Warner/Chappell Eyes New Opportunities For Theater Biz

Warner/Chappell Music's theater and standards catalog includes storied works by Stephen Sondheim, John Kander & Fred Ebb, Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart, George Gershwin and Cole Porter.

But the theater market presents a far larger opportunity than licensing classics from the Great American Songbook. To that end, Warner/Chappell has been beefing up its theater roster with new signings and is seeking new opportunities for its composers.

Late last year, Warner/Chappell signed worldwide administration agreements with theater composers Robert Lopez ("Avenue Q"); Lopez's wife and occasional collaborator, Kristen Anderson-Lopez (Disney's stage version of "Finding Nemo"); the songwriting team of Matt Sklar and Chad Beguelin ("Elf: The Musical," "The Wedding Singer"); and Neil Bartram ("The Story of My Life"). And Warner/Chappell inked a deal in February with Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman ("Hairspray") to handle administration of their songs from "Catch Me If You Can," a new musical opening on Broadway in April.

"In some cases I was looking for people who had established reputations and a history of productions on Broadway," says Sean Patrick Flahaven, VP of theater, standards and print at Warner/Chappell. "And in other cases, people who were much earlier in their careers and had some potential for writing in other genres as well."

While musical theater productions can be a high-risk business for investors, the overall market is a profitable one for music publishers. Composers typically retain grand rights (rights to stage a theatrical production) for their own work, giving them a cut of box-office receipts. Even though publishers usually don't receive a share of that revenue, they reap income from licensing compositions for cast albums, sheet music, concert performances, cover recordings and synchronization uses.

A growing line of business has been licensing songs not originally written for the theater to musical productions that find their way to Broadway. Warner/Chappell administers the rights to the Green Day catalog and licensed songs from the band's 2004 album, "American Idiot," for use in the hit musical of the same name. The company also licensed such hits as Quarterflash's "Harden My Heart" and David Lee Roth's "Just Like Paradise" to "Rock of Ages" and Donna Summer's "Hot Stuff" and Maureen McGovern's "The Morning After" to "Priscilla Queen of the Desert," which is scheduled to debut on Broadway in March.

Warner/Chappell has also been encouraging some of its theater composers to write and co-write songs for pop, rock and country artists, as well as music for film, TV and advertising campaigns. A company spokesman declined to name specific examples, saying they're in various stages of development.

"It's a different skill than writing a theater song," Flahaven says, "but many of our younger theater writers grew up listening to pop, rock and country as much as they listened to show tunes, so their musical vocabulary is a bit different."

And what of future generations of theater composers? Lopez, who won a 2004 Tony Award with Jeff Marx for their score to "Avenue Q," says Fox's hit TV comedy "Glee" has helped spark greater interest in musical theater among its mostly young viewership.

"It's maybe too early to assess the impact that it's having, because a whole generation of kids are now growing up with 'Glee' as their primary reference for this stuff," Lopez says. "Five or 10 years down the line, those people will be writing the musicals and determining the market for what they'll be. So I do expect it will have an impact."

In that same vein, Flahaven says he's particularly interested in exploring opportunities for Warner/Chappell's theater composers to write original music for films, rather than simply licensing their theatrical music works. Although Flahaven declines to reveal any specific names, he says the publishing company has pending deals for some of its clients to write original movie musicals.

"When you have people who are trained in writing songs for a dramatic or comedic or stage context, the translation to film isn't a huge one," he says. "A lot of the writers that we represent in our catalog from the earlier part of the century would bounce back and forth from stage to film frequently. So I'm hoping that can happen more frequently now."