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Monday, April 09, 2007

Steve in Las Vegas for Spamalot,0,6305531.story?coll=cl-calendar

Los Angeles Times
April 8, 2007
Vegas 'Spamalot' has more glitz, takes less time
By Richard Abowitz, Special to The Times

THE opening of "Spamalot" at Wynn last week was the sort of over-the-top Vegas night that Steve Wynn is famous for. It was packed with industry stars, including Steve Martin, Geena Davis, Robin Williams and Siegfried and Roy, and Wynn's famous attention to details was fully evident, from the lavish themed after-party that packed a convention ballroom to thinking to turn the traditional red carpet into a cow pattern. "Spamalot" might have started on Broadway, but this was pure Vegas.

John O'Hurley, who plays King Arthur, put it this way: "The Broadway openings I have been to are far more subdued. In Vegas they are focused on the great event."

"Spamalot" completes a wave of Broadway-styled shows migrating here to attempt permanent residence. It began with "Mamma Mia" four years ago and included "Avenue Q," "Hairspray," "Phantom of the Opera" and "The Producers." But the closings of "Avenue Q" at Wynn and "Hairspray" at Luxor cut short that initial burst of optimism that had Vegas briefly trying on the name Broadway West. Instead of flying in for the Tony Awards, Strip executives are instead waiting to see the fate of "Phantom," "The Producers," and, now, "Spamalot." Significantly, Luxor, an MGM property, is replacing the short-lived "Hairspray" with what will be the company's sixth Cirque show on the Strip (this one starring magician Criss Angel).

But Wynn drew a different lesson from "Avenue Q's" brief residency at his resort.

"I love Broadway. There was never a moment I didn't enjoy 'Avenue Q' as a member of the audience. But here in Las Vegas there is so much competition that a show needs an edge," Wynn says. "In the case of 'Spamalot' it is the popularity of Monty Python. This is a bigger and a much more expensive show that has a scope that is more suited to Las Vegas than a smaller piece like 'Q.' It is all good theater. I saw 'Avenue Q' nine times."

But Wynn learned from "Avenue Q" that a successful Broadway show doesn't necessarily make for a winning Vegas production. The production opened as a replica of the Broadway experience, complete with intermission and no significant cuts. Wynn had a different vision this time. According to "Spamalot" producer Bill Haber, "I was surprised by how important it was that we do a 90-minute version. People will sit for that long and then they want to go do other things in Las Vegas. It is totally different than any other place. Even the tour has an intermission."

If the show had a touch of Vegas in it before — in the original, Camelot looked an awful lot like the medieval-themed Excalibur resort in Vegas — producers have really customized this version for the city, and not merely by adding local jokes. "There were dozens of changes to suit Las Vegas," Haber says. "Unlike 'Avenue Q,' 'Hairspray,' 'The Producers' or even 'Phantom,' this show was not designed to come here as a Broadway transplant. It has been changed to be a Las Vegas Monty Python comedy experience."

And so unlike "Avenue Q" — or for that matter the touring version of "Spamalot" — this is not being sold as a Broadway replica, but as a Vegas show that can't be seen anywhere else. Smart move. As Mike Weatherford, entertainment critic for Las Vegas Review-Journal, points out, Vegas Broadway turned out to be a surprisingly hard sell to local audiences: "On Broadway there is a huge infrastructure for shows. The shows change but the infrastructure doesn't. Whereas here it is just the opposite; we are just starting to build an infrastructure. How do you promote and sell a title in Las Vegas?"

For "Spamalot," (tickets from $49 to $99) according to Haber, the answer is to count on Los Angeles: "You have to market to Southern California. That is 50% of the people who come to Vegas. On Broadway you don't focus on marketing to people hundreds of miles away. It is tantamount to opening on Broadway and doing huge advertising in Boston."

Making people aware of "Spamalot" in L.A. is only half of the challenge; the other half is getting them through the doors once they get here. Vegas tourists don't plan ahead. "On Broadway," Haber says, "people buy tickets six months in advance. In Las Vegas you don't have much of an advance."

"Word of mouth is essential to the show," notes Jennifer Dunne, a veteran of more than a dozen years at Cirque and now the vice president of entertainment marketing at Wynn. "Critical reviews won't make or break a show here as they would in another city. In Las Vegas we live and die by what the cabdrivers are saying, what the concierges are saying, and what the people who meet and greet you think of the show."

So, during the weeks of previews leading up to the official opening, Dunne and her staff worked to create buzz by bringing in concierges, hotel sales departments and cabdrivers for "familiarization trips." "Weatherford thinks this strategy has worked: "They have found in the workforce the opinion-shapers. 'Spamalot' seems to have got it just right."

As Wynn says, the goal was never for Vegas to become a Broadway outpost but to maintain an ever-increasing variety of entertainment options. "I think it is important that those of us who are responsible for entertainment in Las Vegas aren't afraid to give the public choice — and to give the public real choice — so the menu continues to be rich and varied. Not everyone that comes here wants to see Cirque and not everyone wants to see musical comedy. But everything should be here for you to enjoy."

These days, no one in Vegas utters the words "Broadway West." There are no more major Broadway productions scheduled to take up residency on the Strip, for now. But "Spamalot's" splashy opening means that, four Broadway-style musicals are running simultaneously on the Strip. Not Broadway, for sure, but still more than any other street in the country.


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