LAS VEGAS - Las Vegas casino magnate Steve Wynn has given new meaning to the city's marketing catchphrase, "What happens here, stays here."
Wynn, whose flamboyance and vision epitomize the Strip's spirit of constant reinvention, has brought yet another new concept to America's capital of spectacle: the permanent Broadway show. He has signed exclusive open-ended contracts with the producers of two recent New York hits, "Avenue Q" and "Spamalot," that restrict their availability in other markets as long as they play in their custom-made theaters at his new resort.
The $2.7 billion Wynn Las Vegas will eventually house three large performance spaces. The Broadway Theater, which opened in September, was designed for "Avenue Q." The naughty puppet show, which won the 2004 Tony Award for Best Musical, won't play anywhere besides Wynn's resort and New York for many years.
A second venue, which opened with the Wynn last spring, houses Franco Dragone's Cirque du Soleil-like "Le Reve."
Wynn is building a third stage for "Spamalot," the biggest new hit of the 2004-05 Broadway season. If you want to see it in the next few years, it'll have to be either in Vegas or points farther East. Wynn's contract prohibits the noble knights from touring anywhere in California, Arizona or elsewhere in Nevada during "Spamalot's" Vegas run.
Wynn isn't the only casino owner who smells easy money in proven cash cows from the Great White Way. In the next few years, "Phantom of the Opera," "Hairspray" and other popular musicals will find homes on the Strip. Casinos currently offer two shows with scores based on the music of a single band, ABBA's improbable international hit "Mamma Mia!" and Queen's "We Will Rock You." Other theatrical spectaculars on the horizon include new product from Canada's Cirque du Soleil, a reliable producer of popular Vegas entertainment since "Mystere" opened at Treasure Island more than a decade ago.
And casino operators are indulging in an orgy of venue-building. They're banking that the addition of long-running shows in dedicated performance spaces will add to brand identity in an environment where more and more casinos compete for their slice of an ever-expanding pie - the tourist dollar - and where gambling, once the dominant form of Vegas entertainment, increasingly shares the spotlight with other pursuits.
While restrictively booking popular musicals may be good for Wynn's new casino, his innovation has struck fear into the hearts of competitors, and not just on the Strip. Regional presenting organizations such as the Orange County Performing Arts Center depend on touring Broadway shows for a large part of their annual box-office take. And the loss of surefire money-makers such as "Avenue Q" and "Spamalot" is worrisome - even ominous.
"Every couple of years you get the slam dunks," said Phil Gallo, associate editor of Variety magazine. "'Spamalot' would be one of them. And a lot of presenters look to those types of shows to drive subscription sales, and when the space is available, maybe even an extension. So (if) year after year the amount of inventory that Broadway supplies dwindles and Vegas is removing the hottest show from the mix, then that's going to (cause trouble)."
"Our Broadway series is by far our biggest revenue producer," said Judy Mohr, interim president of the Orange County Performing Arts Center. "It enables us to have the earned income to support some of our classical art forms that wouldn't be able to sustain themselves without additional (help)."
The unavailability of a touring show as potentially profitable as "Spamalot" "is a concern," Mohr acknowledged. "It would be unrealistic for me to say it isn't."
Many regional presenters of touring musicals reacted with particular anger to the loss of "Avenue Q" for the 2005-06 touring season. "This is very disappointing," Mike Isaacson, vice president for programming at St. Louis-based Fox Theatricals, told Variety. "They are telling road presenters ... that they and their subscribers cannot have access to the Tony Award-winning Best Musical. They should understand this is an interdependent business."
Gallo theorized that "Avenue Q's" Tony gave it a mantle of worthiness that made Wynn's coup seem doubly egregious. "'Avenue Q' had the cachet ... of being the Tony winner. I think that presenting entities are always interested in bringing in anything that says
Tony winner' on it. When (producers) say,Sorry, you don't get the Tony winner,' they immediately get upset."
But Kevin McCollum, one of "Avenue Q's" producers, thinks the doom- and-gloom forecasts from America's regional musical-theater presenters is overblown.
"It's not like every (Broadway) show is right for Vegas. We were a show that just wasn't going to survive a long tour of one-week (engagements). `Avenue Q' is this wonderful discovery, a boutique experience."
With its scenes of puppet sex and songs such as "The Internet is for Porn," "Avenue Q" would definitely be a hard sell in Middle America. Even in New York, the show was a marketing challenge. "We got great reviews but we had a hard time selling tickets," McCollum said. "But once you see it you realize it's about much deeper things than you thought it was about."
That's why McCollum thinks Las Vegas makes sense for such a musical. It can tolerate a higher degree of raciness than the average American city, and word of mouth - from bellhops to cab drivers - can help a long-running show more in Vegas than in almost any other town.
Besides its huge potential audience (more than 40 million tourists last year) and deep-pockets investors willing to build dream venues, Vegas also offers an enticement no Broadway producer can resist: vastly increased profits.
Robert G. Goldstein, president of the Venetian, recently did the math on Blue Man Group's show for a New York Times reporter. The new theater seats 1,800 and hosts 10 shows per week (vs. eight on Broadway) for 48 weeks a year. A maximum of 864,000 seats can be sold annually. At 85 percent of capacity and an average ticket price of $100, Blue Man Group stands to gross $73 million a year - much more than the most profitable show in New York. And Nevada's wages for stagehands and other backstage labor are much lower than New York City's, so shows can be produced for a fraction of their Broadway price tags.
Despite her concerns about such overwhelming economic power, Mohr isn't convinced that Las Vegas' new obsession with Broadway sounds a death knell for musical-theater series like the one at the center.
Many of the Vegas productions, she pointed out, will be condensed to 90 minutes without an intermission. There are plans to bring "Phantom" and "Hairspray" in at that length. "We Will Rock You" was recently shortened from two hours to 90 minutes.
"I'm not suggesting that a 90-minute version won't be satisfying, but it's possible with favorite shows that it's better to see it in its entirety," Mohr said. "With the 90-minute version, they've surely cut out some things that people would want to see."
Vegas may also exert a "Phantom" effect, Mohr said. Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical attracts many people who otherwise wouldn't go to the theater; some of them become passionate fans as a result.
"It could interest a lot of new people in theater who haven't come to the theater before. That's good for everybody."
Mohr has been around long enough to remember past episodes of hand-wringing over potentially ruinous competition. The center has survived each threat unscathed, she maintained.
"We shouldn't overreact. (People ask), `How are we going to live with this?' Well, how do we manage to survive in Southern California, with so many other opportunities for all kinds of entertainment? Somehow we've always been able to define and maintain our market. I don't think that will change."
(c) 2005, The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.