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N.Y., Strip style

Las Vegas rolls the dice, looking beyond big-name acts with a growing roster of Broadway-style shows.

August 15, 2004|Don Shirley | Times Staff Writer

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

Not only are the Strip's lights brighter than those on 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.

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 per- manent show in Las Vegas, with a fifth possibly waiting in the wings.

Meanwhile, in Southern California -- the largest single source of Las Vegas tourists -- certain musicals might not show up for a period of time because of exclusivity deals in the contracts for the Las Vegas versions. And the establishment of a thriving commercial theater district in Las Vegas eventually might take a small slice of business from Broadway itself.

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.

A slot for 'Q'

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: "It Sucks to Be Me," "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, alongside a new water spectacle from a former Cirque du Soleil talent, Franco Dragone.

"Ten million dollars' worth of hydraulics cannot accomplish what Marcel Marceau can do," Wynn says, explaining his eclectic theatrical tastes. "I wanted a counterpoint, a sample of Marcel Marceau, to use a metaphor. Las Vegas has to develop theater at its core, at its most fundamental. It's what separates us from the Indian casinos."

"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."

He dismisses the thought that the recent incident in which members of a Las Vegas audience booed Linda Ronstadt's onstage endorsement of the movie "Fahrenheit 9/11" might indicate trouble for "Avenue Q," which is edgier than most Vegas entertainments.

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