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Shows make a dash for Yule cash

Splashy spectaculars have just a few weeks to recoup

Is “The Grinch” a hit?

That seems like a question with an obvious answer: Two weeks ago, the Broadway run of “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas: The Musical” banked close to $1.6 million, placing it second only to “Wicked” in the weekly grosses roundup.

But, not so fast: Even if “The Grinch” breaks box office records this season, it may be years before the tuner can be unequivocally labeled a success. That’s because it belongs to one of legit’s most unusual genres: the commercial holiday show.

Yuletide properties, especially newcomers, are tough to produce and promote, and few holiday titles are expected to make money at first. Producers must approach them with extreme patience, building a brand identity over several Christmas seasons until a show becomes a tradition that sells itself — much like the annual restagings of “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker” at New York City Ballet or the Rockettes, who have been high-kicking through the “Radio City Christmas Spectacular” every year since 1933.

One reason holiday shows face a challenge getting into the black is that long runs are impossible. At best, patrons’ interest in holiday fare lasts from Thanksgiving through New Year’s.

That leaves producers with scant weeks to recoup their investments, let alone turn a profit. Hence “Grinch’s” ambitious schedule of 12 perfs a week.

James Sanna, one of the lead producers, admits that even though it has at least broken even every week, this will likely not be the year the show recoups.

For shows that keep coming back for the holidays, each new remount can build on the previous year’s momentum. The lack of fresh start-up costs means subsequent productions can recoup progressively larger chunks of the initial investment. It may take years, but once the nut has been covered, the door is open to decades of profit.

Sanna declares, “We have every intention” of bringing “Grinch” back to Broadway, noting that his production company, Running Subway, has a 20-year agreement with the Dr. Seuss estate.

Now that the show has its infrastructure in place, it can be pushed into the market much sooner. Advertising for this year wasn’t ready until the fall, which Sanna feels hurt advance sales. “In my experience, people make their decisions about the holiday shows they’re going to see in the spring,” he explains. (Or earlier. Radio City is already selling group tickets for it Christmas 2007 show.)

“The Grinch” has the benefit of being based on a beloved Seuss title. New works without built-in name recognition have an even harder time attracting auds, who may feel more comfortable with the Nutcrackers and Scrooges they already know.

That’s why shows like “Striking 12” head for the niches. A rock musical set on New Year’s Eve, the small-scale show is aimed at auds of all faiths looking for an alternative to traditional or blatantly kid-focused fare. It also benefits from a more cost-effective berth in Off Broadway’s Daryl Roth Theater.

However, it’s not the only holiday niche contender in town. Hipsters are being wooed by the redux of cutting-edge company Les Freres Corbusier’s cult satire “A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant” at New York Theater Workshop, while the non-profits are littered with quirky takes on “A Christmas Carol.”

Asked how “Striking 12” is faring in such a crowded field, producer Nancy Nagel Gibbs says, “We’re having moderate success. (But) you can’t say, ‘I think I’ll come in a year when the holidays are slow in the theater.’ That’s never going to happen.”

Holiday fare competing for the downtown market this year includes “Twas the Night Before,” a group of new short plays by writers including Christopher Durang, Len Jenkin and Mac Wellman; “Jackie Beat: How the Bitch Stole Christmas!” the drag diva’s ninth annual appearance, featuring such numbers as the Britney Spears-inspired “Oops … It’s Christmas Again”; “Dick Cheney’s Holiday Spectacular 2006,” about a last-minute holiday shopper who gets knocked unconscious in a Christmas Eve fight at the mall, only to wake up in a revue hosted by Cheney; and “Los Nutcrackers,” a musical mash-up of “A Christmas Carol” and “The Nutcracker” about a gay, Latino couple that takes a psychedelic trip through their lives on Christmas Eve.

For some, New York’s holiday traffic jam is part of its allure. That’s why Jonathan Hochwald, exec VP of MSG Entertainment, which oversees productions at both Radio City and Madison Square Garden, doesn’t feel anxious about booking “Annie” into the Garden for a holiday run, Dec. 6 through Dec. 30, while the Rockettes are in residence at Radio City. Nor is he concerned about losing auds to new shows or even fellow stalwarts like “The Nutcracker.”

“We don’t feel any sense of competition,” Hochwald asserts. “That’s not to say there’s an endless audience, but (at Christmas time) New York is a destination for audiences all over the globe.”

Considering that almost a million people will see the Radio City spectacular this year, Hochwald might rest on his laurels. However, success in the holiday market can be its own hobgoblin. Every year, the team must find a way to make the Rockettes feel fresh without violating beloved traditions.

That often means upping the spectacle, such as this year’s addition of a massive LED screen showing digitized scenery. Technology, of course, means an inflating budget, which could explain why top tickets run $250. Hochwald declines to divulge the show’s budget, but concedes, “It’s certainly capital-intensive.”

The Rockettes face different challenges on the road. “Christmas Spectacular” annually tours the U.S. and Canada, and every new city means introducing the material to crowds that may not know its pedigree.

But success in the regions can be vital to a holiday title’s lifespan. Consider “White Christmas,” the tuner adaptation of the perennial film that has appeared everywhere from Los Angeles to Boston since 2004. Though lead producer Kevin McCollum (“Avenue Q,” “Rent”) says he craves a Broadway run, for now he’s committed to the road.

Stock and amateur rights to “White Christmas” are already available, which promises revenue as McCollum guides sit-down runs. This year, the tuner is bowing in St. Paul, Minn., and playing a return engagement in Detroit.

For every sit-down, McCollum works with presenters not only to share costs, but also to hire local musicians, giving each production a tie to its community. Presenters are also offered rights to mount the show in the future, giving each city the chance to make “White Christmas” a holiday tradition.

If plans work, the tuner could thrive all over the country. But first there are bills to pay, like a $4 million initial investment that’s still being recouped.

McCollum says bringing a show to a new city means an additional $3.5 million, plus around $650,000 a week in operating costs. Even this year’s Detroit remount will run about $5.3 million after weekly expenses are factored in. And depending on the deal, up to half of each city’s profits could go to local presenters. That means it could be a very long time before “White Christmas” snows money on its producers.

This is partly why McCollum wants a New York run, since it could elevate the show’s status as it seeks to enter new markets. But that will mean finding a Gotham home for a massive production (30 cast members, 24 musicians) that must battle the Rockettes, the Nutcracker and possibly the Grinch.

McCollum says he has approached unions about making arrangements. “We just have to make the economic model make a little more sense,” he says. “Then we might have something.”