What Opens in Vegas Closes in Vegas

Photo: Carol Ressegg/Courtesy of Boneau/Bryan-Brown

As the Avenue Q score began to play, a giddy billionaire cooed in my ear. “There’s nothing quite like a Broadway overture, is there?” Steve Wynn whispered at a Vegas preview back in 2005. Well, maybe on Broadway. But the man who upscaled the Strip in the nineties, with fine art and mass-scale high-end dining, aimed to do it for theater, buying Avenue Q and then Spamalot for his new resort. Wynn’s rarely wrong, and by now, the Strip was to boast five Tony winners, the other three being The Phantom of the Opera, Hairspray, and The Producers. But Q closed after nine months; Hairspray after four. By January 2007, Wynn appeared at a Spamalot preview joking that the Monty Python comedy would put a final nail in the coffin of his theater experiment. Since then, he’s been filling the house with discounted tickets. Only Phantom and Mamma Mia! appear to have a future. (Executives at a competing casino are said to have made bets on whether Spamalot or The Producers, which opened in February, will close first.) Why is theater an even dicier business in Vegas than in Times Square?

Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Tonys mean nothing here.
A big stage name in New York has scant clout in Vegas. If you’re Céline Dion, fine, but when Hairspray imported Harvey Fierstein, Joe Omaha yawned. The Producers did better with David Hasselhoff. But will anyone care about John O’Hurley as King Arthur?

Neither do reviews.
On Broadway, even for touristy shows, momentum builds among regular theatergoers and tastemakers, who read the Times. Vegas has neither of those groups, and therefore critics don’t matter one bit, even if millions are spent on lavish parties to impress them. Casinos would do better to hold a month of free shows for locals, whose advice to tourists means far more than stuff written in newspapers tourists don’t read.

Just wow me.
Wynn blamed Q’s demise on its lack of pizzazz but canceled plans for a vaguely defined Spamalot Experience. Mistake. Phantom spent a fortune on a one-ton chandelier that terrifies audiences by plummeting to within ten feet of their heads. That’s Vegas-style spectacle.

A failure to communicate.
To appreciate the wit of Q, The Producers, or Spamalot, one must understand English. Many Vegas tourists hail from overseas; even more are wasted. They just want to watch, not think. And an appreciation of Pythonesque irony is out of the question.

A pause does not refresh.
Vegas’s audience is a TV-trained crowd that gets restless at the 55-minute mark. During Avenue Q, people fled at intermission. So Wynn ditched the break and offered a 90-minute cut, whereupon theater purists howled. It’s lose-lose, as Hairspray also found. The trimmed-down Producers leaves Ulla just one solo. Why bother?

Photo: Joan Marcus/Courtesy of Boneau/Bryan-Brown

Familiarity breeds success.
Mamma Mia! has somehow succeeded by breaking the rules. No effects. A story. A second act. A zillion touring companies. Still, it’s a smash, because everyone knows the music. Any Spamalot tunes charted lately? That’s why two Broadway hits, Grease and Jersey Boys, do have Vegas potentialand the latter opens on the Strip in early 2008.

What Opens in Vegas Closes in Vegas