March 14, 2005 at 05:00 AM EST

C’mon along and listen to the lullaby of. . .the boardroom? With his January announcement that an Apprentice musical is in the works, reality TV producer Mark Burnett had theater purists cringing at how the Great White Way has become Hollywood’s recycling bin. Indeed, since the overwhelming success of The Producers and Hairspray, it seems every other show coming to Broadway is based on a film — and while some make sense, like the Monty Python-palooza Spamalot (opening March 17), others are just desperate attempts to grab a piece of the lazy-audience pie. (Legally Blonde, live on stage?!) Still, for ambitious producers, the current Broadway climate of terrible risk and terrific reward means the safest place to look for inspiration is the local video store.

The benefit of movie-spin-off theater is obvious: From day one, you’ve got a familiar story and a built-in fan base. ”Musicals are not inherently an easy way to tell a story,” says composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown, who won a 1999 Best Original Score Tony for Parade. ”You’re asking something tough of an audience — to accept that people are going to start singing randomly. And it’s better if you have something to start off with.” What’s more, adds Brown, who’s writing a musical based on the Nicolas Cage-loves-Elvis flick Honeymoon in Vegas, ”I don’t think the fact that you’re adapting a movie is a bad thing. I think if you adapt the movie badly, that’s a bad thing.” (Like, say, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, which opened on Broadway March 3 to less-than-glowing reviews and middling box office.)

Musical TV adaptations — now, that’s a different, weirder concept. What makes Burnett think he can pull off the singing Apprentice? ”I’m just a good storyteller,” says the Über-producer, who envisions his show as a sort of big-business A Chorus Line (the long-running musical that’s scheduled for a 2006 revival). Naturally, he’s also got a keen eye on the bottom line: ”Many, many tourists go to the theater in Manhattan, and a popular [TV] show could drive a lot of bums in seats…. It seems a great extension of my brand.” If he sounds breezily confident, that’s probably because he is: A large-scale Broadway musical can cost as much as $20 million to open, but that’s chump change for those accustomed to dropping $2 million per episode on a TV show. And like other Hollywood bigwigs — the Weinsteins have a hand in megahits Mamma Mia! and The Producers; DreamWorks is prepping Shrek for the stage — Burnett is well aware of the cash up for grabs. ”There’s nothing bigger, income-wise, than a successful musical. I think Cats has grossed twice as much as the movie E.T. over its life span,” he says. For once, Burnett isn’t exaggerating. Worldwide grosses: E.T., $793 million (not including DVD sales); Cats, $2.5 billion and counting.

To actor Rául Esparza (tick, tick…BOOM!, Taboo), the whole thing is a theatrical catch-22. ”Because ticket prices are so high [about $100 for an orchestra seat at most shows], audiences come to Broadway expecting a major event,” he says. ”You’re not gonna just take a chance on a small show anymore. Producers are wary of not making their money back. Audiences are wary of going to see something they’re not familiar with because it’s gonna cost them $400.” Composer Marc Shaiman, who won a 2003 Tony for Hairspray, agrees: ”The money, the expense, of going to see theater is much more prohibitive than the source material. On the other hand, I’m talking to you from my beach house” — those Hairspray dollars didn’t hurt — ”so how hypocritical is that?”

And so it is that even the staunchest theater vets have jumped on board the Hollywood gravy train. Pioneering director Sam Mendes (Cabaret) is producing Shrek; Shaiman is adapting Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me if You Can alongside playwright Terrence McNally; Esparza is in rehearsals for an uncharacteristically light turn in the Broadway version of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Ultimately, even Brown — who bet us $12 that the Apprentice musical will never happen (you’re on, dude) — can see the bright side of Broadway’s commercial face. ”It’s never gonna be what it was in the ’50s and the ’60s. And I’ve made my peace with that. But you can make a whole lot more money than you could ever make in the ’50s and the ’60s. So maybe if you hit it, it’s worth it.”

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