MIRACLE ON 44TH STREET?
Weissman Professor Wollman Adds Expertise to Discussion of Rock Musicals
Ira Pittelman, one of the "American Idiot" producers along with partner/actor Tom Hulce, thinks the show's use of rock'n'roll will draw a large audience seeking something that reflects the spirit of the times. "If you look at the music of the last 50 years, it's all rock," he says. "Every new musical has some sort of rock element in it."
Pittelman and Hulce, who worked with Mayer as co-producers on "Spring Awakening," raised the cash to stage "American Idiot" from a group of investors, as well as putting in some of their own money.
"We had a workshop in Berkeley and we invited a group of people who we consider to be very serious about theater," he says. "They were all very supportive of it."
Pittelman's and Hulce's track records no doubt helped bolster supporters' confidence. In addition to "Spring Awakening," Hulce also has extensive acting experience, playing Mozart in "Amadeus" and Pinto in "Animal House," and he picked up two Emmy Awards for "The Heidi Chronicles." Pittelman, who founded Heartland Music and ran Universal Music Media, won a Tony in 2002 for "Private Lives" and co-produced "Topdog/Underdog," which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama.
Pittelman won't reveal the exact costs of the production, but says that it's a seven-figure number. According to Charlotte St. Martin, executive director of the trade association the Broadway League, the average cost of a play is between $2 million and $4 million, while many musicals can cost upwards of $10 million. Because of this, she says, musicals take quite a bit longer to recoup their initial costs and become profitable. "Musicals tend to have longer runs than plays," she notes.
She adds that one out of five shows eventually recoups on the initial investment, but the process takes quite a bit longer than it did 50 years ago. "In the '50s and '60s, a play could recoup in six months," she says. "Now you're looking at one to two years, because of the higher costs of putting on a show."
"There is a lot going on in this production," Hulce says. "We have a lot of lighting; we have a computer 'brain' that sends images to all the screens on the stage at certain points. It's not super high gloss, but it is involved."
In terms of the financial breakdown, Pittelman says the theater is "one of the last places where authors always own their own work." He adds that he and Hulce have a financial relationship with the band that lasts as long as they produce the show. The songs are covered under a "grand rights" license; usually in the theater world, that license covers songs written specifically for a performance and publishers only share in the royalties for ancillary products like sheet music and mechanicals from cast albums. In Green Day's case, because the songs were written before the show, the band and its publisher, Warner/Chappell, both get royalties.
While Armstrong didn't invest his own money in the show, he could potentially pull in a handsome profit, especially if it does well and goes on tour. An original Broadway cast recording, which he produced and played on with his Green Day bandmates Tre Cool and Mike Dirnt, will be released April 20 and could help drive sales of the original album.
Generally, if a show succeeds, its life span can be extended by years, even decades. A play is typically staged on Broadway, then goes on a nationwide tour, then another nationwide non-union tour, before finally being released to schools and community groups. And once a play is adopted by high school theater departments nationwide, it could run for generations-just look at "Oklahoma!" or "Bye Bye Birdie."
Still, the market for rock musicals hasn't fully matured yet. "Rock musicals don't tend to do well," says Liz Wollman, assistant professor of music in the department of fine and performing arts at Baruch College in New York and the author of "The Theater Will Rock: A History of the Rock Musical, From Hair to Hedwig" (University of Michigan Press, 2006). "There are exceptions, like 'Hair.' But even a production like 'Jesus Christ Superstar' only broke even, because it wasn't as successful as an album."
Wollman says that recent hits like "Spring Awakening" have led to a resurgence for the rock musical on Broadway and notes that it could be the start of a new trend that would benefit "American Idiot." She adds that the fact that "Idiot" is directed by Meyer and stars a "Spring Awakening" alum, John Gallagher Jr., will also help draw crowds.