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Produers’ great ‘White’ hopes
Partners aim for instant perennial with simultaneous legit versions of holiday pic

By Phil Gallo, Gordon Cox
Published: November 6, 2005
A Broadway producer and three partners are hoping to plant an evergreen this Christmas.

Identical versions of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” are being mounted this holiday season -- in Boston, San Francisco and Hollywood -- with an eye toward annual stagings in multiple cities.

Basing the tuner on Paramount’s film from 1954, Broadway producer Kevin McCollum (“Avenue Q”) has partnered with three regional producers to spawn a new tradition -- or at least provide an alternative to annual tours and local productions of “A Christmas Carol.”

“White Christmas” was staged last year at San Francisco’s Curran Theater, where it broke box office records by taking in more than $7 million in a little more than eight weeks. In S.F., the show has been moved to the larger 2,200-seat Orpheum. The show will also play simultaneously in the 2,700-seat Pantages in Los Angeles and the 3,500-seat Wang Performing Arts Center in Boston.

Last year’s San Francisco production was capitalized at $4.4 million and made about $1 million in profit. Wang Center is putting up $3.5 million for its version, and they own the majority of their production. The Nederlanders, who are co-producing in L.A., are putting in an additional $1.8 million to create a partnership.

The long-term idea is for the shows to alternate between two cities annually: The Boston show will head to St. Paul, Minn., in 2006, and the L.A. version goes to Chicago.

“We’re inventing it as we go along,” McCollum says of the business model. “So much of the economics of touring goes into loading in and loading out. (This is) more franchising than touring.”

At recent rehearsals in Gotham, Walter Bobbie was directing 96 performers -- 32 per cast -- making the staging identical from company to company, but letting personalities inform the performances. Choreographer Randy Skinner was executing a similar task: “I give the leads the parameters of a movement and they find their own things in it.”

The two will be traveling to spend pre-opening time with each production: S.F. opens Nov. 9; L.A. starts previews Nov. 22; and Boston lets the snow fall Nov. 25. All runs end Dec. 31.

“We’re trying to create a brand in a market that has never seen this show,” says Josiah A. Spaulding, president and CEO of Boston’s Wang Center for the Performing Arts.

The Wang Center, which unlike Los Angeles and San Francisco does not have a subscription series, started promoting the show in July with a Christmas bazaar and a skating rink in the theater’s enormous lobby.

Spaulding, like Carole Shorenstein Hays in San Francisco and Martin Wiviott at the Pantages in Hollywood, emphatically uses the word “family” when praising a show like “White Christmas.” Pantages has never staged a holiday-themed show; Spaulding is replacing the Radio City Christmas Spectacular and about 30 years of Boston Ballet’s “The Nutcracker”; and Hays has moved last year’s “White Christmas” to her org’s larger house (by 600 seats) and added two weeks to the run.

“Shows with family appeal are what we like to do,” says Wiviott, general manger of Broadway/L.A., who figures his org’s investment will be amortized toward the end of the second year.

Hays is launching the pre-Broadway run of “Lestat” while getting round two of “White Christmas” mounted. She says last year’s “Christmas” did pretty good business, but preferred to define its success as “being embraced by the community.”

The Bay Area will be pretty much seeing the same show as last year, when David Ives and Paul Blake were writing the adaptation while the show was being cast. The Irving Berlin songs -- “Blue Skies,” “How Deep Is the Ocean?” and the title tune, performed by a 26-piece orchestra -- remain the central attraction of a show about a duo preparing a show.

Director Bobbie has a crucial goal at the end of the year that will have an impact on the show’s future. “I’m hoping to come out of this with a group of people who I absolutely believe can stage this show. Then next year, they can put together the rough draft, and I can come in and polish it.”