Sin City offers lucrative alternative to touring

Thanks to “Avenue Q” — the newest entertainment attraction at the top-end, hype-loving Wynn Hotel — America’s media and legit elite have again discovered Las Vegas and its money.

Producers are blabbing everywhere about sweetheart desert deals and $100 million, custom-designed theaters as playgrounds. Hotel owners are happy to declare Vegas the new Broadway.

Tony-winning original cast members Harvey Fierstein and Dick Latessa are planning to hit the Luxor to unleash a truncated version of “Hairspray” in 2006. Hal Prince says he “cannot wait” to try out new technology for his 90-minute “The Phantom of the Opera” (also coming in 2006). Eric Idle — who had planned to take “Monty Python’s Spamalot” to Vegas from the start — has taken his pick of Nevada partners wanting to turn Spam into desert stripsteak.

Actually, Vegas and theater have been linked for years. And while the current slate of shows heading for the Strip is newly striking in size and status, the role of Vegas in the future of live entertainment is much more complex than first meets the eye.

Some myths have arisen in the citadel of hype. So have some billion-dollar questions.

Such as: Is Vegas really about to eat Broadway’s lunch?

Broadway will survive. For one thing, it’s 2,000 miles away. For another, Vegas is insecure and Broadway confers cultural legitimacy that the desert still needs to buy. Most of the new legit shows coming to Vegas are post-facto sit-downs designed to squeeze the last drops from juice cartons nearly empty.

So far, Vegas — unlike, say, Chi, Seattle or San Francisco — has originated nothing that has moved to Gotham (Jerry Herman says his much-delayed Vegas project “Miss Spectacular” is expected to open “some time before the next millennium.”) Nor has Vegas proven that it will support weighty Broadway material. “I wouldn’t take anything serious there,” says Broadway producer Barry Weissler. “The town hasn’t changed.”

But Vegas could smash the road — the top end of the road, at least. In fact, it’s already doing so. Presenters are still fuming that “Avenue Q” was taken off their tables. And in L.A., they’re steamed they won’t be seeing “Spamalot” due to Wynn’s savvy insistence on an exclusive western territory for his newest big bet, coming in 2007.

The reason the road should be worried about Vegas is twofold: The cost of moving big shows is out of sight. And stars won’t tour, but they will sit happily in Vegas. You don’t see Fierstein dying to play Peoria, Ill. But he’ll hang out on the Strip.

“Everyone comes to Vegas,” observes Franco Dragone, the man behind the town’s biggest hits, “O” and “Mystere.” It’s dawning on producers that there’s no need for them to pay to take the show to the people if the people are willing to come to them.

And these days, entertainment isn’t a part of weekly routines as it once was. For most folks, it’s strictly a vacation activity.

It’s widely assumed that Vegas is packed to the gills with immensely profitable megahits. But is it?

Actually, it’s hard to know. Ticket prices are high and schedules routinely allow for 15 shows a week. But unlike on Broadway and the road, Vegas grosses are not available. Moreover, the results of individual shows — like, say, “Le Reve” at the Wynn — are almost impossible to break out from corporate reports. Not only are the length of the capitalization amortizations mind-boggling (it takes a hell of a long time to pay off a $100 million theater), but the aims of a gambling town are distinct from Broadway.

Though the Celine Dion show opened at Caesars Palace in 2003, it’s still too early to know if it’s a hit. And if you have a $100 million theater that can house only one show, you will do everything in your power to keep it going, even if (like “Le Reve”) that means a complete post-opening overhaul. On Broadway, producers cut their losses. In Vegas, they usually can’t.

Anyway, what’s a hit in Vegas? At Caesars, the hotel owners (now Harrah’s) have no financial participation in the show. What they get is much more valuable: 4,000 people leaving the theater every night and (presumably) hitting the tables. Legit economic models from other markets just don’t work in Vegas.

That said, Cirque du Soleil president and chief operating officer Daniel LaMarre confirms such long-running Vegas hits as “O” and “Mystere” are “immensely profitable,” having paid back all the costs and still attracting full houses twice a night. The newer “Ka” also seems secure.

But all those shows have the same producer — the crowd from Montreal. Empty seats and heavy discounting are much more common at the likes of “We Will Rock You.” And “Le Reve” at the Wynn backed away from its initial performance schedule of two shows a night.

So you could make a case that the much-hyped Vegas legit revolution actually is a Cirque revolution. Take away the Cirque productions — including the upcoming Beatles extravaganza at the Mirage — and you have no entertainment revolution in Vegas. The Cirque not only got there first (its most important Vegas achievement), but it established a citywide brand and aesthetic.

And unlike on Broadway — which is full of rules and unions — LaMarre can do whatever he likes.

Competitors — even brilliant competitors like Dragone, who eventually went out on his own — have a much tougher time than the Cirque folk.

According to Peter Wagg, who runs “Le Reve” for Dragone at the Wynn, Monday night shows are the heaviest sellers “because that’s when the Cirque is dark.”

Therefore, “Avenue Q” will need a lot of promotion. The Broadway moniker doesn’t mean so much in Vegas (“Mamma Mia!” does well because of the Abba roots and the familiarity of its title).

In fact, the impact of Vegas on the future of commercial legit might be greatest in terms of aesthetics, not money. Broadway theater owners are loath to admit it, but as more people see Vegas megahits, auds in New York will start to chafe at the aesthetic restrictions posed by the Victorian-era shells in which Broadway musicals must always be staged. So will the talent.

This is the less obvious lesson of Vegas these days. It’s not so much about the spectacle on the stage or even the budgets, but the aesthetic possibilities that flow from custom-designed theaters where designers get to create entire environments. That’s why people flock to Cirque shows. And that’s what got the “Spamalot” crowd juiced. Anyone who has seen the jaw-dropping theater that houses “Ka” inside the MGM Grand cannot help but be bored when squeezing into the Shubert.

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