Despite scary reviews, "Addams Family" lures label

NEW YORK (Billboard) - The new Broadway musical “The Addams Family” opened April 8 to gruesome reviews.

Actors Nathan Lane (L) and Bebe Neuwirth smile as they are applauded following the opening night of the Broadway play "The Addams Family" in New York April 8, 2010. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

But the box-office receipts have turned out to be surprisingly robust, leaving the production’s parade of investors snap-snapping their way to the bank. Among them is a conspicuous newcomer to the field.

Decca Broadway is set to record and release the original “Addams” cast recording in June. But the label’s new sibling division, Decca Theatricals, is a full-on “Addams” producer, with what its team characterizes as a “significant” stake in the show.

A label willing to up its ante in a new Broadway production -- beyond the cost of recording a cast album (commonly about $100,000-$200,000) -- is nearly as odd as the Addams’ Cousin Itt. Even Decca Label Group chairman Christopher Roberts says that mounting musicals is “not easy -- you can lose your shirt really quickly, and everything else.”

Still, Roberts says that it’s good business and in line with how Decca wants to grow.

“If these shows never made any money, nobody would ever invest in them,” he says. “And as a company, we’re not just a record company anymore. We’re more of a cultural and entertainment company. This is another extension of what we do.”

The recording industry and Broadway have had intimate encounters before. In the early ‘80s, Geffen Records stunned theater veterans by producing a string of five consecutive hits: “Dreamgirls,” “Cats,” “Master Harold and the Boys,” “Good” and “Little Shop of Horrors.”

“I’m sure we’ll not have everything we do be a hit,” David Geffen told Billboard in 1983, “but I’d like to bet that between the Shubert Organization and our company, we’ll have a higher batting average than anyone has had in history.”

Roberts falls short of such hubris, but he points to Decca’s track record with recent cast recordings as a good barometer for their taste.

“If you look at the big winners we’ve had -- ‘Wicked,’ ‘Mamma Mia!,’ ‘Spring Awakening,’ ‘Spamalot’ -- those have all been financially extremely successful shows,” he says. “If the record industry’s track record is one in 10, we’re about four in five for cast albums.”

According to Nielsen SoundScan, the Broadway cast recordings of “Wicked,” “Mamma Mia!,” “Spring Awakening” and “Spamalot” have sold 1.9 million, 1.6 million, 218,000 and 218,000, respectively, in the United States. A fifth Decca cast album, “Shrek,” has sold about 38,000.

“Good shows can make a lot of money, in merchandising, in the road tour and obviously the franchise as it goes global,” Roberts says. “And if we’re going as far as making a cast album, in certain situations it made more sense to double down, if you will, and invest in the show.”

Ghostlight Records, which marks its 10th anniversary this year, has experimented with the reverse: convincing show producers to partner with the label to get the cast album made. Ghostlight’s model is to share the costs and profits of a cast album with a musical’s producers, a break from the customary practice of a label fronting all costs but keeping all profits, minus the required royalty payments.

Ghostlight used this arrangement to release the cast recordings for the 2009 Grammy and Tony Award winner “In the Heights,” “Legally Blonde” and 2010 Pulitzer Prize winner “Next to Normal,” with positive results for both parties.

“Decca, they might be saying if the show is successful on Broadway, they could make money there and offset a potential loss on the cast album,” Ghostlight founder Kurt Deutsch says. “The days of making the money back on the album alone are gone. If Decca had a piece of, say, ‘Mamma Mia!,’ the album and the film soundtrack, think of how much they would make.”

But more than the direct business benefits, Roberts sees Decca Theatricals as a chance for the label to learn and expand its area of expertise.

“We’re learning, so two to three years from now we might have a different discussion about the kind of things we’re doing,” he says. “But for now, we’re happy being investors in another creative team’s concept.”