When Pretty Woman The Musical plays its first Broadway show this weekend, one Australian producer and his investors will be paying close attention to the reaction. After years of development and a budget north of $20 million, the social media posts out of New York’s Nederlander Theatre will give Pretty Woman‘s financiers and creative team their first sense of whether they have a hit on their hands.

In Sydney, that Australian is Michael Cassel. The young producer has bet his own and others’ money that the “love story for the ages” – the most successful romantic comedy film of all time – can transcend the years and the #MeToo movement and reprise that success on stage. If it comes off, he tells AFR Weekend, he and his investors will earn returns for years to come. If it doesn’t, their money could burn up in a bonfire of bad reviews.

Cassel has already had a very good year. On Monday, after nine months of strong ticket sales, his show Beautiful: The Carole King Musical beat out home-grown favourite Muriel’s Wedding to most of the top Helpmann awards for musicals. In March his mentors, including British billionaire producer Cameron Mackintosh and Disney Theatrical chief Tom Schumacher, flew round the world to celebrate the opening of the first tour of The Lion King with a licence to go anywhere, which Disney has entrusted to Cassel. And in August tickets will begin selling for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the most successful new play to hit the stage in decades and one Cassel was chosen to produce in Australia.

For the personable, ginger-haired Cassel, 38, it’s all part of a plan to build one of the most successful entertainment companies in the world.

Pretty Woman The Musical stars Samantha Barks as sex worker Vivian.
Pretty Woman The Musical stars Samantha Barks as sex worker Vivian.

To fully appreciate the scale of that ambition and the size of the risk, AFR Weekend spent months tracking Cassel and the musical business more broadly – talking to producers, directors and financiers from Sydney to Broadway and the West End ‒ to understand how it all works. Getting everything pitch perfect, it turns out, is far from guaranteed.

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When AFR Weekend first speaks to Cassel in November it is moving day for Michael Cassel Group. As tradies paint, plaster and wire their way around his not-quite-finished Potts Point office space, Cassel tells me his company has grown from from two to 21 full-time staff in four years. Having spent those years in a windowless space beneath the backstage at Sydney’s Lyric Theatre, the move to floor-to-ceiling glass and leafy views seems like a neat metaphor for a company on the rise.

As Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive plays somewhere in the background, he runs me through his schedule. There’s a lot going on.

Michael Cassel Group has just opened Beautiful: The Carole King Musical in Sydney to strong reviews and ticket sales; it will transfer to Melbourne in February and Brisbane after that. Priscilla Queen of the Desert is in its final months of preparations for a national tour. Auditions for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child are scheduled for Melbourne in January. In the Philippine capital Manila, dozens of costume and puppet makers, set designers and staging engineers are assembling to launch what Cassel hopes will be a years-long international tour of Disney’s blockbuster The Lion King.

And on Monday he’s off to New York. That’s in part to see what’s new on Broadway ‒ he’s planning to see six musicals in five days ‒ but also for the meeting he hopes will finalise his position on a secret new project, which turns out to be Pretty Woman The Musical. Cassel travels to New York and London twice a year to see new shows and stay in the the theatre loop.

The Broadway production of  Kinky Boots has grossed more than $220 million since it opened in 2013.
The Broadway production of Kinky Boots has grossed more than $220 million since it opened in 2013.

Eddie Jim

This dizzying schedule means he’ll be in his new corner office just seven days before Christmas, and 10 days between Christmas and the end of March.

Storyline

For a man not yet 40 Cassel has been in the musical game for a long time.

Raised in Minnamurra, a sleepy beachside town 90 minutes south of Sydney, Cassel wrote to TV host Ray Martin and impresario Harry M Miller when he was in primary school. Encouraged by their responses, and a day trip to Sydney to see Jesus Christ Superstar, he produced his first show ‒ a carols-by- candlelight event for more than 3000 people ‒ at the age of 15.

British billionaire producer Cameron Macintosh chose  Cassel to produce the Australian staging of Les Miserables.
British billionaire producer Cameron Macintosh chose Cassel to produce the Australian staging of Les Miserables.

Bob Pearce

He started his first production company when he was at high school and when school finished he went to work for Miller. By 21 he had been hired to help set up Disney Theatrical Group’s Australian business with James Thane (who, 17 years later, works for Cassel). The next step was New York when Disney’s Schumacher made Cassel director of international business. That involved touring the House of Mouse’s global brands into less-developed markets, including Beauty and the Beast to South America, The Lion King to South Africa and China, and Aida to South Korea. In 2011, after six years in the Big Apple with wife Camille and shortly after the birth of their daughter Eveleigh, an offer from Gerry Ryan’s ambitious Sydney-based production company Global Creatures was enough to bring him home.

Cassel became Global Creatures’ marketing manager and, as Ryan tells me, was a great marketer of the product until Mackintosh came calling in 2013.

Mackintosh is the most successful producer of musical theatre alive (he was knighted in 1996 for services to musical theatre) and certainly the only one to have made, by Forbes’ calculation, a personal fortune of $US1 billion from the business. The producer-turned-impresario and theatre owner made his name, and money, with four of the most recognisable shows in musical theatre: Cats, Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon and Les Miserables.

In 2013, Mackintosh wanted to bring Les Miserables back to Australia. And he wanted Cassel to produce it. It was time for Cassel to go out on his own…

Billionaire producer Cameron Mackintosh says <i>Les Miserables’</i> showed the world that more money can be made from …” width=”620″><figcaption>
            Billionaire producer Cameron Mackintosh says <i>Les Miserables’</i> showed the world that more money can be made from musicals than film. </p>
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“There was a lot of pressure because he’s the most prolific producer in the world,” he says. “I thought, ‘If I stuff this up I might as well tear up the business plan and go home.’ “

Out on his own

No-one who knows Cassel was surprised when he set up Michael Cassel Group to produce Les Mis, least of all the mentors he’s cultivated over the years. He’d bounced the idea around with radio presenter Alan Jones, whom he’s known since that first carols by candlelight, Australian producer James Thane and Disney’s director of The Lion King cum-head of theatrical, Schumacher.

Cassel was confident he had a business plan that would work. But he wanted another opinion and decided to aim high. He wrote to Michael Eisner, who ran Disney from 1984 to 2005, with a simple request.

Michael Eisner told Michael Cassel: "In the first couple of years investors will approach you, or private equity ...
Michael Eisner told Michael Cassel: “In the first couple of years investors will approach you, or private equity companies will approach you wanting to invest in the business, and my advice to you is to say no.”

AP

“I’d like to run the most successful entertainment company in the world, albeit based in Australia, and here’s what I’m cooking up,” he says, recalling the request. “Here’s the business plan, could you, as someone who’s run the most successful entertainment company in the world, be able to meet with me?”

Although Cassel had worked for Disney for almost 10 years, he’d never met Eisner, who was based in Los Angeles while the theatrical division is based in New York. Eisner checked with Schumacher, who had been Cassel’s boss at Disney, that Cassel was worth his time before agreeing to a meeting.

“So I went in, met with Michael, he was in New York,” explains Cassel. “We spent the majority of the day together; he grilled me on it, questioned me.” Cassel’s plan centred on producing existing titles but also included creating new work, boutique concerts and client management. Eisner liked what he saw. “But at the end he said, ‘I’ve got three or four pieces of advice’,” Cassel goes on, clearly enjoying the memory.

“He said, ‘One, stick to your business plan, you’ve articulated it and there’s the potential to be distracted, but stick to it.’

” ‘Two, keep it lean. Because you’re in a creative organisation there’s the desire to surround yourself with people, don’t succumb.’

“And he said, ‘Three, if this all works in the first couple of years investors will approach you, or private equity companies will approach you wanting to invest in the business, and my advice to you is to say no. Because if they’re doing that in years one, two or three, then imagine the approach you’ll get in years five, six, seven or eight as you grow.’

“And he was right. The first call we got was about a year in, from a private equity firm. That was flattering, but …”

Michael Cassel Group was created and Les Mis was a smashing success: it played to full theatres in Melbourne, Perth, Sydney and Brisbane then headed to Manila, Singapore and Dubai. By the time the tour wrapped in late 2016, Mackintosh had agreed to give Cassel preferential rights to produce future shows in Australia and Asia.

<i>Harry Potter and the Cursed Child</i> is the most successful new play to hit the stage in decades.” width=”620″><figcaption><i>Harry Potter and the Cursed Child</i> is the most successful new play to hit the stage in decades.</p>
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‘I’ve got a lot to do’

It’s February and Cassel is in the office that was still being built when I last visited in November. A large standing airconditioner he’s named R2-D2 is noisily humming away beside his desk. “This is the only room in the entire place without airconditioning ‒ how did that happen!”

The office is bright and neat, with carefully placed photos and paraphernalia from the shows he’s produced: one of Cassel embracing Cyndi Lauper, who wrote the score for Kinky Boots, which Cassel toured in 2015, catches my eye.

I’m here to talk about the nitty-gritty of the musical business and Cassel is clearly feeling upbeat. “There’s a real buzz building here,” he tells me. “We’ve had a big month.”

Beautiful has just finished in Sydney and the set is being trucked to Melbourne; strong reviews and word-of-mouth recommendations mean seats are selling well. The casting for Harry Potter is progressing and rehearsals for The Lion King have begun for the opening in Manila in March ‒ ticket sales have been so good that Cassel is already planning to extend the season. And the previous night he’s been honoured with the Hayes Gordon Memorial Award for Outstanding Contribution to Theatre at the annual Glugs awards, which are run by theatre people including Lorraine Bayly, Reg Livermore and Nancye Hayes.

“Aren’t you a bit young for a lifetime achievement award?” I ask.

“I know!” Cassel exclaims. “I told them I’m only just getting started! I’ve got a lot to do!”

Putting on the show

Esther Hannaford in her Helpmann Award-winning role as Carole King in <i>Beautiful</i>.” width=”620″><figcaption>
            Esther Hannaford in her Helpmann Award-winning role as Carole King in <i>Beautiful</i>.</p>
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For a production company based in Australia the business of putting on a musical can be loosely broken down into three main categories, two of which sound pretty simple.

The first could be summed up as fly to New York or London and find a new show that’s been through the whole development process and is doing well. Sell the idea to your financial backers and negotiate the rights to put it on in Australia. Raise enough cash to cast and stage the show well, market the hell out of it and hope the audience responds.

New musicals that have come to Australia this way include Kinky Boots and Beautiful, as well as shows produced by Cassel’s main competition in Australia, the Gordon Frost Organisation, such as The Bodyguard and The Book of Mormon. Matilda was produced by its original rights holder, the Royal Shakespeare Company, with local co-producers.

A second strategy is to rerun a show that did well, usually after about a 10-year break. In some instances these can be major tours ‒ think Les Mis, The Lion King or Wicked. But more often they’re limited seasons. Recent reruns in Australia include Cassel’s productions of Priscilla Queen of the Desert and Singin’ in the Rain, and Gordon Frost’s Wizard of Oz, The King and I, My Fair Lady, and The Rocky Horror Show.

The third – create your own musical from scratch – is not simple at all. But more about that later.

Gordon Frost managing director John Frost has been producing musicals for 40 years. He’s won a prestigious Tony Award for his 1996 Broadway revival of The King and I and, among many Helpmann awards, the Australian live entertainment industry’s top JC Williamson Award. His recently announced 2019 line-up illustrates the economics of the two different methods for licensing foreign productions.

“We’ll do a show like Saturday Night Fever or Chicago that will run for 10 weeks in Sydney, maybe 10 to 12 weeks in Melbourne, four weeks each in Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth,” he tells me. “And we’ll make sure that show costs no more than about $4 million, $4.2 [million] at the worst. And if it doesn’t do that we won’t do the show. Those shows have been around for 10 or 15 years or longer, so the costs can be managed.

“But if you’re doing a big show, like Waitress [coming in 2020], Book of Mormon or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which we’re doing this year, they will cost about $8 million or $9 million. You’ve got to throw the big money to make them work.” For the upcoming season of Evita with Opera Australia, he’s raised about $4 million.

Broadway producer Jerry Mitchell (left) with Cyndi Lauper, who wrote the music for  <i>Kinky Boots</i>.” width=”620″><figcaption>
            Broadway producer Jerry Mitchell (left) with Cyndi Lauper, who wrote the music for  <i>Kinky Boots</i>.</p>
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Cassel says the cost of a show is usually between $5 million and $11 million.

“Very generally, it’s spent almost a third, a third, a third,” he says. “A third marketing, a third salaries, a third production ‒ physical production, theatre, sound, lighting, costumes. Each show generally employs 150 people and we have two shows running concurrently. By the end of 2018 we’ll have well over 500 people working for us on the shows.” Once it’s started playing the cost of running a major musical can sit anywhere between $600,000 and $850,000 a week.

“The really big challenge for an organisation like this is making sure we can expand quickly when we have to.”

Cassel says he has spent a lot of time making sure the back-of-house, finance and HR parts of the business are set up “so that we don’t come tumbling down” when the pace picks up. That meant hiring a full-time human resources manager in February rather than another producer, but it has made the job of paying a cast and crew of 19 nationalities on The Lion King less challenging than it might have been.

Asked if the decision to invest in HR was partly motivated by the rise of the #MeToo movement, which has claimed numerous scalps in the performing arts, Cassel says no: “We discuss that with employees all the time.”

The big sell

Back at the Potts Point offices in February, the focus is on marketing Beautiful‘s Melbourne opening. Three staff are looking at a large seating plan of Her Majesty’s Theatre covered in coloured Post-it notes, each bearing a name. It looks like planning a 1700-seat wedding reception but the objective is not to keep prickly relatives apart, it’s about making opening night ‒ the climax of a multimillion-dollar marketing campaign that might have run for 12 months or longer ‒ a springboard into the rest of the season.

“It’s vital to build excitement before it begins, pull off a successful opening night, be well reviewed and then hope the paying audience likes it enough to tell their friends,” says Cassel. He’s hoping Beautifuls opening will go as well as the one Priscilla had in Melbourne.

Cassel thought bringing <i>Priscilla Queen of the Desert </i>back to Australia was a safe bet, but business has been …” width=”620″><figcaption>
            Cassel thought bringing <i>Priscilla Queen of the Desert </i>back to Australia was a safe bet, but business has been slower than expected. </p>
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“The lights went down and the whole place just erupted,” says Cassel. “We had all the celebrity faces you’d expect, Real Housewives, Neighbours stars, radio presenters, but then we also had Molly Meldrum, Gerry Ryan, John Gandel, Paul Little, Lindsay Fox ‒ it was a real Melbourne establishment crowd. And I just didn’t think they would all be carrying on, but they were into it from the get go. There’s a great deal of satisfaction, and a great deal of relief, about a winning opening night and reviews.”

At this point, two weeks after the opening, Cassel feels good about his decision to bring Priscilla back to Australia.

“Other than Les Mis, Priscilla has probably been the safest bet. What’s really become apparent is there’s just great affection for this show. You’ve got that familiarity, a personal connection because it’s an Australian story, and people want to come and relive that experience of the movie or the original stage production.”

The affection, however, isn’t quite enough. After earning strong reviews and doing solid business in Melbourne, Priscilla‘s Sydney season includes a lot of shows in front of a half-empty Capitol Theatre.

While Priscilla hasn’t shot the lights out, it won’t be the epic failure Cassel expects will come sooner or later. “There will be a day where one of our shows spectacularly fails, it has to happen. Hopefully not spectacularly… but that’s just life producing, and every producer has had that.”

John Frost understands as well as anyone how picking the public mood isn’t always easy. “We’ve had a pretty good track record,” he says, “we haven’t had too many disasters. But we have had them …”

Frost says The Book of Mormon, currently playing in Sydney’s Lyric Theatre, is “without a doubt the most successful production I’ve put on. We haven’t had one unsold seat since we opened. It’s a phenomenon”.

“But a few years back we did a musical called An Officer and a Gentleman, based on the movie. We had something like 16 weeks booked at the Lyric Theatre. It opened and it was an absolute disaster. The critics hated it, the public just didn’t want to come. It was a disaster. But we had a rental deal with the theatre for another 10 weeks. We had to pay out that at full whack. Someone had to write a serious cheque.”

Gerry Ryan:
Gerry Ryan: “We’ve basically developed product not for the Australian market, because you’ll never get your return from an Australian tour. We’re doing it for the international tour.”

Paul Rovere

An Officer and a Gentleman was a show developed almost from scratch by Frost and the scale of its failure illustrates why so few shows are developed in Australia.

“It’s really, really hard to raise money for Australian brand-new musicals,” says Frost, though his latest effort on that front, a biographical jukebox show about American singer Bobby Darin, paid off in spades. “With Dream Lover we had one investor who put up two-thirds of the money. We put up the other third ourselves and we were lucky, it came home for us.” Frost says he and his brave investor doubled their money. But with star David Campbell no longer wanting to sing the role he won a Helpmann Award for on Monday, the show won’t be going to America just yet.

The investor

Gerry Ryan sounds like he’s been run over by a truck – or perhaps that should be the Tour de France peloton. The caravan maker, who is on the Financial Review 2018 Rich List with a personal fortune of $487 million, is in Berlin on business and jetlag has him returning my call at 3am. We’re talking because in addition to his Jayco caravans empire, his Mitchelton-Scott cycling team, his women’s basketball team, wine, art, retail platform, horses and football, Ryan is far and away Australia’s biggest investor in the fairytales and broken dreams of musical theatre.

Ryan founded Sydney-based producer Global Creatures in 2007. The production company, run by Carmen Pavlovic, owns the rights to Walking With Dinosaurs, an arena-scale production starring 18 life-size, animatronic dinosaur puppets that was developed in Australia and has sold $US455 million of tickets since it opened in 2007. Ryan has invested a significant part of the profits in the rarely attempted business of new musicals created in Australia.

A modest part of these funds has also gone into Cassel’s productions Singin’ in the Rain, Kinky Boots and Beautiful. “You know, Michael’s a good operator. The returns are coming, I’ll invest again.”

Ryan’s bigger question right now, one being closely watched by musical types around the world, is whether Global Creatures can pull off one of the most ambitious projects in years. While he won’t say how much he and investors have put in, there are many tens of millions of dollars tied up in four new or newly reworked musicals.

In London, Strictly Ballroom is playing to less-than-stellar reviews. Moulin Rouge began its pre-Broadway season in Boston on July 10. Muriel’s Wedding is gearing up for a longer run at Sydney’s Lyric Theatre in 2019. And then there’s the really big one, King Kong. After 10 years of development, including a season in Melbourne in 2013 and a book and score that have since been completely rewritten, it will finally open on Broadway in October. The word in theatre land is that Kong has already gobbled up a scream-inducing $60 million. With this tilt at Broadway capitalised up to a hefty $US36.5 million, according to US Securities and Exchange Commission filings, and Moulin Rouge up to $US27 million, Ryan has plenty to lose.

Ryan's theatre business began with <i>Walking with Dinosaurs</i>.” width=”620″><figcaption>
            Ryan’s theatre business began with <i>Walking with Dinosaurs</i>.</p>
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“What we’ve done, we’ve basically developed product not for the Australian market, because you’ll never get your return from an Australian tour. We’re doing it for the international tour,” Ryan says.

With his investors’ hat on, Ryan tells me there’s no point trying to create a new show unless you’re prepared to play the long game. “It took us six years to get Moulin Rouge signed up, three years to get Strictly Ballroom. That amount of time. .. the length of time to get the script, the score, a producer … you’ve got your money out a lot longer.”

King Kong, he says, is the perfect example. “That was such a huge project that we didn’t get it right. We haven’t got our return out of it yet. But we’re hoping within 12 months of being on Broadway that we will get our money back. If we get it right, King Kong can sit on Broadway for the next five years.”

Ryan is optimistic but, you could argue, with the outlay so far he doesn’t really have any choice.

But there’s no guarantee King Kong, with a six-metre-tall “leading man” that doesn’t talk, sing or dance, will last a year on Broadway, let alone five. For King Kong and Pretty Woman, once they open on Broadway there is nowhere to hide. In an agreement that would be unusual in any industry, every week all Broadway theatres share details of how many people are coming and what they’re paying.

Frost says it’s no coincidence that the majority of his “eclectic bunch” of 25 regular investors also own racehorses. “They’re used to punting,” he says. “I would never take money from a person if they don’t understand they can do their dough very quickly, which you can in these shows. The first thing I say to them is, ‘If you can’t afford to lose your money, don’t invest.’ ” Frost says investments typically range from $50,000 through to $1 million. “We don’t take anything less than 50k because it’s not worth the paperwork.”

In Cassel’s case, his 10 or so regular investors – a mix of wealthy individuals and companies in Australia and overseas – will probably be sleeping relatively easily. Yes, betting on Pretty Woman, where investors are backing Cassel’s judgment on the creative team as much as the title, is “absolutely riskier” than his usual productions. But Cassel sees that move – plus a stake in a second new Broadway biographical jukebox musical, The Cher Show, which he signed on to in February – as an important step in actually spreading the risk.

“For my investor base, everybody now is only investing in shows that run here and in Asia, so there’s only a finite period they can enjoy those returns,” he says. “If the show’s successful, then in 10 years’ time they could be still getting participation on it.” And while there’s no guarantee on those two shows, surely The Lion King and Harry Potter are about as close to a certainty as you can get.

The wizard in Oz

Cassel was surprised when he was contacted by Sonia Friedman, one of the two producers who created the original Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and, together with author JK Rowling, control the worldwide rights. “Harry Potter is a big production,” he says. “There wasn’t the expectation that it would roll out to Australia as a lot of shows do, and certainly not so soon.”

But Friedman and co-producer Colin Callender were weighing up bringing the show to Australia and were looking for, in effect, a gun for hire who could handle a highly technical production they hope will run in Australia for at least two years. After a week of meetings that Cassel says were “effectively a job interview”, he got the gig.

For a sense of how big this play is – there’s no singing – take a look at the numbers. When tickets went on sale for the West End production 175,000 seats were sold in less than eight hours. On Broadway it’s grossing $US2.2 million a week, playing to chock-full houses at an average of $US170 a seat. It swept the 2018 Tonys, and it takes five months to fit out the theatre. This last point means that if you want to see the boy wizard’s boy in Australia, you’ll need to go to Melbourne’s Princess Theatre. It means Tourism Victoria is spending up big on marketing, too.

Two bets on Broadway

It’s early afternoon in Chicago and it’s cold. Jerry Mitchell has just stepped into the Starbucks a block from the Oriental Theatre when AFR Weekend calls. It’s late March and the Broadway director, choreographer and two-time Tony Award winner is “deep, deep into” the process of creating another new show with a familiar name. Pretty Woman The Musical has just finished its first week of previews. It has another 10 days before opening night and the important first reviews by the Chicago media.

The movie-to-musical format is a well-trodden path. Shows such as Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Singin’ in the Rain crossed from screen to stage long before Mitchell did it for The Full Monty, Legally Blonde and Kinky Boots, among others. But that run of hits – Kinky Boots‘ Broadway production has grossed more than $220 million since it opened in 2013 – has made Mitchell the go-to guy for film-to-musical projects.

Pretty Woman The Musical is a classic Broadway concoction. First, find an upbeat story with immediate “brand” recognition (in the US, the 1990 movie still holds the record for ticket sales for a romantic comedy). Then use a high-powered executive producer (in this case Hollywood heavy hitter and long-time Tom Cruise collaborator Paula Wagner) to attract the best writers (the film’s late writer-director Garry Marshall and screenwriter J.F. Lawton), musicians (’90s soft-rock sensation Bryan Adams and writing partner Jim Vallance), choreographer and director (Mitchell). With all those pieces in place, plus some big name actors, go out and raise at least $US10 million to develop the musical into a show that can play on Broadway and beyond for a long time.

Which is where Cassel comes in. I’m talking to Mitchell because Cassel’s trip to New York back in November ended with him being a fully signed-up co-producer. He won’t say how much he and his Australian backers have invested in Pretty Woman, but documents filed with the SEC reveal it is capitalised up to $US17 million. Whatever his share, Cassel is hoping his first foray into a new Broadway musical will pay dividends for years to come.

But it’s not just Pretty Woman he’s buying into. Cassel tells me he’s also invested in The Cher Show, one among a slew of new biographical jukebox musicals arriving or in development – joining Summer, The Donna Summer Musical, Ain’t Too Proud – The Life and Times of the Temptations, and Tina: The Tina Turner Musical.

The link between Cassel’s fledgling production company, 20 hours’ flying from New York, and a big new Broadway show is Kinky Boots. That show, about a failing shoe factory in England that turns to making thigh-high boots for drag queens, was based on a small-budget 2005 movie brought to the stage by Mitchell. When Kinky Boots came to Australia for a successful, year-long tour in 2016, producer Cassel and director Mitchell worked closely.

Mitchell describes Cassel as a “brilliant, very hands-on producer … a problem solver who whenever anything needs to be done, he does it with the least amount of drama ‒ which is always nice!” Impressed with the Australian production of Kinky Boots and with an eye to bringing the show to Australia, Mitchell suggested lead producer Wagner talk to Cassel about taking a financial stake in Pretty Woman.

From the relative warmth of the downtown Chicago Starbucks, Mitchell sounds confident of the project and keenly aware there is a lot of work still to do to turn Pretty Woman into a hit.

Mitchell explains the show is in the “out-of-town tryouts stage”. This involves a five-week run in Chicago, where the audience and critics are sophisticated enough to give a meaningful – and instructive – response.

“Every show that I work on, from the first performance in this town to the last performance in this town the show is like two different shows,” says Mitchell. “And that’s how it will be when we leave town with Pretty Woman, it will be changed for the better in every aspect, and still more changes will go on before we premiere it in New York City. That’s part of the process.”

Mitchell explains that the audience feedback and, especially, the first media reviews in Chicago help “focus my work”.

Further refining will be done in four weeks of previews in New York, where by convention there will be social media bouquets and brickbats, but no press reviews. Then comes the moment of truth –opening night on Thursday, August 16.

“The problem is when you get reviewed in New York, it’s all done. There’s no more time to explore, it’s over. You either get a great review and everybody is happy or you get an OK review, and everybody is going like, ‘Oh, no, shit, now we gotta really sell it.’ ” And in New York City, he says, “There’s only one review that counts: The New York Times.

No pressure.

In March the Times called out Escape to Margaritaville, a Jimmy Buffett-themed jukebox musical, as “cynical” and “pitched so low it will temporarily extinguish your IQ”. After playing to half-full theatres for 10 weeks it closed well shy of recouping a $US15 million investment. That Times reviewers have problems with musicals based on big-brand movies only adds to the risk. But even if Pretty Woman does get panned on August 17, the brand might be big enough to shake it off. Disney’s latest big-budget, screen-to-stage effort Frozen was described as “positively neurotic” but is still selling 99 per cent of seats and raking in $US2 million a week.

When the Chicago reviews come in it’s clear there is plenty of work still to do.

“Eighties morality might have cut it a year ago, but in the #MeToo age it feels out of date,” one reviewer writes. “If Pretty Woman flops, then this could be a musical theatre game-changer, giving a stark warning to producers that audiences are both tired of the movie-to-musical concept and that the attitudes shown in Pretty Woman are dated and out of touch.”

Reports out of New York suggest Mitchell has, as he said he would, made plenty of changes for its first Broadway preview in the historic, 1232-seat Nederlander Theatre on Friday night. The book has been rewritten to make it sharper and funnier, and Adams and Vallance have added new songs and reworked others.

The marketing has shifted, too, to kill the notion that sex worker Vivian is a “damsel in distress” and Pretty Woman is “the traditional Cinderella story, in that she’s lost and needs saving”.

“She saves him,” says up-and-coming British actress Samantha Barks who plays Vivian. “He’s got an empty, sad life. Yes, he has lots of money – and yes she has a glamorous transformation – but she has the moral compass.”

Cassel is backing the big names he’s entrusted his money to but he’s been around long enough to know there’s no such thing as a certainty in this game. “The doubt is, OK, can you have a really great producing team, really great creative team, great authors, great content that it’s based on. Even though you get all those four areas right, can that equal success once it’s on stage? Not even they know that.”

Whether this “love story for the ages” – or, indeed, The Cher Show, where reviews of the Chicago tryouts in June have been underwhelming, to put it mildly – can play and play on Broadway remains to be seen. But whatever happens, Cassel’s star looks set to keep on rising. He’s got a lot to do.

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