Finding a new holiday present
EBENEZER SCROOGE, watch your back.
Kevin McCollum, the same Broadway producer behind the musicals “Rent” and “Avenue Q,” is out to grab a chunk of the holiday audiences that queue up yearly across the U.S. for productions of “A Christmas Carol” and “The Nutcracker.”
McCollum and a team of partners are staging “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Boston -- three productions, each with 32 cast members and a 25-piece pit orchestra, all under director Walter Bobbie’s supervision, with performances running through the end of the year.
“I think people are thirsty for something more over the holidays,” McCollum said. “And I realized there’s no musical. There’s variety. The regional theaters do ‘Christmas Carol,’ and the ballets do ‘Nutcracker.’ But musical theater has nothing.”
So he pulled together a five-year plan to spread “White Christmas” productions across the land, beginning last year in San Francisco. The nine-week run at San Francisco’s 1,700-seat Curran Theatre, McCollum said, grossed about $6 million.
In a business where shows usually advance one city at a time, this year’s production multiplication is the theatrical equivalent of fighting a three-front war -- dizzying logistics, with the possibility of a big payoff.
McCollum said he and his investors have put $3.5 million into the Los Angeles production and $3.6 million into Boston’s. He calls the enterprise a “franchising” experiment that depends on local partners and the savings of shared expenses among the three shows.
The local version of the show is to run at the 2,700-seat Pantages Theatre. While the Los Angeles cast is finding its feet, nearly parallel productions will proceed at the 2,200-seat Orpheum in San Francisco and the 3,500-seat Wang Center for the Performing Arts in Boston.
The Los Angeles cast includes Brian D’Arcy James, Anastasia Barzee, Jeffry Denman and Meredith Patterson -- all returning in the roles they created in last year’s San Francisco production -- along with David Ogden Stiers and Ruth Williamson. McCollum and his company, the Producing Office, share producing credits with Paul Blake, Dan Markley and Sonny Everett in association with Paramount Pictures.
Drawn from the 1954 film of the same name, “White Christmas” tells the rather slim story of two veterans and showbiz buddies who decide to put on a show in a quaint Vermont inn. Along the way, in a plot reworked through a book by David Ives and Paul Blake, the guys fall for a fetching pair of sisters. Amid more than two dozen Berlin tunes -- twice as many as in the movie -- they fall in love.
Apart from the song in the title, tunes in the show include “Blue Skies,” “Counting Your Blessings Instead of Sheep,” “Sisters,” and “How Deep Is the Ocean?”
A warm weather debut
THE “White Christmas” project was born as a theatrical venture in summer 2000 at the St. Louis Muny. Last year, the producers raised $4.4 million to stage a revised version in San Francisco’s Curran.
Next year, if all goes to plan, the L.A. show will move on to Chicago and the Boston production will be reborn in St. Paul, Minn. After that, the productions would probably alternate cities, playing Los Angeles in odd-numbered years, unless demand seems strong enough to sustain annual productions.
For all its boldness, the move isn’t a complete surprise: McCollum made plain his scorn for road-show economics last year, when he decided to send “Avenue Q” to the Wynn Las Vegas resort instead of assembling a national tour.
The traditional theatrical road show, said McCollum, “is a great business for trucking and loading in and loading out, but it’s not a great business for the theater or the producer.”
McCollum, 43, said he first encountered “White Christmas” as an abstract concept -- he saw the film as a child in Hawaii. Later he studied film at USC and served as president and CEO of the Ordway Music Theatre in Minneapolis for seven years. Apart from his Tony-winning productions of “Rent” (which reached Broadway in 1996) and “Avenue Q” (2004), his other productions include the less profitable 2002-03 Broadway run of director Baz Luhrmann’s “La Boheme.”
“I love playing with business models,” said McCollum. “But you can’t have any strategy without it being something people want to see.”
This means the beloved strains of “White Christmas,” first popularized by Bing Crosby in 1942, will be delivered to Southern California audiences by the same impresario who brought to Broadway such songs as “The Internet Is for Porn,” “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” and “I’m Not Wearing Underwear Today” (all from “Avenue Q”).
Children were discouraged from attending that show. “White Christmas,” on the other hand, is intended as family fare all the way.
“If we do this right, we’re going to be building a whole generation of theater-goers, who go with their parents to the theater,” said McCollum. “Four generations, showing up together -- that’s success.”
These ambitions might not please all of the many local troupes that depend on holiday show receipts to make economic ends meet the rest of the year, but at least one local theater operator says McCollum and company are welcome.
“It’s healthy competition,” said Tim Dietlein, owner of the 430-seat Glendale Centre Theatre, which was scheduled to open its 41st annual production of “A Christmas Carol” on Friday.
Since tickets for the Glendale production run from $12.50 to $23, compared with “White Christmas’ ” $20 to $87, and his theater is one-sixth the size of the Pantages, Dietlein said, his show is a different animal than “White Christmas.” But the bottom line, he said, is that “good theater breeds better audiences for everybody.”