Broadway in the desert

Tourist-filled Vegas magnet for musicals

August 19, 2004|By Don Shirley | Don Shirley,LOS ANGELES TIMES

They say the neon lights are bright - on Broadway," goes the old song. But "they" apparently never saw Las Vegas.

Not only are The Strip's lights brighter than those of the Great White Way, but its marquees might soon look as if they're actually near Times Square, judging from the Broadway-style fare that is gradually invading Las Vegas.

The producers of Avenue Q won Broadway's Tony Award for best musical in June and then announced that their show would open its only other production in Vegas, skipping a national tour.

A few days later came word that The Phantom of the Opera would open a permanent production in a theater that would be carved out of the Venetian Hotel on The Strip.

Already up and running for more than a year is Mamma Mia! - at its full Broadway length instead of the 90 minutes that has been the custom for most shows in Las Vegas. An open-ended run of the Broadway version of Saturday Night Fever is also on The Strip.

And beginning previews this week is We Will Rock You, a hit London musical with a score made up of Queen songs. It's bypassing Broadway for now and going straight to Las Vegas for its U.S. premiere.

This incipient Broadway beachhead in Vegas could raise several challenges to competitors on both sides of the country. In Las Vegas itself, Broadway shows with professional but relatively unknown actors might deliver more bang for the buck to the hotels than expensive pop stars do. And Broadway musicals present an alternative to the Cirque du Soleil empire that is about to mount its fourth permanent show in Las Vegas, with a fifth possibly waiting in the wings.

Tourist attractions

East Coast snobs might shudder at the idea that an imitation Broadway could be born in the desert. But the reality is that for years both Broadway and The Strip have thrived primarily on tourists. Each city - New York and Las Vegas - drew slightly more than 35 million visitors last year. Las Vegas statisticians calculate that the average tourist spent $37.82 to see some kind of show. It's true that most of those productions are not fonts of intellectual stimulation - but then neither is much of what's playing on Broadway.

The most unexpected of the Broadway entries in the Vegas sweepstakes is Avenue Q. Featuring puppets as well as actors, it offers a topless flash - but only on a puppet. And its themes are far removed from Vegas glitz. Its young, financially struggling characters would not be likely to vacation amid the slot machines. Sample song titles: "If You Were Gay," "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist," "I Wish I Could Go Back to College."

But Steve Wynn, the Vegas hotel mogul who earlier arranged for the itinerant Cirque du Soleil to park permanently in the desert and also opened the Bellagio resort with a gallery of fine art worth $300 million, saw Avenue Q three times in New York. He decided he wanted it as part of his new $2.5 billion Vegas resort, the Wynn Las Vegas.

Avenue Q co-producer Kevin McCollum says a regular tour had been planned for the show, but it posed problems. Because the costs of moving from city to city would require the greater revenue potential of huge theaters, the musical would play in venues that would overwhelm such an intimate show. And it would require extensive advertising campaigns to identify itself: Unlike other recent Tony winners Hairspray and The Producers, it's not based on a familiar source.

The producers were miffed at requests from some of the presenters on the road for bowdlerization of the show's lyrics as well as what McCollum felt were insufficient financial guarantees.

By contrast, Wynn offered a 1,200-seat theater - small enough "to protect the storytelling," McCollum says - and no moving expenses or concerns about the show's language.

"It made sense."

Full-length `Mamma'

Mamma Mia!, the musical assembled from ABBA tunes, opened at the Mandalay Bay resort in February 2003. Its producers didn't try to contain their show in a 90-minute format, and they also haven't banned nearby tours.

Nina Lannan, the show's North American producer, says that one Mamma Mia! "acts as a commercial for the other ones. People want to come back as a group with other people." And Mamma Mia! plays a usual theater schedule of eight performances a week instead of the 10 that is common for most 90-minute shows in Vegas. It usually grosses at least $800,000 a week.

The new We Will Rock You uses the Mamma Mia! formula of combining a story with a pop group's song catalog. But the hero of Ben Elton's book is a young male rebel 300 years in the future, and the stadium-filling music of Queen means a somewhat more male-skewed appeal than that of Mamma Mia!

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