If the financial success of "Hairspray" has visions of dollar signs dancing in your head, think again, industry experts say.
"Anybody who thinks that should put their heads in a bucket of cold water," said longtime Broadway producer Frederic B. Vogel, who heads up the Commercial Theater Institute in New York. "It's a roll of the dice for anyone who wants to invest in it."
Theater investing is so risky, experts say, because so few productions make back their original costs. Minimum costs could run as high as $10 million, and failure-rate estimates top as much as 80 percent.
"It's just like going to the track or to Las Vegas," said Margo Lion, the Baltimore-born producer of "Hairspray." "Only 20 percent to 25 percent of the productions on Broadway make back their initial capital."
Broadway lore is replete with examples of "famous flops": "Breakfast at Tiffanys," a 1966 attempt at staging the 1962 Audrey Hepburn movie classic; "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers," a 1982 adaptation of the glossy 1954 MGM musical; "Carrie: The Musical," the notorious 1988 megaflop based on the 1976 hit movie; "The Capeman," Paul Simon's musical, also in 1988, which closed after only 17 weeks and at a production cost of as much as $12 million; and "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," a 1999 effort based on the Charles Schultz characters that bombed despite earning a Tony Award for actress Kristin Chenoweth for her role as Sally.
This season, "La Boheme," an opulent staging of Puccini's opera, will close on June 29 after a disappointing seven-month run and losses of about $6 million. The production received three Tony Awards earlier this month. Its initial budget was about $8.5 million.
Newcomers to Broadway investing must, first of all, be realistic, experts say.
"You don't invest in the theater if you can't lose the money," said David Armstrong, producing artistic director of the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle, where "Hairspray" made its out-of-town debut last year. "You'll have fun losing it, but you have to be able to lose it."
Perhaps the most important factor a potential investor should consider is the reputation of a show's producer. That person will make all the primary decisions concerning the production -- its director, musical arranger, choreographer, designers -- for instance.
"Investors invest in the producer," said Vogel, who counts the musical "Enchanted April" among his credits. "Ultimately, it is the producer's responsibility to fullfill what has been promised.
"In the case of 'Hairspray,' Margo was the glue," Vogel added. He is not an investor in the musical. "She brought all those people together because of her sensibilities -- and that's what made it work."
Investors also should put small amounts of money in a variety of productions, experts say.
The Baruch-Viertel-Routh-Frankel Group provided a quarter of Hairspray's initial $10.5 million budget, with 230 investors putting up at least $10,000 each. The consortium has financed 48 plays this way since beginning with "Penn & Teller" in 1984.
"We might have three or four shows running, and no one would have more than $10,000 in one," said the group's Steven Baruch. "If a show doesn't do well, then they won't lose all of their money."
Ben Mordecai, the associate dean of the Yale School of Drama and another storied Broadway producer, gave this advice to potential theater investors: "Divide the money into thirds or quarters, invest in three or four shows -- but don't put all of it in one show. It's the classic definition of a mutual fund."