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I think there is some chance that Variety was wrong
Last Edit: AlanScott 07:20 pm EST 11/20/22
Posted by: AlanScott 07:16 pm EST 11/20/22
In reply to: Au contraire! "Sugar" was a hit. - FleetStreetBarber 02:53 pm EST 11/20/22

Best Plays took its info from Variety. In this case, I think there’s a good chance that the trade rag was wrong.

In August 1971, months before the tryout started, Variety said the show was to be capitalized at $750,000. When it closed, Variety wrote that it had made a profit of approximately $100,000 on an investment of $750,000. It seems extremely unlikely given the cost overruns during the hellish tryout — among which overruns was the hiring of a new set designer and the replacement of all the sets — that it didn't end up costing something more like $950,000-$1,1000,000. Or more. Even if John Anthony Gilvey was correct when he wrote in his bio of Gower Champion that Champion ended up paying for the new sets — I am a bit doubtful — there was still the cost of lots of rehearsals. Admittedly, the show did great business during the tryout, probably covering the costs of all the rehearsals as it went through tons of changes, but it did not do great business on Broadway.

Several sources (with the later sources, admittedly, probably depending on whatever source said it originally) say that The Happy Time was the first musical to lose more than $1,000,000. When it closed, Variety reported that it had closed at a loss of $375,000 on an investment of $500,000. But this was another show with big cost overruns during the tryout, which Variety seems to have not bothered to estimate or perhaps just didn’t realize. (Neither Merrick nor Champion was likely to tell them.) Whatever the actual loss, the show clearly cost more than $500,000 to open. I admit to being a tad skeptical that it lost more than $1,000,000, but perhaps it did. Presuming Variety in its estimate was correct about the weekly nut and how much it consequently returned, it would have had to have cost at least $1,125,000 to have lost a million. In 1968, this seems unlikely, but I suppose possible.

By 1972, with a big, lavish show, a final production cost of over $1,000,000, especially with the nighmarish tryout, seems quite possible. Certainly, the idea that it cost only $750,000 to open is hard to believe. A year later, A Little Night Music, a much smaller show, was capitalized at $650,000. I don’t know what it cost to open, but it had a very smooth tryout, certainly in comparison with the Sugar tryout. And since it ended up playing four cities (two were added after it opened out of town, and the Broadway opening was postponed), there were the costs of moving a big show from city to city. Night Music played one city: Boston. Minimal cost.

As mentioned above, I looked up Sugar’s grosses. I didn't check every week of the run, but I checked the grosses every month or so. And since Variety gives you both the previous week's gross and the week before that, I saw about half the grosses. Looking at the grosses did not lessen my skepticism but increased it.

If Sugar did pay off, it could only have been because Champion covered the cost of the new sets and perhaps Merrick even prevailed upon him to cover other costs out of town. In which case, can we really it was a hit? If it paid off, it was a subsidized hit, with Champion the donor.

Here is another odd thing. Just three weeks before it closed, Variety did its annual summary of the season, in this case of 1972-1973, including the list of successes, failures, holdovers not previously classified, etc. At that time, Sugar was by itself in “still not classified.” To me, there is something a little fishy here. Variety did not know whether it had paid off by May 31, but a month later it had not only paid off but had made a profit of $100,000. The grosses suggest that it probably lost money those last few weeks, even closing week. So something is wrong.

It may be that if it hadn’t truly paid off when it closed, revenue from later productions led it to eventually pay off, but I am very skeptical that it had paid off when it closed.

Btw, this is something that I have wondered about for a while. That's why I just did all this searching around to see what I could find. It has never made much sense to me that Sugar paid off.
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