TAMPA — Broadway is a gamble, and the odds are not very good.
"I'd say that 20 to 30 percent of Broadway shows are successful and make money,'' says Hinks Shimberg, who has the framed posters on his office wall for the plays and musicals that he has been involved with as a producer or investor through the years. "Another 10 or 20 percent will get their money back. The rest lose money.''
Shimberg will be adding another poster to his office wall after Sunday, when Wonderland opens on Broadway. The Frank Wildhorn musical, a contemporary take on Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland books, was developed as part of the Broadway Genesis Project at the David A. Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa. The show premiered at the center in December 2009 and had subsequent productions in Houston in 2010 and again in Tampa in January before moving to the Marquis Theatre on Times Square.
Wonderland has cost an estimated $16 million, and Shimberg and David Scher are responsible for a significant chunk of the money. They formed an investment group called the Knights of Tampa Bay — a boy band number called One Knight is a highlight of the show — that raised about $3.2 million from about 35 investors, almost all from the bay area.
"These are people who won't lose any sleep over the investment,'' Scher says, adding that $100,000 was a typical share. "People invest in a Broadway show because they want to have some fun.''
Shimberg has been active in Tampa business, political and philanthropic circles for decades. He developed Town 'N Country. Scher is also a real estate developer as co-owner of Stuart S. Golding Co., which builds shopping centers and medical office parks.
The two are trustees of the Straz Center but say the Knights group is separate from the center, which is a nonprofit organization. Still, they see the investment as a benefit to the Straz. "If we can establish Tampa as a place to start Broadway shows, I think that brings an element in the arts that is really quite unique and wonderful,'' Shimberg says. "We hope this will influence Broadway producers to start shows here.''
Wonderland, which stars Janet Dacal as a harried, adult Alice in New York, has gone through many changes on the road to Broadway. "I feel like we went from high school to college and now this is the Ph.D.,'' Straz president Judy Lisi says from New York, where the musical started previews March 21. "It's the same show people saw in Tampa, but I think the changes have helped to clarify the story.''
Lisi and the Straz have a lot riding on the show. "We're just waiting to see if it recoups the original asset we put into it. About $2.6 million,'' Lisi says. That's for costs above and beyond the more than $3 million in ticket sales that the show generated during its previous engagements.
In New York, Wonderland producers — others include executive producer Bill Franzblau and the Nederlander theater company that owns the Marquis — brought in a pair of uncredited "show doctors'' to try to fix problems in the show. Director Scott Ellis and playwright Rupert Holmes focused on the musical's book by Jack Murphy, who also wrote lyrics, and director Gregory Boyd. Some numbers were restaged. Principals in the cast remain intact.
"I think the major changes are in the opening and the ending," Lisi says. "How to get into the show — that's always been the challenge."
Changes were still being made less than a week before the show was "frozen'' on Wednesday for the first preview to which theater critics were invited. "We've gone through like 135 scripts at this point,'' Lisi says.
For example, a catchy pop song called Don't Wanna Fall in Love has been in and out of Wonderland throughout the process of developing the show. Different versions had it in Act 1 and Act 2. "That one was in and out and then back in and now it's out again,'' Lisi says. "The costumes featured these adorable 'pancake' hats. So now I've got a lot of hats if anyone is looking for them.''
For eight preview performances in the week ending last Sunday, Wonderland drew attendance of 10,158, or 79 percent of capacity in the 1,612-seat Marquis. Many tickets were discounted and the week's sales totaled $454,214.
After Wonderland's opening night, which starts at 5:30 p.m. Sunday, the producers will host a party in a ballroom of the Marriott Marquis Hotel, where the theater is located. A big part of the occasion will be waiting for press agents to gather up the reviews from newspapers, broadcast outlets and online sites.
"They'll bring 'em in (the reviews),'' Lisi says. "That's the scary part."
Wildhorn, whose previous Broadway musicals include Jekyll & Hyde, The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Civil War, has never been a critic's darling. "We knew that going into this project,'' Lisi says. "Call me Pollyanna, but this is very different than any of Frank's other shows, which are mostly more Gothic. I'm hoping critics will see something they didn't see before."
The critics' opinions are important. See Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, the $70 million extravaganza that is going on hiatus for an overhaul after this weekend's performances in the wake of scathing reviews. But shows have been known to overcome mixed reviews. Exhibit A is the blockbuster Wicked.
"We think our market is going to start with women,'' Lisi says. "It is a story about a woman, and most women have read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. But we also see a lot of kids coming, which makes us really excited. That's what happened with Wicked. They started out thinking it was a woman's show, and it ended up being a multigenerational show."
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.