STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Well, the Christmas season is when retailers make the bulk of their profits, when Hollywood blockbusters rake in money and Broadway theaters are filled to capacity. But for Broadway the season poses a challenge. In recent seasons Broadway theaters have staged special limited-run holiday musicals, among them adaptations of "A Christmas Story" and "Elf."
The production costs are high. The season is short. Jeff Lunden asked how these shows make any money.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "A CHRISTMAS STORY")
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (as character) (Singing) Because it's almost nearly getting close to counting down for Christmas. It's almost time to see the tree light up the town for Christmas. It's only 4,053 minutes away. Away. Away. Away. It's almost nearly getting close to counting down to Christmas Day.
GERALD GOEHRING: It's costing just as much to do this Broadway show as it does a Broadway show that can run for years and years and years.
JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Gerald Goehring is lead producer of "A Christmas Story," a new musical based on the popular movie of Jean Shepherd's short stories about growing up in Indiana in the 1940s. This $9.5 million show is only playing for eight weeks on Broadway and Goehring freely admits there's no way it'll make back its investment by the end of its run.
GOEHRING: A lot of investors are used to let's put money in Broadway show and hope it's "Book of Mormon." And we recoup fast and we run forever. And that's such a rarity in any model, any business, really. So our investors have a different approach. It is one of patience, it's one of long-term strategy and what I say - it's an annuity for us and our families for a few generations to come.
LUNDEN: The way it usually works on Broadway is this: if a show is successful, it then has several touring productions, international companies and eventually gets licensed, so it can get produced at professional theaters, community theaters and schools. For a smash hit, like, say, "Cats," profits from all these income streams can be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "ELF")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) (Singing) Just sing a Christmas song. It's like magic if things go wrong. Just spread some Christmas cheer by singing loud for all to hear.
LUNDEN: This new breed of holiday musicals has both built in advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is they're based on well-known movie properties, so they all have name recognition - the disadvantage is it only makes sense to produce them for a couple of months around Christmas-time.
Even if a Broadway run may be something of a loss-leader, it's an important way of branding a show, says Raymond Wu, of Warner Brothers Theatrical. They're producing "Elf," based on the Will Ferrell comedy, which is currently playing a nine week Broadway run.
RAYMOND WU: We figured with the Broadway branding, it helps with subsequent productions and licensing, tours. People will say, oh, that was on Broadway and it's a great title, a great story and it did well on Broadway and we want to see that too.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "ELF")
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) (Singing) Just spread some Christmas cheer by singing loud for all to hear. Just sing a Christmas song.
LUNDEN: Jeremy Gerard, theater critic and reporter for Bloomberg News, says these shows really can make some of their costs back, during a short Broadway run.
JEREMY GERARD: These are shows that appeal to a holiday audience, the tourist trade, families. And producers aren't stupid, they know that there's a lot of money to be made in this brief time, if you watch your numbers, if you keep your production costs down and your ticket costs high.
LUNDEN: And top ticket prices for "Elf" and "A Christmas Story" are in the vicinity of $160, with premium tickets as much as $350. But according to the producers of holiday shows, the real money to be made is beyond Broadway. "Elf," which had a Broadway run a couple of years ago, is already getting new productions across the country, says Raymond Wu.
WU: This year we have an eight week, five city tour of "Elf" out there that we've partnered on. There's going to be a production this holiday season in Seattle.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "ELF")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) (Singing) When a room is gloomy and its atmosphere has called it quits, then you must remember that December is a time for glitz. Never stop until each limb on your Christmas is sparklejollytwinklejingley.
LUNDEN: Gerald Goehring, producer of "A Christmas Story," has similar plans for next year - a first class tour, and licensing local productions at major regional theaters. But, like Wu, he's looking years ahead - he hopes the show can also go on tours where it plays single nights and short runs in smaller markets.
And then there's licensing for amateur and stock productions, so "A Christmas Story" may be playing at a school or community theater near you, five or six years from now.
GOEHRING: I think, honestly, the only way to make your money back, without taking twenty years, is a combination of all those models put together.
LUNDEN: But are these shows any good? Critic Jeremy Gerard has liked some and not much cared for others. In recent years, Broadway has also seen adaptations of "Dr. Seuss' The Grinch Who Stole Christmas..."
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE GRINCH WHO STOLE CHRISTMAS")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) (Singing) You're a mean one, Mr. Grinch...
LUNDEN: ...and Irving Berlin's White Christmas.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "WHITE CHRISTMAS")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) (Singing) I'm dreaming of a white Christmas just like the ones I used to know...
LUNDEN: Gerard says what they all share, and what may account for their appeal, is a slightly retro vibe - harkening to a less edgy time.
GOEHRING: I think it's silly to go into these shows expecting anything other than what they want to do, which is to be a crowd-pleaser. So, the producers do have an imperative to put together something that's entertaining, but I don't expect, going in, to see "Angels in America" or "Sweeney Todd." Who would want that at Christmas time?
LUNDEN: "A Christmas Story" is playing at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre through December 30th. "Elf" plays at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre through January 6th. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.