“We've got a lot riding on this.''
So says Judy Lisi, president and CEO of the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. The center is producing Wonderland: Alice's New Musical Adventure as part of its Broadway Genesis Project.
Wonderland "gets bigger by the second,'' says Lisi, interviewed in her office about two weeks before Saturday's premiere of the Frank Wildhorn musical. Initially, the production was budgeted at $3 million; now she is projecting its cost at about $3.3 million.
Lisi hopes Wonderland will generate about $2 million in ticket sales, with a good part of that already booked because the show is part of the center's Broadway series, which has about 9,000 subscribers. The center will also receive income from Houston's Alley Theatre, where the show plays in January and February.
"So let's say we're out $1 million,'' Lisi says. "We would hope to recoup that from subsequent productions of Wonderland, be it on Broadway or a tour or whatever.''
Wonderland's fate — and the center's investment — will depend on the musical's reception from critics (the press performance is Friday) and theater industry movers and shakers who are potential backers of future productions. Lisi has invited them to the Dec. 8 performance.
"A lot of people say they're coming, but they'll wait,'' she says. "If there's a buzz, they'll come. If there's not a buzz, they might not come because it's a busy time.''
Though Wonderland has been intensively prepared by its creative team and cast, Lisi plays down expectations. "Look, this is a lab work,'' she says. "We're getting it as far as we can in the first stage of it. We're asking people to please judge the work on what its potential could be.''
There have been at least a few bumps in the road that led to bringing Wonderland to the stage. In May, Lisi came close to postponing the premiere for a year, because she wasn't happy with the book of the show. That's when the original author, Phoebe Hwang, was replaced by lyricist Jack Murphy and director Gregory Boyd.
Lisi "pitched a fit'' when she learned that Wildhorn had another new show, Bonnie & Clyde, scheduled to open in November at the La Jolla Playhouse in California. At that point, Wonderland was already in the works. "I was afraid,'' she says. "I told Frank we have a big investment in this show. But it's worked out fine. Frank's been here.'' The composer has shuttled back and forth between Florida and California during the mounting of his two productions.
Whether Wonderland is a hit or a miss, Lisi thinks it will position the Straz Center as a good venue for Broadway tryouts. "That is the strategic objective of the Broadway Genesis Project,'' she says. "We have a state-of-the-art facility. No regional theaters have the facilities we have.''
Ferguson — with about 1,000 seats, it is the center's second-largest theater, after 2,600-seat Morsani Hall — is similar in scale to the historic theaters on Broadway. If the Wildhorn musical goes on to have success, the plan is to use residuals from it to finance other shows to be developed at the center.
In years past, producers have launched national tours at the center, including Les Miserables, Kiss of the Spider Woman and a revival of My Fair Lady.
Lisi also touts the benefit to Tampa, claiming Wonderland will have a significant economic impact beyond the center, where rehearsals began Oct. 12. "We have a company of at least 40 people, and think about how many hotel room nights they'll account for over 10 or 12 weeks,'' she says. "All their per diems are being spent here. Sets were built in Florida. All the stagehands, the labor. It's huge.
"Plus I think it's good for a community to have something like this and take a little pride in it happening here.''