EXCLUSIVE: Investors in Scott Rudin’s celebrated revival of Hello, Dolly! have earned a profit of 5 percent, according to two people familiar with the production.
In a flop-filled business, recouping is considered the benchmark for success, and investors months ago earned back their money. The musical was the talk of the 2016-17 season, won four Tony Awards, and last week was the third-bestselling musical, behind Hamilton and The Lion King. For angels seeking prestige, glamour and the satisfaction of helping to create a revival worthy of the iconic, 1964 original, Dolly delivered and made them money.
Others, however, expected more from a production that’s grossed $126 million.
A spokesman for Rudin declined to comment. Investors in Rudin’s shows sign away their right to publicly discuss a show’s finances or say anything that could be construed as negative.
The revival illustrates both the star power of its first and last Dolly Levi, Bette Midler, and the pressure on investors as Broadway production costs soar. The trend continues this season, with musicals including King Kong (capitalized at $33.5 million to $36.5 million, according to financial papers filed with the state) and Tootsie, an adaptation of the 1982 comedy ($20 million). Rudin, a movie producer unmatched in his ability to attract stars to Broadway and mount high-quality plays and musicals — both new works and revivals — has rankled some backers with what they regard as excessive advertising spending.
The original Dolly ran seven years. Richard Seff made about ten times his money, according to records he kept on the shows in which he invested. Hamilton, the 2015 blockbuster, more than doubled its investors’ money in its first 17 months, according to financial papers.
Revivals tend to be star driven and have shorter lives than hit new musicals. (Chicago, of course, the exception, has run nearly 22 years and counting.) Since Dolly began previews at the Shubert Theatre in March 2017, fans returned again and again, paying up to $998 for front-row seats to see Midler. It grossed as much as $2.5 million a week, a record for a Broadway revival.
But when Midler was out, sales tumbled. The lavish production struggled to make money with her replacements, Bernadette Peters and Donna Murphy, even though both actresses received splendid reviews. Fixed weekly operating expenses are about $850,000, according to financial papers. (Fixed weekly expenses for Hamilton in year one averaged $658,000.) And the $15.9 million Dolly production may be the most expensive revival in Broadway history.
When Midler accepted her Tony for lead actress in a musical in June 2017, she praised Rudin as the greatest producer she’s worked with. “His willingness to pay the price and hire the best and the brightest has given me the ride of my life,” she said.
The best don’t come cheap. Midler’s salary wasn’t disclosed, but she appears to have been making hundreds of thousands a week. Cast salaries for an eight-performance week totaled about $400,000 early in the run when she was in, and $200,000 less when she was out.
Composer/lyricist Jerry Herman and the estate of book writer Michael Stewart received a onetime $350,000 fee plus 20 percent of weekly operating profit, plus 10 percent of net profit once the show recouped, according to financial papers. The director, Jerry Zaks, and an assistant were paid $196,000. (Zaks’ royalty isn’t disclosed.)
The production paid $2 million for Santo Loquasto’s scenery, drapes, and for hardware and storage. Costumes, wigs and shoes were another $2 million. (Hamilton spent about $1 million each on scenery and costumes, thanks to its relatively spare set, smaller ensemble and characters too busy with the American Revolution to put on their Sunday best.) Loading in Dolly‘s sets and preparing all the gear, audio, lighting, automation, etc. cost $2.1 million.
The show spent $150,000 a week on ads in its first five months, according to the papers, although few tickets were to be had for Midler’s performances. An argument for abundant advertising today is that one can sell out with an average ticket of $125 (Wicked) or $509 (Bruce Springsteen.) The sky’s the limit on pricing and sales. Had Dolly been able to maintain comparable grosses with less spending, it would’ve increased investor returns.
Then again, few Book of Mormon investors are complaining about its ubiquitous advertising. Seven and a half years since opening on Broadway, the ribald comedy made its money back many times over.
Note: Fixed weekly operating expenses were corrected for Hello, Dolly! and Hamilton. Figures in the previous version of the story included rent for the theater, which fluctuates with box office.