Broadway's Vegas Push
Q Flops, Theater Producers and Casino Owners are Rethinking
Copyright © 2006 Time Inc. All rights
March 13, 2006
BY LERON KORNREICH
LAS VEGAS, NV -- Poor Lucy.
Five months after setting up shop in Sin City, jilting suitors
around the country in favor of a sugar daddy who courted her
with a new $40 million home, she discovers the fleeting nature
of Las Vegas romance. A sultry soap opera? Political scandal?
No--just the harsh reality of Broadway in Vegas.
The character known as Lucy the Slut is a puppet
in the Tony Award--winning musical Avenue Q, which has been
playing in the Wynn Las Vegas hotel since last fall. Casino
magnate Steve Wynn offered Avenue Q's producers a theater
and $5 million up front for an exclusive run in Vegas, in
exchange for ditching the usual cross-country tour. "I
wanted something completely different," says Wynn. "No
hydraulics. No feathers. No fuss. Just simple theatrical wit."
Wit is no match for gloss in Vegas. Wynn canceled
Avenue Q's run last month and will replace it with the splashier
musical Monty Python's Spamalot in March 2007. For the nearly
$2 billion national Broadway theater industry, which watched
anxiously as show after show headed for Vegas, Q's failure
is both lesson and opportunity. For some shows, maybe Seattle
While Avenue Q was the first and only show to
eschew a national tour and put all its money on Vegas, musicals
like Spamalot and Hairspray are excluding or limiting play
in competing markets, such as Nevada, California and Arizona.
The Vegas focus "has been an awakening for the industry,"
says Pat Halloran, president of the Independent Presenters
Network, a group of 55 theater owners, operators and presenters.
Halloran's group put up $1 million toward Spamalot's
Las Vegas run, but part of the deal is that the show will
tour elsewhere. "After Avenue Q, we all became a little
smarter," Halloran explains. In the best of all worlds,
a hot Las Vegas run spills over into good buzz for touring
shows. The Abba tribute Mamma Mia!, for example, rakes in
the "Money, money, money" and has tripled its investment
in three years. Its success feeds audiences elsewhere.
Good buzz wasn't enough for Avenue Q. Producer
Kevin McCollum says he believed Wynn's up-front backing would
take "much of the risk out of the equation for us."
For a regular tour, he would have faced traveling expenses
of $50,000 a week. But success is measured differently in
Vegas. "Body count is as important or more important
than your gross potential," says Michael Gill, general
manager of Vegas' Mamma Mia! Word of mouth for the off-kilter
show (Avenue Q features a gaggle of foulmouthed puppets) wasn't
enough to fill its 1,200-seat venue, which is 1 1/2 times
the size of Avenue Q's Broadway home. Casinos expect shows
to draw people into their hotel rooms, gaming, restaurants
and nightclubs, so they want to see packed houses. Avenue
Q turned a profit but couldn't fill the house, averaging 50%
capacity. Wynn says Spamalot has a better chance of selling
out the $40 million palace he built for Avenue Q. To draw
those crowds, even a Broadway hit like Hairspray has to make
compromises: an abridged, intermission-free version opened
last month at Luxor, and the casino expects it to re-energize
the 12-year-old pyramidal playground.
Avenue Q, for its part, is hoping for
a second chance. Its producers sent "kiss and make up"
cards to tour presenters--they'll be hitting the road after
here to see a scanned version.