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Broadway's Vegas Push
As Avenue Q Flops, Theater Producers and Casino Owners are Rethinking the Odds
Copyright © 2006 Time Inc. All rights reserved.

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 beats Vegas.

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 all.

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