”

While the shows themselves are somewhat simpler than “Lord of the Rings,” the rights around them are not. “Winter Wonderettes,” a popular licensee, features 24 songs, almost all written by different artists and owned by different companies. To navigate the rights waters, Bean collaborated with Edward Starnes, a colleague who runs a freelance music clearance company called Rubicon II in Burbank, Calif.

As a rule, rights holders want a percentage, so Bean and Starnes created one of the few regional theater contracts that work on a percentage basis rather than a flat fee. For recession-struck theaters, this is good news.

“A lot of the theaters come back for a second and third time because they’re not being charged an outrageous flat fee,” says Bean. “It’s tough times for these theaters, and they don’t have to pay a huge fee if they can’t get the people into the theater.”

That doesn’t appear to be a serious problem for Bean’s clients. The shows do well, particularly “Winter Wonderettes,” which capitalizes on community theater’s love of holiday shows and a general affection for the tuner’s yuletide standards, like “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and “Sleigh Ride.”

Starnes says the shows had the good fortune to get in on the ground floor of the jukebox musical craze in 2000, suggesting that it might be harder to write a similar contract now that everybody from Elvis to Patty Griffin has a tuner. The music publishers leasing their songs for Bean’s shows split up 4% of the theater’s adjusted B.O., so everybody gets an even slice per song used. Legally speaking, it’s an easy formula, and no one appears to be complaining about their earnings.

The formula changes based on where the show is taking place: A Broadway or West End production might make “Wonderettes” significantly more expensive and also harder to mount. Starnes says a Gotham production of another Bean show was scuttled because one song’s publisher didn’t want to compete with himself — there was already a tuner featuring his client’s back catalog in the works.

While the mainstream exposure of such tuners as “Jersey Boys” and “Rock of Ages” may have helped legitimize the genre to some extent, Bean acknowledges that his shows don’t always get the respect accorded to, say, a new Adam Guettel musical. But that doesn’t bother him.

“For some people, it’s not the kind of art they want to do in their theater, and they sort of wrinkle their noses at a jukebox musical,” he admits.

But that hasn’t deterred Bean — in between “Wonderettes” episodes, he’s written “The Andrews Brothers,” “Route 66” and “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?,” dedicated to various top 40 hits from musical periods that interest him (mostly the 1960s).

“It’s a different art than creating these pieces from scratch,” Bean says. “Mostly, I try to write things that I think my parents would enjoy.”

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