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Moguls With Bucks to Burn Bet $75 Million on Broadway

'Chaplin: The Musical'
Rob McClure and Erin Mackey play Charlie Chaplin and his fourth wife, Oona O'Neill, in "Chaplin: The Musical." The new show is directed by Warren Carlyle. Photographer: Joan Marcus/Boneau/Bryan-Brown via Bloomberg

Sept. 13 (Bloomberg) -- If the silent film legend Charlie Chaplin were speaking today, he might be saying, “Ouch!”

Broadway investors, many of them new to Times Square, have committed about $75 million to the fall season just getting under way. Already, it’s off to a shaky start.

Among the shows looking to become the next “Book of Mormon” blockbuster is “Chaplin,” a $10 million musical that opened Monday to reviews ranging from tepid to scorching.

The notices came on the heels of bad news from another show hobbling towards opening night.

On Saturday, the producers of “Rebecca,” a $12 million adaptation of the 1938 Daphne Du Maurier novel, postponed its November opening, after an earlier postponement last spring.

“Rebecca’s” producers said that a European investor they declined to name had died over the summer, leaving them $4.5 million short.

The troubled shows are part of a fall season with star-filled plays, original and brand-name musicals and billionaire newbie producers getting a crash course in Broadway economics.

‘Annie’ Revival

The musicals include a revival of “Annie,” capitalized at about $12 million, and an adaptation of the 1983 movie “A Christmas Story,” that will cost $9.25 million.

Among the new plays are Craig Wright’s comic drama “Grace,” starring Paul Rudd and Ed Asner, budgeted at $2.25 million to $2.75 million; “The Performers,” billed as a romantic comedy about porn stars, with Henry Winkler and Alicia Silverstone ($3 million); and David Mamet’s “The Anarchist,” with Patti LuPone as an incarcerated anarchist and Debra Winger as her parole officer ($2.6 million).

Play revivals include Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross” with Al Pacino ($3.3 million) and “Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” ($2.7 million).

(Bloomberg News obtained budget figures, which are approximate, from producers and Securities and Exchange Commission filings. Nonprofit productions and shows opening off-Broadway are not included.)

Melinda and Robert Rich Jr., whose Rich Products Corp. is a closely held frozen foods manufacturer based in Buffalo, are earning their first lead producer credit on “Chaplin.” John Caudwell, a billionaire U.K. phone titan, is also on the team.

Hanging Tough

“We are going forward,” said Susanne Tighe, a spokeswoman for the show. That often translates into thousands of dollars spent on advertising in the New York Times, among other forums, in a usually quixotic effort to offset a negative Times review.

Times chief drama critic Ben Brantley called “Chaplin” “soppy.”

The Riches “surrounded themselves with very competent people,” said Steven Baruch, who with three partners has been presenting shows off-Broadway and on Broadway since 1985. They were also among the three-dozen credited producers of “Leap of Faith,” which lost its $14.7 million capitalization last season. The Riches and Caudwell also had stakes in that show.

Billionaires Betsy DeVos and her husband, Richard, the former president of the direct-sales company Amway Corp. and the son of its founder, are first-time producers of the musical “Scandalous.” Co-written by Kathie Lee Gifford, it’s about the early 20th-century evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. It played regionally to mixed notices, most recently at the 5th Ave. Theatre in Seattle.

Starting Fresh

“They saw the show in Seattle and wanted to support it,” said Jeffrey Finn, a producer and general manager serving as the production’s executive producer. He said “Scandalous” has been reworked since Seattle, when it was known as “Saving Aimee.”

Gifford’s an ambassador of uncommon reach. She’s promoted it on the fourth hour of NBC’s “Today” show, which she co-hosts, and at a recent group sales event at Sardi’s restaurant.

Stephanie Lee, president of Group Sales Box Office, was impressed by Gifford’s passion and the songs performed by lead actress Carolee Carmello.

“Rebecca” lead producer Ben Sprecher said that he’s postponed rehearsals for two weeks, but has yet to announce a new opening. He’s now in Europe negotiating with the estate of the unidentified expired money man, said a production spokesman, Marc Thibodeau.

Tough Sell

Raising funds from new sources is a tall order, said Eva Price, a producer who isn’t involved with the show.

“If it’s not in place and someone is starting from scratch, I would be concerned,” Price said.

In stark contrast, “Annie,” well-timed and well-known, is the sales leader of the season.

“They came out of the starting gate months ago, and at the time we didn’t have a new or revived musical we could facilitate group sales for,” Lee said. “It’s bringing a generation of young theatergoers who haven’t had the opportunity to see it.”

Producer Arielle Tepper Madover said that the 1977 hit was the first musical she saw, at age 8, and that it had inspired her to work in theater. After the real estate heiress imported several acclaimed dramas from London, it’s the first musical she’s shepherding to Broadway.

Debbie Bisno, an “Annie” producer (and the lead producer of “Grace”) said she’s organizing a “Yappy Hour” mixer at a midtown hotel for “Annie” fans and their dogs.

That should give competing producers paws.

Muse highlights include Jason Harper on a $2.5 million Bugatti and Lance Esplund on art.

To contact the reporter on this story: Philip Boroff in New York at pboroff@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeffrey Burke at jburke21@bloomberg.net

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