Will Broadway follow ‘Dreamgirls’?

Pic has triggered legit prod'ns and could lead to N.Y. revival

When “Dreamgirls” opened on Broadway in 1981, conventional wisdom said that a film version should be made only after the stage production had run its course, to prevent the cannibalization of legit auds.

Twenty years later, “Chicago,” “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Rent” turned that theory on its head, with the films actually helping to boost box office for the legit incarnations.

Now “Dreamgirls” might add a third possibility: The film could be responsible for a new Broadway production.

The pic, which DreamWorks and Paramount will open in limited release Dec. 15 before it goes wide Christmas Day, has been stirring up positive buzz since 20 minutes were shown to international press in Cannes last May. That word of mouth has been building, fueling talk that it’s time to bring back the show, not seen on Broadway since a short-lived 1987 revival.

“There’s interest in (a legit version of) ‘Dreamgirls’ not only here, but in the U.K. and abroad,” says John Breglio, the entertainment lawyer and executor of the estate of the late Michael Bennett, the original director of “Dreamgirls.” (He is also the producer of the Broadway revival of Bennett’s production of “A Chorus Line,” which has done strong biz since it opened in October.)

Breglio is adopting a wait-and-see attitude about “Dreamgirls.” But if the film’s a hit, “I have little doubt that we’ll have some kind of new production,” he says.

The film already has led to a sharp rise in the number of legit incarnations. Late last year, DreamWorks and Paramount offered to pay the licensing fees for any amateur school production of “Dreamgirls” staged in 2006. As hoped, the move boosted the show’s presence on the education circuit.

Sixty-three schools have produced “Dreamgirls” in 2006, according to Michael Vollman, Paramount’s exec VP of marketing. The studio paid 35 times more in licensing fees than all the “Dreamgirls” productions of the prior five years combined.

“It turned into this huge thing,” says DreamWorks worldwide marketing exec Terry Press. “Which is fabulous, because it puts the property back in front of people in a grassroots way.”

As for the expectation of a movie version killing off a stage original, or the inverse idea of multiple legit versions sapping interest in the movie, Press says, “That clearly is not true now.”

Rialto denizens’ favorite example of a pic blamed for the death of the stage incarnation was John Huston’s 1982 “Annie.” The Broadway production petered out in early 1983, just a few months after the release of the movie.

But these days, more often than not, a movie release can pump up sagging sales of the stage version, even if the film isn’t a hit. Pic adaptations of “Chicago” (2002), “The Phantom of the Opera” (2004) and “Rent” (2005) all brought in new coin for their long-running stage versions, even though the latter two movies were far from the box office powerhouse or critical smash of “Chicago.”

“I can tell you that for ‘Rent’ and ‘Chicago,’ the movie caused quantifiable leaps at the (legit) box office,” says Drew Hodges, prexy and creative director of ad agency SpotCo, which counts both shows among its clients. “A movie just seems to elevate awareness.”

Legiters offer a number of theories to explain the perceived change in a film version’s effect on legit sales. One idea posits that as Rialto ticket prices skyrocket, the all-important tourist crowd gravitates toward sure-bet properties — like the ones made familiar on the bigscreen.

There are exceptions to the new rule. The 2005 pic version of “The Producers,” for instance, had no discernible effect on the Broadway incarnation’s slowly dwindling B.O.

In general, however, legiters now think of movie versions not as a final nail in the coffin of a stage production, but as a potential revitalizer.

New Line Prods., producer of both the “Hairspray” legit tuner and the screen incarnation that just wrapped filming in Toronto, is banking on the movie adding bounce to the show’s sales on Broadway.

“In a perfect world, the movie and the show become companion pieces for one another,” says Mark S. Kaufman, New Line’s exec VP of production and theater. “They can both co-exist and one can drum up enthusiasm for the other.”

As for a major professional revival of “Dreamgirls” in N.Y. or abroad, the decision-makers — Breglio, composer Henry Krieger and the estate of book writer and lyricist Tom Eyen– are more cautious.

“The three of us decided we would put everything on hold until the movie version comes out,” Breglio says.

That helps explains why a recent, popular production of “Dreamgirls” at the Prince Music Theater in Philadelphia never made it to Gotham, despite a hit run extended by an unprecedented two months.

“There were several commercial producers interested,” says Richard M. Parison Jr., helmer of the production and associate a.d. of the Prince. “We were also courted for London and Las Vegas.”

If a new revival emerges in the wake of the movie, several questions remain to be answered, such as whether it would be a remount of Bennett’s production (a la Breglio’s faithful revival of “A Chorus Line”) and whether the new songs written for the film would be included as they have been in many post-movie stagings of “The Sound of Music,” for instance.

It’s also too soon to say whether DreamWorks or David Geffen, the DreamWorks co-founder who was one of the original Broadway producers of “Dreamgirls,” would be involved in any potential revival. (A “Shrek” tuner, due in 2008, is produced by DreamWorks Animation, a separate production entity from DreamWorks.)

For now, the “Dreamgirls” team is biding its time. They’re optimistic that a new revival could be propelled by the film rather than obviated by it, but, even with the recent support films have given stage versions, they’re still not convinced it’s a sure thing.

“Let’s see what happens with the movie,” Breglio says.