Worried about competition from Indian gaming across the country, Las Vegas is taking a gamble on live theater as a way to draw visitors, increasingly turning to the glow of New York’s Great White Way for proven stage material.
The movement is led by hotel and casino impresario (and theater buff) Steve Wynn, who bought exclusive rights to play the Tony Awardwinning "Avenue Q" at his new Wynn Las Vegas. That show opened in September, and an export of Broadway’s "Spamalot" will be its neighbor next year.
Other casinos will offer lavish productions of "The Phantom of the Opera" and "Hairspray" this year. Industry insiders expect the trend to continue as casino owners look for new ways to brand their resorts.
"They’re looking for something that could be unique to them, that could provide some exclusivity to their properties," says Michael Gill, a longtime theatrical manager who, after a decade with "The Phantom of the Opera" in New York, has become a major player in the burgeoning Vegas theatrical market.
In fact, the influx of Broadway shows has led many to coin a new nickname for Nevada’s gaming hot spot: Broadway West.
"These shows have completely changed the landscape," Las Vegas tourism spokeswoman Erika Yowell says. "It used to be lounge acts and feather boas. But the kind of entertainment here has become more sophisticated."
Yet critics voice concern that many of the shows being produced in Vegas could put a serious choke hold on the Broadway touring industry. Controversy swirled earlier this year when producers announced "Avenue Q" would eschew altogether the traditional road tour in favor of playing its own $40 million, 1,200-seat theater at the Wynn.
And during its Vegas run, "Spamalot" won’t tour much of the western United States, due to a special regional lockout deal.
Increasingly, critics worry, what plays in Vegas stays in Vegas.
Colleen Jennings-Roggensack is still smarting from news that the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical "Avenue Q" won’t be hitting the road this season.
The executive director of Arizona State University Public Events and booker of the Broadway in Arizona series for Tempe’s 3,000-seat Gammage Auditorium, one of the country’s larger theatrical roadhouses, Jennings-Roggensack says she championed the irreverent puppet musical through workshops and previews, onto its debut on the Great White Way and surprise 2004 Tony wins for best musical, book and score, only to see plans for a road tour snubbed.
"We didn’t even get a call from (‘Avenue Q’ producers) Jeffrey (Seller) and Kevin (McCollum)," she says. "We read about it in an article in the New York Times."
Jennings-Roggensack says it’s still too early to decipher the impact Las Vegas might have on Gammage’s Broadway season (she says she’s still negotiating to get "Spamalot") but she’s nevertheless critical of the changes made for shows to play Vegas.
For one, many shows, like the upcoming "Phantom" and "Hairspray," are trimmed of up to a third of their material to fit into a 90-minute, intermissionless production. (That’s both to appease tourists’ attention spans and to cram in 10 shows a week for the same cost as doing eight shows weekly on Broadway.) That’s proof, to Jennings-Roggensack, that Vegas sees these shows as less about art than something to do between sessions at the slot machines. "It’s an add-on," she says.
For another: "What feeds and nurtures (Broadway) is when people go from Gammage Auditorium and swing into a show in New York," she says. "The road continues to feed that. People who go to Vegas don’t go to see a show. They go to gamble."
But while Jennings-Roggensack says she’s taking a wait-and-see approach to the matter, the trickle-down effect of Vegas’ new wooing of Broadway is plain to see.
As long as shows like "Avenue Q" and "Spamalot" run in Vegas, that’s longer until they become available to secondtier touring companies like Mark Edelman’s Theater League, which brings largely non-Equity (nonunion) tours to Phoenix and the Mesa Arts Center.
"We’re seeing a little of that," says Edelman. " ‘Hairspray’ is going to the Luxor; suddenly that tour isn’t available for a long time."
Subsequently, regional professional houses and dinner and community theaters can expect to feel the pinch.
Says Will Prather, owner of the Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre in Mesa, "This just means it’ll delay the time these shows become available down the pipeline by a few years."
Many expect Las Vegas’ current infatuation with Broadway to eventually settle down.
"Vegas," Edelman says, "is a cyclical market."
After all, there are a finite number of available shows that can fit the Las Vegas format: Nothing too thoughtprovoking, nothing short of spectacle. (Sequins and feather boas, it seems, still haunt the edges of Vegas stages.)
"We tend to see only lighthearted crowd pleasers, more up-tempo kinds of shows," Yowell says.
Which means, don’t count on current Broadway productions like "The Color Purple" or "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" to play on the Vegas Strip.
There’s also the fizzle factor. Vegas doesn’t have the best track record with musicals, and the "Mamma Mias" are few and far between. "We Will Rock You," a Queen musical revue at the Paris Las Vegas resort that opened in 2004, and a production of "Chicago" in its own theater at Mandalay Bay in 1999-2000 both drew less-than-stellar audiences and were closed after a year.
In November, the New York Post reported that "Avenue Q" has been less than a smash in Vegas, either breaking even or losing money every week. ("One reason the show clicked in New York was that, from the first preview, it had great word of mouth," the Post’s Michael Riedel wrote in a Nov. 4 column. "But theater people who’ve looked closely at Vegas say word of mouth is hard to generate in a town made up of people who are just passing through.")
Meanwhile, as casino properties continue to look for new ways to brand and differentiate themselves, industry observers say they may look beyond Broadway entirely in favor of more Cirque-style productions — shows that can be tailored to fit each property.
"There’s a thought," Gill says, "that Broadway isn’t exclusive enough."