Sin City lures 'Avenue,' 'Rock You' to its roster

CHICAGO – “It’s a deal with the devil,” sniped one New York producer about Jeffrey Seller and Kevin McCollum’s much-maligned deal to send “Avenue Q,” their Tony Award-winning musical, to Las Vegas. “Broadway producers won’t ever get slot machines in their lobbies.”

The Strip has dealt the Great White Way a one-two punch in recent weeks. And even as the producers and Actors’ Equity fight out union contracts for the road, Broadway and Sin City are sniping at each other like a pair of prizefighters wondering if the rules are fair.

Which they most assuredly are not.

First, it was announced that Seller and McCollum secretly had nixed the notion of an “Avenue Q” national tour in favor of a blue-chip sit-down at Vegas entrepreneur Steve Wynn’s soon-to-open, upmarket gambling emporium Wynn Las Vegas. At least it was the road that got stiffed in Puppetgate, not Broadway.

But then, the producers of “We Will Rock You” said they really don’t need New York at all, thanks very much, when they have a nice, lucrative gig at Paris, the Las Vegas hotel.

The populist London tuner opens Aug. 16 in Vegas. At a show press conference in mid-July with writer Ben Elton and former members of Queen, the hotel allowed in 1,000 members of the public along with the journos because it “had the room.”

It’s hard to imagine that kind of egalitarian ploy flying in Gotham, where theater still relies on more of a top-down progression from the tastemakers to the punters buying the tix.

The big “Q” defection sent a good portion of the road and Broadway communities into an anti-Vegas snit. Meanwhile, Vegas types are fighting back.

“Las Vegans are used to being laughed at by East Coast artistes,” columnist Anthony Del Valle wrote recently in the Las Vegas Review-Journal of the “Q” debacle, “but I have a hunch this is one time we may get to laugh back.”

At the core of the debate is whether it actually serves Gotham producers to build up Vegas as a kind of Broadway West.

Some think it does.

“Avenue Q’s” Seller says the deal with Wynn “protects the aesthetic integrity of the show” by putting it in a cozy 1,200-seat theater, while also providing maximum return for investors.

To this way of thinking, Vegas provides another outlet for Broadway product beyond the traditional and increasingly problematic road — especially the kind of product that doesn’t fit traditional 3,000-seat subscription models.

At a time when cruise ships are booking brand-name shows, surely it makes sense for Broadway producers to look beyond the traditional touring box.

Why take the risk on the road when you can go to Vegas, which is on track for more than 35 million visitors this year? Why risk lousy Gotham reviews for “We Will Rock You” when you can go straight to the people — in holiday spending mood? Tix for the Queen show start at $80 and top out at $113.50.

And there are 10 — count ‘em, 10 — shows per week on the Vegas slate.

“Vegas is like being on tour without having to move around,” says Chris Wink, the creative force behind the Blue Man Group, which has been going gangbusters for more than two years at the Luxor Hotel on the Strip in a retrofitted 1,200-seat theater. “Everyone in the world passes through this hourglass.”

And, helpfully, legit crix don’t matter much.

Wink and his cobalt cohorts pack as many as 14 shows a week into their theater (which gives them a potential weekly gross that exceeds the typical road house with an eight-show week).

Wink says the edgy likes of Penn & Teller and Cirque du Soleil “softened up” the town for his brand of urbane Off Broadway fare. “We’re rooting for ‘Avenue Q,'” Wink says. “We want Vegas to become a bona fide theater capital.”

Similarly, Chicago’s Second City comedy troupe struggled to find audiences and real estate in the likes of Cleveland and Detroit, but it packs them in at up to 12 shows a week at the Flamingo Hotel, where it has been playing since 2001.

“There’s a captive audience here,” says Kelly Leonard, Second City’s producer. “We’re going to go up to 14 shows per week.”

Not that there haven’t been plenty of Vegas legit-style duds.

After a decent start, “Chicago” quickly spluttered out at the Mandalay Bay — in the same theater where “Mamma Mia!” does boffo business now. De La Guarda didn’t work here, either.

And in a city that seems to reinvent itself every five minutes, trying to figure out what works is largely futile.

Within the last few weeks, most of the big Vegas players have consolidated in an orgy of corporate acquisition.

These days, most of the big hotels are under the same ownership — which likely will make it more difficult to broker individual legit deals.

“They’ve gone from family to T&A to legit and back to T&A,” says Ken Gentry, the busy road producer who has worked in Vegas in the past. “The one constant seems to be short and spectacular. I don’t think most mainstream musicals will ever work there.”

It’s unlikely that thrush Linda Ronstadt will ever work there again: The Aladdin Hotel’s booting of the singer for dedicating a number to filmmaker Michael Moore is an apt cautionary note for legit producers hoping to bring edgy or progressive fare to a city that’s paradoxically conservative, Sin or no Sin.

But Barry Weissler is shopping a Vegas version of “Hairspray.” And what’s “We Will Rock You” if not a mainstream musical (in West End terms, at least)? “Avenue Q” is hardly T&A, unless you count the “full puppet nudity” touted in its ads.

It certainly doesn’t seem a stretch to imagine that next year’s Tony winner might attract the attention of some Vegas entrepreneurs: Such upcoming legit titles as “Billy Elliot,” “Mary Poppins,” “All Shook Up” and “Monty Python’s Spamalot” all sound like possibilities for the desert.

Vegas entertainment columnist Mike Weatherford argues that those who say “Avenue Q” is too edgy for the town ignore the place’s libertarian, egalitarian instincts. Forgotten in the brouhaha is that “Q” is not even the main show in Wynn Las Vegas — that would be the latest spectacle from Franco Dragone, the force behind the long-running, mega-grossing “O” and “Mystere” and director of Celine Dion’s show.

In essence, says Weatherford, Wynn picks up the Bushies with Dragone and the younger, more liberal crowd with “Q.” The money of both parties has the same smell.

These days, Vegas deals are impossibly varied. Both Wink and Leonard argue that producers expecting hotels to subsidize their shows don’t know anything about how Vegas has changed — most entertainment now is expected to be its own profit center.

Then again, Caesar’s Palace gets no direct revenue from the Celine Dion extravaganza in the hotel — which is controlled by Concerts West; Caesar’s merely gets several thousand people walking directly to its slots and tables.

That was enough for Caesar’s to bankroll a state-of-the-art theater. Neither New York nor the road can compete with that.

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