Taking a Risk on Broadway: What Convinced Investors to Buy a Piece of Sweeney Todd's Pie?

News   Taking a Risk on Broadway: What Convinced Investors to Buy a Piece of Sweeney Todd's Pie?
 
Playbill.com digs into its archives to explore past articles. In the next installment, an original investor in Sweeney Todd recalls sinking his dollars into the musical that he thought would never make money.

* "NEW STEPHEN SONDHEIM MUSICAL OPEN FOR INVESTMENT." I could hardly believe it, but that's what the ad said. The ad — the first of its kind — had caught my eye in The New York Times in March of 1978. It went on to invite readers to request a prospectus detailing how to invest as little as $1,800 in a forthcoming musical that would involve not only Sondheim, but Harold Prince, Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou. The musical was to be called Sweeney Todd and I jumped at the chance. And "chance" is a good word for it.

There's nothing exceptional about investing in a Broadway show. If your name happens to be Shanbacker (Please let me know if it is!), it would seem to be natural enough. But when I plunked down my .02% of Sweeney Todd's investment, I was ending nearly 20 years of pondering how I could ever afford to gamble on Broadway without losing my shirt, or as the Demon Barber of Fleet Street himself might say, "cutting my throat."

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Before I became an "angel" (technically, I'm a limited partner in The Barber Company), I made some inquiries and learned that there were no backers' auditions to attend, no scripts to read. So, with little more than blind faith in the talents of the show's estimable creators, I signed on the dotted line, thinking what a marvelous experience this was going to be. And I had resolved that I would never see a single dime of it ever again. I was joined by others with perhaps more optimism and in some cases a lot more money — RCA Records, Gregory Peck, Tom Tryon and some 240 others (a record number until Alex Cohen came along with I Remember Mama) — who put up the show's $900,000 capitalization. We also were obligated to put up another 10% of our initial investment (it's known as "overcall"), if it were needed. Yes, it was needed, for at one point Sweeney Todd looked like a sure-fire financial turkey. By the time it opened last March, Sweeney Todd had lost $150,000 during previews and had gone over budget on its set to the tune of $200,000. The reviews were mostly raves, but they didn't create any stampedes to the box office. As fond as I was of the show, I was convinced I'd been correct not to expect any return on my investment. I kept thinking, "Look, the production was greeted with such critical hosannas as 'Joy to the world — Sweeney Todd is here' (N.Y. Daily News) and 'You must see Sweeney Todd' (N.Y. Post). Isn't it enough to be associated with a succès d'estime?" After all, where else would I have ever seen my name in a limited partnership agreement along with those of Prince, Sondheim, Lansbury and Cariou? But as one of the show's songs says, "All good things come to those who can wait."

The good things came in the form of the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for the Best Musical of 1979, more raves for the elaborately-produced original cast album, and nine Tony nominations. Then, on June 3rd, before a national television audience of some 25 million, Sweeney Todd won eight Tony Awards, including the one for Best Musical. The Daily News took note of this on its front page the next morning, and so did the customers who started joining the long lines at the box office. It didn't take much time for me to realize that I was no longer the backer of just a succès d'estime (just another euphemism for a flop, I had always thought), but now stood a better-than-even chance of actually making some money. Business began climbing to the point where Sweeney Todd set box-office records week after week as the highest grossing production in Broadway's history.

Lest you think I've grown smug about Sweeney's fortunes, let me assure you that I've tried not to. For one thing, I haven't received any return on my original investment, although the show's producers hope to start paying their angels back before the end of the year, and possibly return everyone's money by the show's first anniversary on March 1, 1980. In the meantime, the production's been paying its bills and even has a comfortable cash reserve. There's talk of a movie deal, a London production next summer and U.S. tour late next year. Bright prospects these, but I'm not taking any chances. I stroll around town sporting a Sweeney Todd tee shirt and am still taking family and friends to see the show (So far, I've seen it 13 times). "I'm just protecting my investment," I keep telling myself every time I buy more orchestra seats.

There's another sobering thought that comes to mind whenever I begin imagining the riches that might have piled up by the time the ledgers are closed on Sweeney Todd: when the profits are split 50-50 between the producers and the backers, which is standard for Broadway, the show will have had to register a $1,000,000 profit for me to earn $1,000. That's hardly a windfall, given the risks involved and the time it can take to recoup, so I wouldn't encourage others to invest in Broadway if all they're interested in is a fast buck; but for those after something else, Sweeney Todd has made it possible for more people to afford a small, even miniscule [sic], piece of the pie in return for a sense of involvement in a worthwhile artistic venture.

And who knows? The next time I write about Sweeney Todd it may be with black ink on one of Uncle Sam's capital gains tax forms. As the man said, "All good things come to those who can wait."

This article was originally published in the December 1979 Playbill.

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