Tony Awards’ season always brings to mind the fact that it wasn’t so long ago that Broadway and the Las Vegas Strip appeared to be made for each other, resulting in a long-running perfect marriage. For several years, shows lived in casino residences up and down Las Vegas Boulevard, with many boasting big-name stars who once brightened the Great White Way, but eventually rotated from East to West. Sometimes, though, even what appears to be the most resilient of unions doesn’t always work out.
So what went wrong? Certainly, The Smith Center for the Performing Arts in Las Vegas has had a big impact with its annual Broadway season that presents limited runs of the full, touring versions of New York’s hit and Tony Award-winning shows. Patrons only have to wait a year or two before these shows are on their subscription list.
The root of the issue, however, is that Broadway and Las Vegas are two different types of environments, with dissimilar audiences and expectations. And the answer to what makes a show go for the long haul on the Strip can be addressed in one word — spectacle.
“When we first entered the Las Vegas market, we wanted to attract the sensibility of the Las Vegas patron desiring a once-in-a-lifetime Las Vegas experience,” explained Scott Zeiger, co-founder and board member of Base Entertainment, as well as the chief production officer of Entertainment Benefits Group in New York City.
“Most of the shows here are unique to the marketplace. There are residencies here — Jennifer Lopez, Celine Dion, David Copperfield, Penn & Teller — that don’t happen anywhere else in the United States. So you have to create a unique experience where productions are concerned.”
Looking back, Zeiger recalls Base Entertainment’s involvement in bringing several Broadway shows to Las Vegas, which were among some of the Strip’s most successful productions.
“We first entered the Vegas market with Phantom — The Spectacular in 2006, and we did something unique and special; we did an environmental production. We put in the iconic chandelier, and other proprietary theatrical props and decor. The production ran for six years at The Venetian. It’s important to have a spectacle.
“We had similar success with other Broadway shows in Las Vegas. Jersey Boys was a hit because people knew the songs and, likewise, Rock of Ages worked because it contained many of audiences’ favorite songs of the ’80s era.
”Although shows can remain on Broadway for 30 years or more, Zeiger notes that an open-ended production running in perpetuity never has been cracked in Las Vegas for a number of reasons: one of them being equity. While a resident Las Vegas headliner may do 50 shows a year as opposed to Broadway’s eight shows a week, the latter can’t close down for a week without the liability of paying everyone involved in the production.
Then there is the fact that Las Vegas has so many entertainment options, while tourists going to New York have a “must-see” list of Broadway shows. He also admits that the length of a show can be prohibitive.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two, which currently is playing on Broadway and has received 10 Tony nominations, racks up two hours and 45 minutes for each part and has an intermission.
“Angels in America, which was nominated for a Tony for best revival, is also in two parts,” cited Zeiger, who has won five Tony Awards as a producer. “So many musicals are 2 1/2 hours long with an intermission. Casinos don’t want people in the theater for that length of time. Plus, when we did Phantom, we had to get a radius restriction.
“Hairspray, Avenue Q and We Will Rock You didn’t work in Vegas. People wanted unique Vegas things. I think that the future of Vegas is more aligned with singular experiences like Magic Mike Live and Absinthe. “For one thing, the Broadway landscape today consists of shows based on pop culture. Screen to stage adaptations like Mean Girls and SpongeBob SquarePants are all over Broadway. It’s becoming more and more rare to see original ideas onstage.”
Meanwhile, back on the Strip, cutting and “Vegasizing” a show contribute to it potentially having a successful, long run. While Broadway has a couple of hours to take people on an emotional journey, casinos basically have 90 minutes. Zeiger says that people want to be swept away and talk about the show’s plot after they leave the theater. They also want to have a cultural reference.
John O’Hurley, stage and TV actor- personality who starred in Spamalot on Broadway, on tour and in its two- year run at Wynn Las Vegas, agrees with the fact that, to be successful in Vegas, a show has to ante up and be a production that can’t be seen anywhere else. He also believes that the American theater is having a crisis right now.
“We have lost our way in terms of musicals,” he explained. “It used to be that audiences could walk out humming the music and reciting the lyrics to a song. Today, the corporations are paying for Broadway shows, but the music is for millennials who can’t afford tickets.
“So, there is a dichotomy between who is being written for, and who is showing up. Three electric guitars and a synthesizer against the Great American Songbook … hmmm. Broadway shows need quality, not spectacle. Las Vegas needs spectacle.
”O’Hurley adds that Las Vegas audiences are more Americanized, while Broadway audiences are more international. That factor causes the humor in a show not to work sometimes. He acknowledges that Spamalot was local humor and about as serious as “doing a play in your basement for your parents” so that wherever it appeared, the jokes were tailored to that locale.
But having played Billy Flynn in Chicago — Broadway’s longest- running show — for the past 12 years, both on Broadway and on tour, he feels that it would still work in Las Vegas today.
“You don’t have to change much about Chicago,” said O’Hurley, who will reprise Flynn on Broadway this summer. “Honestly, I would like to see it done in nude body stockings. The lingerie in the prison scene and the Fosse choreography go in that direction. That element would change the show enough so that people would come to see it in Las Vegas. Fosse just drips sex.”
It seems the Broadway-Las Vegas Strip love affair may not be over just yet.