NEW YORK -- When Nathan Lane returned to "The Producers" last month, he added a new joke to the smash Mel Brooks musical that had his opening-night audience howling.
"Never put your own money in a show. That's taboo," he warned.
Unfortunately, Rosie O'Donnell did - backing the Boy George musical, "Taboo," to the tune of $10 million, a figure that could be the most money ever lost by a single investor on Broadway. The production closes Feb. 8 after a turbulent, unprofitable three-month run.
Other shows may have lost as much - or more. "Dance of the Vampires" or "The Scarlet Pimpernel" anyone? But the pain was spread around. Last season's mega-flop, "Dance of the Vampires," a musical redo of a campy Roman Polanski film, had eight producers and eight associate producers, for example.
These days, Broadway is usually too expensive for a single individual to put up all the money for a show. A price tag of $10 million is now the norm for big musicals and $2 million is not unusual for a play.
And costs keep going up.
The current "Wicked," a lavish riff on the witches in "The Wizard of Oz," cost a whopping $14 million, an expense covered by five producers including Universal Pictures. And "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," the London hit that will arrive next season if the right theater can be secured, will come in at $15 million, says producer Frederick M. Zollo.
O'Donnell supplied all the money herself and paid for losses the show incurred since opening Nov. 13 to largely negative reviews.
"Even in the days of David Merrick, he had investors," theater historian and critic Ken Mandelbaum says, referring to the legendary producer of such musicals as "Gypsy," "Hello, Dolly!" and more. "He wasn't the sole investor, surely. (Like O'Donnell) there must be other examples (of solo investing), but nothing on this scale."
"It has been a very, very long time since an individual has done that," says David Stone, a producer of "Wicked."
"You rarely see one name over the title anymore. Cameron (Mackintosh), but he has a lot of investors, and Disney, of course, but it's a corporation and not an individual."
Yet O'Donnell risked it all, closely identifying herself with "Taboo" and using her celebrity to get it ink and airtime. It didn't help that most of the news and reviews were negative. "I am profoundly grateful and have no regrets," O'Donnell said Tuesday in a statement.
To audiences today, theater producers are anonymous.
"For the most part, theater producers want to be in the background and be respected by their community and their peers but not necessarily by the general public," Stone says. "Film producers are different. I think some of them like the high profile, like Harvey Weinstein or people like that."
Producers want to minimize risk. Look at the trouble "Caroline or Change" is undergoing getting its act together for a reported move to Broadway in April.
The ambitious, sung-through musical about a black maid and a young white boy, set in 1963 Louisiana, has attracted the interest of more than a dozen producers, but the details of a transfer are still being worked out.
"Anything that tries to go to a different place in that form is harder," commented Zollo, who said he will put some money in the $6 million musical, written by Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori.
"If you could describe the place right now where backers are most prone to go or look for, it is a musical derived from another medium," Zollo said.
"The go-to shows in terms of potential big moneymakers are something that people know or have heard of, that have a memorable aspect," he said, referring to shows like "Hairspray" and "Wicked."
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