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‘Wicked’ Writers Pay Tops $95 Million for Global Smash

Chandra Lee Schwartz in ``Wicked'' in New York. Photographer: Joan Marcus/The Hartman Group PR via Bloomberg

A look behind the emerald curtain at “Wicked” helps explain why, despite long odds against success, a dozen new musicals arrive on Broadway each season.

Since the $14 million show opened at the Gershwin Theatre in October, 2003, its producers and investors have shared more than $300 million in profits from Broadway and productions worldwide, according to records obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request.

Profits and compensation from hit shows are closely guarded secrets on Broadway. These figures were culled from 1,698 pages released by the New York State attorney general’s office, which requires theater productions that raise money from or within New York to file financial statements.

The three authors of the backstory to “The Wizard of Oz” have earned more than $95 million, according to the papers. Stephen Schwartz wrote the music and lyrics, Winnie Holzman the script and Gregory Maguire the 1996 novel upon which it’s based.

Joe Mantello, the actor-turned-director who staged the Broadway production and engagements in the U.S., London and Australia, has earned more than $23 million in royalties.

“Wicked” centers on two friends -- a popular blonde and a green, independent-minded outcast handy with a broomstick. From the beginning, the show struck a chord with an atypical Broadway demographic.

Biggest Loser

“It touches something in the hearts of girls and women,” said Robyn Goodman, who has seen it three times, twice introducing it to friends’ children. Goodman produced “Avenue Q,” which bested “Wicked” for top musical at the 2004 Tony Awards.

Since then, “Wicked” has been Broadway’s bestselling show. Its fortunes are boosted by premium tickets, seats in the first 16 rows of the Gershwin that sell for as much as $301.25. (A $1,001 package includes dinner at a restaurant adjacent to the theater and a backstage tour meeting performers.)

The results reported here include two U.S. tours and engagements in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Broadway. Marc Platt, a former movie studio executive, is or was lead producer of all of them.

Michael Hartman, a spokesman for the producers, said they declined to comment for this story.

The original company, Wicked LLC, has sold about $600 million of tickets on Broadway. In addition to proceeds from merchandising and the original cast recording, Wicked LLC earned fees and a share of profits from productions in London and Australia and revenue from “Wicked” in Japan and Germany.

Producers’ Share

In the U.S., the producers’ royalties -- excluding their share of profits -- exceeded $40 million. (Royalties, a key component of pay in theater, are based on negotiated fees and variables including box office sales.)

Eve Ensler, author of “The Vagina Monologues,” gets royalties for her uncredited work on some scenes, two people familiar with the production said. Her involvement isn’t disclosed in the papers or in accounts of the show’s creation. An e-mail to Ensler’s office wasn’t returned.

In his twenties, Schwartz wrote the scores for three long-running shows -- “Godspell,” “Pippin,” and “The Magic Show.” In December, 1996, while vacationing in Hawaii, he heard about Maguire’s novel “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West.” After reading it, Schwartz sought out Platt, who’d been developing a “Wicked” movie, eventually convincing him that the material was better suited for the stage.

First Ovation

About four years of writing and private readings followed. Money was raised from 59 investors, led by Universal Pictures, which is credited as a producer with David Stone, Jon Platt and the Araca Group, a closely held company that specializes in merchandising. At the first preview in the San Francisco tryout, Elphaba, the green apprentice Wicked Witch of the West played by Idina Menzel, got entrance applause.

“It’s something intrinsic about the characters,” Schwartz said in an interview last month about the show’s appeal. He was outside Circle in the Square Theatre, where he’d celebrated his 64th birthday with actors from “Wicked” and the current “Godspell” revival.

In addition to its message of tolerance and self-acceptance, “Wicked” offers spectacle. Eugene Lee’s sets -- which depict giant cogs, gears, and a mechanical dragon -- cost $1.6 million to build and another $2 million to load and install into the Gershwin. Susan Hilferty’s self-described “twisted Edwardian” costumes cost $1.4 million.

Mixed Reviews

The Broadway reviews were mixed. Ben Brantley wrote in the New York Times that Kristin Chenoweth, playing Glinda, provided “the essential helium in a bloated production that might otherwise spend close to three hours flapping its oversized wings without taking off.”

That message never reached the audience. With performances selling out, operating profit quickly exceeded $100,000 a week. Within 21 months, the show had returned the investors’ money and distributed profit of $7 million.

Attendance peaked at near capacity in the year ending in July 2005. Thanks to rising ticket prices, box office revenue continued to grow. The average “Wicked” ticket went from $85 in 2005 to $100.56 in 2010. The average last week, which included Easter Sunday, was about $135 excluding sales commissions, based on figures from the Broadway League.

“It hasn’t lost any of its commercial appeal,” Stephanie Lee, president of Group Sales Box Office, said of the show. “The next generation of tweens is going, and the original generation is going back.”

No Stars

Revenue rose even after the original stars left. Pay for the eight principal parts fell from $2.4 million in the first year to $1.9 million in the 52 weeks ending July 2010.

The current leads, Jackie Burns and Chandra Lee Schwartz, are veterans of “Wicked” national tours (and handily won over a recent Sunday matinee audience). The statements don’t disclose their or the original leads’ salaries, although in December, 2003, “star” pay totaled $33,500 a week. Top billing at the time went to Chenoweth and Menzel, followed by Carole Shelley, Norbert Leo Butz and Joel Grey.

Those in the ensemble now earn the Broadway minimum, $1,703 a week, unless one negotiates a higher rate or has extra duties, such as understudying another part.

Weekly expenses for the Broadway company averaged $1 million in the year ending in June 2010, including royalties. Weekly ticket sales averaged $1.4 million, excluding commissions, for annual operating profit of $23 million.

Grand Compensation

Schwartz lives primarily on a 15-acre Connecticut property he bought in the mid-1970s. One “Wicked” indulgence he cited: a Bosendorfer piano, whose grand models start at $100,000.

On Broadway, the authors share royalties of 6.7 percent of Broadway box office revenue, according to an analysis of the statements. Maguire has earned more than $12 million. The statements don’t disclose the pay of Schwartz or Holzman, who created the 1994 television series “My So-Called Life.” According to royalty formulas, Schwartz’s take is twice that of hers, plus 0.5 percent of box office as a “consulting producer.”

Elsewhere on the creative team, Lee, the set designer, earned more than $6.6 million. Choreographer Wayne Cilento made more than $6.3 million and the costume designer, Hilferty, was paid more than $2.2 million.

This story undoubtedly understates total compensation to date for the producers, investors and creative team behind “Wicked.”

Royalty Payments

Royalty payments weren’t disclosed for non-U.S. productions, such as the five-year-old West End “Wicked” or the Australian engagement in five cities over three years. And the most recent U.S. statements are one to two years old.

Based on published ticket sales in New York since the last statement in June 2010, it’s a safe bet author royalties exceed $100 million.

As for philanthropy, “Wicked” has allied with Bette Midler’s nonprofit New York Restoration Project to refurbish community gardens. The Broadway show’s company manager, Susan Sampliner, helps run the Broadway Green Alliance, intended to help Broadway implement pro-environment practices.

“It’s not the financial success as much as the feeling of release,” Schwartz said. “It’s allowed me to come to terms with what I could accomplish and what I can’t. I realized I’m never going to be a critics’ darling.

“I had done OK before,” he said. “I guess there is a little bit more financial freedom.”

Today’s Muse highlights: Katya Kazakina on New York women gallerists; Robert Heller on Florence + the Machine; Richard Vines on London restaurant Dabbous; Greg Evans on TV’s “Girls” and “Trust.”

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