Putting the money where your stage is: Does splashing the cash on a show pay off?

Production still from Disney's The Lion King

Mounting a world-class Broadway or West End show is a risky business: in the hopes of wooing big audiences, producers often pour millions of dollars into a production. But if the show flops, no one gets their money (and sometimes reputation) back.

So is the budget of a show a predictor of its success?

To find an answer, we looked into the most costly productions in musical theatre history and compared production cost to ticketing revenue – first in London’s West End, then on Broadway. Here’s what we found:

West End

The Lord of the Rings – £22 million ($29.5 million)

Also known as the most expensive mistake in West End history, The Lord of the Rings musical ended up costing £19 million to mount (with inflation, that’s about £22 million), making it the costliest West End musical ever. But the show got mixed reviews and closed after barely a year in the West End. According to Baz Bamigboye (Daily Mail) “selling the story of Middle Earth to Middle England in term-time has proved difficult.” That was an understatement: the show lost the whole of its initial investment.

Definitely didn’t “rule them all” or even “bring them all” to the theatre….

The Lion King – £22.5 million ($30 million)

Following its successful Broadway run, Disney opened a London production of The Lion King musical in 1999 that cost an estimated £18 million (£22.5 million with inflation). That staggering investment has proven worthwhile, though.

An incredibly clever stage design mixed with a classic Disney story have ensured enough bums on the Lyceum Theatre’s seats for over 10 years so far, despite tickets priced at an eye-watering £150 per seat.

Not only has the show merely paid itself off; it’s also become one of the most profitable shows in the history of the West End, grossing more than $6.2 billion worldwide as of 2014 – and much more than that by now.

Wicked – £13 million ($17 million)

Production still from Wicked, one of the highest grossing shows on Broadway

Wicked opened in London in 2006, after a successful Broadway run. By today’s standards, the show cost around £13 million to produce. Initially, it got poor reviews. But with its unique spin on a classic story, an indomitable heroine, and the central friendship between Glinda and Elphaba, Wicked quickly grew into one of the most popular musicals out today.

The show has repeatedly broken box office records in both London and on Broadway, grossing $1.12 billion on Broadway and $4 billion worldwide over the course of its 13+ year run. In fact, the musical just surpassed Phantom of the Opera as the second highest grossing show in Broadway history, and the London show has been playing for nearly eleven years.

Broadway

Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark – $81.6 million (£62 million)

Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark had a lot going for it: everyone’s favorite human spider, music by Bono, and crazy special effects. Sadly, none of that helped the producers recoup the $75 million (now $81.6 million with inflation) they spent on the show. It opened in 2011 and closed in early 2014. The producers lost about $60 million.

So why did it fail? Reviews emphasized how the show’s crazy number of acrobatics and effects came at the expense of character development and good storytelling. Spider-Man also had a long trial period (183 previews) during which an infinite number of things went wrong: there were often technical difficulties, and several actors were injured.

Shrek the Musical – $28.5 million (£21.7 million)

Shrek the Musical opened in December 2008 with a budget that amounts to $28.5 million with inflation. Despite fairly good reviews, the show closed in January 2010 after a run of just over 12 months. In the end, it seems Shrek was just too expensive to run, and audiences just weren’t that into it. Currently, the show is on tour, trying to recoup its financial losses.

The Lion King – $28.4 million (£21.6 million)

When it comes to musicals, Disney spares no expense. And in this case at least, the expense was justified. The Lion King – the third most expensive musical in Broadway history – opened in 1997 and is still going strong, with productions on Broadway and in the West End. It’s currently the highest grossing musical in Broadway history, having made around $1.38 billion on Broadway during its nearly 20 year run.

The Lion King’s appeal is timeless and spans generations – with a multi-layered story, memorable characters, dazzling costumes, and a killer score – this may explain why it’s been so successful.

So which other musicals have recouped their production costs and then some?

Highest grossing Broadway and West End musicals ever

The Lion King – grossed over $6 billion worldwide

Phantom of the Opera – grossed over $6 billion worldwide

When it opened in 1988 with a production cost of $8 million ($16.5 million today), Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera set a record. It’s since been outstripped by more expensive shows, but in terms of popularity, it’s still up there. The musical has been running in London for 30 years, and has made $1.11 billion on Broadway and over $6 billion worldwide.

Other distinctions include seven Tony Awards, a feature film, and a record as the longest running show in Broadway history and the second longest running show in the West End. Best of all, it didn’t cost $75 million to mount (sorry, Spider-Man).

Like Lion King, Phantom has a gorgeous aesthetic and a story that appeals to both older and younger audiences. It also has some of the most memorable music in theatre, and special effects that are jaw-dropping but don’t detract from the story.

Wicked – grossed over $4 billion worldwide

 

Other notable production costs

Hamilton – $12.9 million (£9.8 million)

Hamilton cost over $12 million to mount, but its producers have already earned that money back with a bonus. Currently in its second year, the show makes roughly $600,000 a week, $100 million a year on Broadway, and $80 million a year in Chicago.

Its inventive score (American Founding Fathers rapping), engaging historical narrative, diverse casting, and strong emotional appeal are all factors in Hamilton’s success. But beyond that, the show’s use of social media for publicity is (dare we say?) revolutionary, and Hamilton has also received a lot of attention from celebrities and politicians.

Les Miserables – $9.6 million (£7 million)

Les Miserables opened on Broadway in 1987 with a production cost of $4.5 million ($9.6 today). Despite that relatively low cost, the show went on to enjoy a 30 year run on Broadway and a 32 year (and counting) run in London, where it’s currently the longest running musical in West End history. 50 major theatre awards, 31 cast recordings, a major motion picture, multiple tours, and a school edition round out the musical’s many accomplishments.

Elements that contribute to this show’s success include a highly singable score, seamless choreography and stage transitions, a host of varied but deeply engaging characters, and a high emotional impact. Les Miserables demonstrates that, “at the end of the day,” a musical without a high production budget can still be extremely successful.

Billy Elliot the Musical – £7.7 million ($10 million)

Billy Elliot the Musical premiered in London in 2005, and ran successfully for 11 years, until 2016. The £5.5 (£7.7 today) million which the producers poured into the show appears to have paid off. Despite some “rough edges,” critic Charles Benson (The Telegraph) wrote that the musical has “a rawness, a warm humour and a sheer humanity… that are worlds removed from the soulless slickness of most musicals.” The show won four Olivier awards, including Best New Musical, and went on to play in Australia and New York, where it picked up 10 Tony Awards.

Rent – $3.5 million (£2.6 million)

Production still from Rent the musical

Even further down the scale is Jonathan Larson’s Rent, which only cost $3.5 million to produce. Nevertheless, it ended up grossing nearly $300 million, and won a Pulitzer Prize and four Tony Awards (including Best Musical, Best Score, and Best Book). The musical also got a film adaptation, a touring production, and a 12 year run on Broadway. It launched Idina Menzel’s career and heavily inspired Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. So why did a show with such a small production budget do so well, when Spider-Man flopped despite its $75 million?

Part of Rent‘s popularity hinged on its new approach to musical theatre. The show took an old story (Puccini’s La Boheme), infused it with a pop-style score in the vein of Hair, and adapted it for a contemporary audience. It also sold the first-ever Broadway rush tickets, opening up the theatre to people who couldn’t normally afford it.

Final verdict

In most cases, a higher production cost doesn’t necessarily mean a higher rate of success. In fact, many of the most popular musicals in Broadway history were produced at a relatively low cost.

By contrast, pouring a ton of money into a show still in its infancy is a big risk, and much of the time, you won’t get that money back. Some of the shows with the highest production costs (both West End and Broadway) have also been some of the biggest flops.

So unless you’re The Lion King, it’s probably best to cut production costs where possible. In most cases, a budget of around £13 million ($16 million) or less seems to be the sweet spot. You can increase your show’s chances by avoiding crazy special effects and not just rehashing a story that’s already been told. Rather, be inventive, master the art of publicity, and get a rock-solid score. Even then, show business is a risky enterprise.

If you are The Lion King, “Hakuna Matata.”