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A Musical to the Tune of $10 Million

The start-up budget for 'Ragtime,' the new musical that opens at the Shubert Theatre next week, falls in line with that of the current crop of mega-musicals. So where does all that money go?

June 08, 1997|Diane Haithman | Diane Haithman is a Times staff writer

TORONTO — When "The Phantom of the Opera" opened at the Ahmanson Theatre in 1989, its $8.5-million budget made it the most expensive musical ever to hit town.

In 1997 Los Angeles, 8.5 may still be big for an earthquake--but judging from the money spent to produce big musicals in recent years, it takes at least $10 million to even nudge the needle on the Richter scale.

Both "Sunset Boulevard" and "Beauty and the Beast," which recently played the Shubert Theatre in Century City, boasted budgets of about $12 million; "Miss Saigon" weighed in at $10.9 million; and the acclaimed revival of "Show Boat" at the Ahmanson downtown cost $10 million.

"Ragtime," which opens at the Shubert next Sunday, is no exception to the costly rule.

This latest new musical from Garth Drabinsky's production company, the Toronto-based Livent Inc. (which also produced "Show Boat"), is powering into the Shubert on the fuel of strong ticket sales and positive reviews for the show's world premiere in Toronto. The show opened in December at the Ford Centre for the Performing Arts, where it will close Aug. 31, before moving to Broadway in December.

"Ragtime," based on E.L. Doctorow's 1975 best-selling novel, examines the social politics of turn-of-the-century America through the interweaving stories of three families: Mother, Father, Younger Brother and the Little Boy, a white family of Victorian values enjoying prosperity in New Rochelle, N.Y.; black musician Coalhouse Walker and his beloved Sarah, in a doomed search for the American dream; and Tateh, a Latvian Jewish immigrant with a daughter about the same age as the Little Boy, using his street-smart ingenuity to claw his way out of poverty on New York's Lower East Side into the brand-new motion picture industry.

Into this mix comes a cast of real-life historical characters, including Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, Harry Houdini, anarchist Emma Goldman and Booker T. Washington.

The physical production is as complex as its story: "Ragtime" has 22 different settings ranging from a re-creation of the now-demolished 1910 Pennsylvania Station designed by architect Stanford White, the Atlantic City boardwalk, the deck of a ship and the imposing J.P. Morgan Library; "Show Boat," by contrast, had only five settings. "Ragtime" employs highly detailed and historically accurate props--including a life-size replica of a 1906 Ford Model T--as well as an elaborate projection system and more than 50 channels of automation that move sets and people on, off and around the stage.

And though "Ragtime" has a smaller cast than "Show Boat"--50 versus 75--it has the same number of costumes (about 500) and still tops the Broadway musical average of 20 to 30 cast members ("Sunset Boulevard" had a cast of 23).

Both the Los Angeles and the planned Broadway "Ragtime" productions have budgets of about $10 million--L.A.'s is $9.815 million, New York's slightly higher, because of a longer pre-opening publicity period and other minor costs.

And where does the money come from? Unlike many Broadway producers, Livent does not offer profit participation or limited partnerships, so it is the primary risk taker. It is a publicly held, for-profit corporation with an internal cash flow from ticket sales, merchandising, sponsorship revenue, investments and interest.


The following tracks where the dollars went in turning the Doctorow novel into a musical, adapted by Terrence McNally, with music and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. The show is directed by Frank Galati of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company, with costumes by Santo Loquasto, scenic design by Eugene Lee, sound design by Jonathan Deans and lighting design by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer.

The three largest expense categories are detailed below; others appear in the accompanying complete cost breakdown chart. It should be noted that all these figures have been converted to U.S. dollars, and they document the "pre-production" budget of "Ragtime"--that is, money spent on getting the musical up and ready for its first paid performance (that includes lower-priced preview performances, which began May 29 at the Shubert). Additional salaries, maintenance and marketing costs will kick in at the opening and continue throughout the run of the show.

Drabinsky says the Los Angeles pre-production costs are virtually the same as the costs for starting up the world premiere production in Canada. Even though the expense of creating "Ragtime"--such as writing and workshopping the book, music and lyrics and designing costumes and sets--was already paid before the show came to Los Angeles, higher American labor and rental costs offset any expected pre-production saving.

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