August 3, 2001
Following 'The Producers,'
Tired of renting your favorite old movie? How about seeing it performed live? With a few song-and-dance numbers thrown in?
In a bid to boost sagging ticket sales, Broadway producers are recycling a record number of movies into new stage shows. This season, about a half-dozen musicals based on movies are planned to hit New York, with many more such shows in the works. In all, major producers around the country are planning on singing versions of at least 18 old films, everything from "Sweet Smell of Success" to "Thoroughly Modern Millie" to the cult antidrug flick "Reefer Madness."
While higher ticket prices have boosted total grosses for Broadway recently, the actual number of seats sold is declining. Last year, the number of tickets sold between June and December rose 20%. But in the first half of this year, ticket sales fell 1%. "We're seeing a touch of softness," says Jed Bernstein, executive director of the League of American Theatres and Producers. Indeed, since June, individual ticket sales are off 2%.
So the Great White Way is turning to the Silver Screen, hoping familiar titles will bring back the crowds. The hope is that any beloved movie can replicate the success of "The Producers," the Broadway smash that has been selling $100 tickets for months. The push also has roots going back to Walt Disney's "The Lion King," whose nearly four years of sold-out shows played a huge role in turning around the fortunes of New York theater. Not only have these shows lured thousands of out-of-towners, but they are able to charge more per ticket than dramas and comedies.
Sticking With Brand Names
Simba, of course, wasn't the first celluloid creature to make his way to the stage. What is different this season is the sheer number of adaptations in the works. Indeed, there are only a handful of new shows that aren't based on movies or revivals from years past. "Broadway producers are looking for a brand name or a proven property because it's so difficult to deliver a hit," says Douglas Cramer, who once produced television's "Dynasty" and is now readying "The Night They Raided Minsky's," a 1968 cult film, for Broadway next year.
Still, it's a risky concept. While original musicals have had a fairly high mortality rate in recent years -- think "Parade" and "The Civil War" -- movies to musicals haven't fared much better. Take "Carrie," the 1976 horror film famous for the hand that reaches out from a grave at the movie's end. When the song-and-dance version opened on Broadway 12 years later, it tanked after four days. A few years later, "Nick and Nora," based on the "Thin Man" films, also cratered. More recently, "Footloose" and "Saturday Night Fever" managed to last longer -- but both closed long before turning a profit.
"It's a double-edged sword," says Broadway's Ira Pittelman, who, with producer Emanuel Azenberg, just opened a stage version of "Peggy Sue Got Married" in London. "The audience has expectations -- with 'Peggy Sue' everyone is looking for Kathleen Turner."
Coming Soon ... to a Theater Near You
Stage producers are increasingly turning to the silver screen as the source for new musicals. Here's a list of some of the shows that are coming, when you can expect to see them -- and what you can expect them to be.
The Show: Peggy Sue Got Married
The Show: Reefer Madness
The Show: Some Like It Hot
The Show: The Spitfire Grill
The Show: Sweet Smell of Success
The Show: Thoroughly Modern Millie
Screen-tested names can be especially valuable on road tours. The most successful touring musical without a Broadway imprimatur was based on the 1984 film "Fame." That show just finished a three-season North American tour, and has grossed nearly $100 million world-wide. "People knew the title, and that brought them in," says Susan Weaving, a vice president at the William Morris Agency, which helped package the tour.
Ms. Weaving is now working on two more movies to musicals, which she hopes will hit the road next year: "Flashdance" and "Some Like it Hot," a $4 million show based on the 1959 Jack Lemmon/Marilyn Monroe film, set to debut in Las Vegas next July.
This will be the second time "Some Like it Hot" has made it to the stage. Another musical version -- entitled "Sugar" because its producer, David Merrick, couldn't get rights to the movie title -- had a so-so run on Broadway in 1972. The new show will add another familiar element: Tony Curtis, who starred in the movie, will play Osgood Fielding III, the millionaire who falls in love with a female musician, only to discover that she is actually a he.
Metro Goldwyn Mayer, which owns the largest library of postwar films, has even set up a division designed specifically to market its properties to Broadway. The unit has targeted over 100 titles for the stage, including "Rocky," "Get Shorty" and "A Fish Called Wanda."
Some think it's all getting a bit much. "It's going to become overkill soon," says Lindsay Law, producer of the stage version of "The Full Monty," which is expected to recoup its investment in a few months. "The audience is going to say, 'Please throw me something original.' "
The producers of "The Producers" are at it again -- soliciting for money, that is.
Flush on their Broadway success, several producers of the Mel Brooks' hit are now raising cash for a movie. Using the same tack they employed to come up with backing for "The Producers," Steven Baruch, Tom Viertel, Richard Frankel and Marc Routh sent out a solicitation letter to 800 prospective investors. (A similar ploy, of course, is used by the fictional producers in the play).
This time, they're trying to raise money to make "a little psychological thriller" titled "Heaven's Pond" about a honeymooning couple, in which the groom turns out to be a psychopath. Fifty investors are planning to shell out $10,000 apiece, which will raise about a quarter of the money needed to finance the film. They're looking for an outside financier to provide the rest. "We thought that was as much as we wanted to put at stake," says Mr. Viertel, whose son Joel, 26, is co-screenwriter and director.
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