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Broadway builds ‘Elf’ esteem

Adaptation aims to be a gift that keeps on giving

Gotham just might have a “Broadway first” opening Nov. 14.

Elf,” a tuner retooling of the Will Ferrell pic about an oversized Santa’s helper, is definitely unique in modern legit history: a Broadway world premiere of a holiday musical that has no chance of recouping during its limited nine-week run.

Shows like “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and “White Christmas” opened out of town before they chanced a Broadway run. (And neither became a Broadway perennial.)

And back in 1963, there was a legit oddity called “Man in the Moon,” a puppet show that world preemed on Broadway with a score by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock, written between their big hits “Fiorello!” and “Fiddler on the Roof.” It played a very limited engagement under the direction of Bil Baird.

Elf” just might be special, if for no other reason than it is designed to lose money — at least in 2010. As for 2011 and beyond, the guys at Warners and Unique Features believe they have a holiday keeper in their stocking.

First up, because they’re movie people, they don’t talk money because they don’t have to. On “Elf,” there aren’t another two dozen producers they need answer to. But a reliable estimate is that “Elf” has been mounted as a pretty average Broadway musical with $500,000-to-$600,000 in weekly running costs for its 15 musicians and 22-member cast, and capitalization that is only slightly under the typical $10 million-$12 million mark.

In other words, “Elf” would be extremely fortunate to recoup in nine months of sold-out perfs, much less nine weeks.

Obviously, the makers of “Elf” have their eye on the future. The big plan: “to extend the brand of the film,” says Michael Lynne, principal of Unique Features (and former New Line founder, with Bob Shaye).

“It was pretty clear to us that Will Ferrell did not want to do a movie sequel,” says Lynne. “So, if you were going to extend that brand, it required something dramatically different.”

Hence, a Broadway tuner.

But why a right-out-of-the-gate world premiere in Gotham?

“We found an opportunity; we took it,” says exec VP Gregg Maday of Warner Bros. Theater Ventures, referring to landing the Hirschfeld Theater. “If we had opened out of town instead, there’s no guarantee the following season that there’s a New York theater open.”

And as the production’s director, Casey Nicholaw, points out, “The show is about New York City — Macy’s, Rockefeller Center. It didn’t feel right to open it in, say, California, and I’m from California.”

Unique Features executive Mark Kaufman credits Warner Bros. with seeing the big picture.

“They saw this as a franchise the way (Madison Square Garden) saw ‘A Christmas Carol,’?” Kaufman says.

(Unlike “Carol” and MSG, however, no Gotham theater owner is guaranteeing “Elf” a return visit next year.)

Certainly Maday talks like a movie guy. “The studio understands building franchises: tentpole movies, TV syndication. You work toward a goal,” he says. “With ‘Elf,’ we are working toward the goal of making it a perennial that we can put out globally every fourth quarter.”

And, says Maday, if the David Rockwell-designed set doesn’t return to Gotham next autumn, “it is designed to sit in another theater for a second season — Chicago, Seattle — for seven weeks.”

The physical production that theatergoers will see at the Hirschfeld is not designed specifically to tour, but as Maday is quick to point out, perhaps in late 2011 there will be “a mini tour in addition to the sitdown, with an eye on licensing to Asia and Europe.”

“Elf” can extend its nine-week engagement only one week at the Hirschfeld, thanks to the incoming “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” revival. The possibility of a major Broadway house becoming available next spring is a very, very slight possibility.

“That would be a wonderful Christmas present,” Maday says. “But ‘Elf’ is very seasonal in its approach, and it does have Santa Claus. Right now, we’re not building (a spring) scenario into the way we are planning the show.”

Says Lynne, “It’s a six-year business plan that involves not only Broadway production this year but other productions in subsequent years, and possibly coming back to Broadway.”

In their New Line Cinema days, Lynne and Kaufman shepherded to stage the B.O. hit “Hairspray,” which is where they met “Elf” co-book writer Thomas Meehan (with Bob Martin) and the B.O. dud “Wedding Singer,” which is where they met “Elf” songwriters Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin. Warner Bros. Theatrical Ventures boasts one previous legit credit: Elton John’s short-lived “Lestat.” Or as Maday says of just how short that production ran, “I used to be 6-foot-2. Now I’m 5-foot-7.”

Maday probably doesn’t have to fear further shrinkage. There’s almost no way during the busy holiday season that, regardless of what the crix say, Warner Bros.’ new stage tuner won’t enjoy an essentially sold-out run — albeit of only nine weeks.

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