Broadway's Latest Frontier: Las Vegas Every decade or so, it seems that Las Vegas reinvents itself -- remember when it became "family friendly" in the 1990s? Now Las Vegas is the center of a new entertainment trend. New York-based reporter Jeff Lunden checks it out.
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Broadway's Latest Frontier: Las Vegas

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Broadway's Latest Frontier: Las Vegas

Broadway's Latest Frontier: Las Vegas

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Every decade or so it seems that Las Vegas reinvents itself. Remember when it became family friendly in the 1990s? And now, as Jeff Lunden reports, there's a new entertainment trend there.

(Soundbite of music)

JEFF LUNDEN reporting:

Las Vegas has always been about this...

(Soundbite of slot machine sounds)

LUNDEN: ...and this...

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Night and day, you are the one.

LUNDEN: More recently, it's been about this...

(Soundbite from "KA")

LUNDEN: That's some music from Cirque du Soleil's $165-million new production, "KA." But did you ever expect that Las Vegas would be about this?

(Soundbite from "Avenue Q")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) It sucks to be me. It sucks to be me.

LUNDEN: That's the opening number from "Avenue Q," the 2004 Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, which opened earlier this month in a brand-spanking new $40-million theater at Wynn Las Vegas, which itself is a brand-spanking new $2.4 billion casino resort on the Strip. Steve Wynn, its owner, is the impresario who introduced Siegfried & Roy and Cirque du Soleil to Las Vegas. He says it's important to position the city and his new hotel as a place to visit for more than just gambling.

Mr. STEVE WYNN (Wynn Las Vegas): Not one single major metropolitan area with a population of over half a million people, or 400,000, is less than 90 minutes from a casino. And yet, 40 million people are flocking to this place. For a slot machine? I doubt it. They're the same slot machines they got back home. No, they come here for an experience.

LUNDEN: And so, Wynn Las Vegas offers a little bit of everything, not unlike those all-you-can-eat buffets all over town. There are slot machines to be sure, but there are also upscale restaurants, night clubs and stores, a championship golf course, an art gallery with treasures by Picasso and Vermeer, "Le Reve," an enormous Cirque du Soleil-type water and gymnastics show, and "Avenue Q."

Wynn says this edgy little musical, which tells adult life lessons in a "Sesame Street" style complete with puppet characters who aren't always clothed, fit his vision for the new property.

(Soundbite from "Avenue Q")

Mr. WYNN: This is such a perfect counterpoint to all of the hydraulics and technology and the manufactured w--`Yahoo!' of Las Vegas. This is simple theater.

(Soundbite from "Avenue Q")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) What do you do with the BA in English...

LUNDEN: Broadway shows have been playing in Las Vegas for years. Mike Weatherford, entertainment critic for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, says casinos, such as Caesar's Palace, used to present pared-down versions of touring Broadway musicals.

Mr. MIKE WEATHERFORD (Entertainment Critic, Las Vegas Review-Journal): The entertainment here used to be loss leader, paid for by the casinos. It was very cheap. It--and the casino wrote the check for the production. And because of that the casino wanted them back at the tables in relatively short time.

LUNDEN: But things have changed in the last couple of decades. Shows in Las Vegas have become profit centers for both the casinos and the producers who partner with them, says Alan Feldman, vice president of public affairs for MGM Mirage.

Mr. ALAN FELDMAN (Vice President, Public Affairs, MGM Mirage): Where gaming 20 years ago was probably 80 percent, even 85 percent, of any one hotel's revenue, today in our company we're--our revenues will top $7 billion this year; 55 percent of it is from non-gaming.

(Soundbite from "Mamma Mia!")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Mamma mia, here I go again. My, my, how can I resist ya.

LUNDEN: "Mamma Mia!," the jukebox musical featuring ABBA tunes, has been a sold-out hit for the past two years at MGM Mirage's Mandalay Bay. It's being presented uncut with two acts and an intermission. In Las Vegas, unlike New York, the roomy theater seats actually have cup holders and patrons are encouraged to take mixed drinks into the show. Mike Weatherford of the Review-Journal says casinos are discovering that by presenting full-length versions of musicals, they can rake in even more money.

Mr. WEATHERFORD: The Mandalay Bay people found a very lucrative selling window for merchandise and drinks, both very high mark-up items, during the intermissions.

LUNDEN: And from the producers' perspective, presenting a show at a casino can provide something of a captive audience, says Nina Lannan, general manager of "Mamma Mia!"

(Soundbite from "Dancing Queen")

Ms. NINA LANNAN (General Manager, "Mamma Mia!"): There are a lot of tourists who come through the three affiliated hotels at Mandalay Bay and we have access to all of those tourists that are staying there.

(Soundbite from "Dancing Queen")

Unidentified Group: (Singing)...having the time of your life. Ooh...

LUNDEN: "Mamma Mia's!" success is pulling in other shows, including "Hairspray" and "Phantom of the Opera." Both have announced plans to set up shop on the Las Vegas Strip in custom-built theaters. But those shows have already toured the country and have been seen by millions. Steve Wynn, in luring "Avenue Q" to his hotel, insisted on exclusivity, convincing the producers to drop plans for a national tour.

Mr. WYNN: And I persuaded them that they had a better chance of having longevity by becoming a cult or niche moment in a city like Las Vegas where they would stand in stark contrast to everything else. How long are those guys on the road; 12, 14 months? Finito.

LUNDEN: Steve Wynn's next Broadway in Las Vegas presentation will be Monty Python's "Spamalot." Though dates for a national tour are already booked, Wynn worked out a deal to keep the show from playing in California or Arizona and competing with his productions. Like "Avenue Q," "Spamalot" will play in a completely new venue. Costing about $60 million, it will feature a drawbridge, a castle, the "Spamalot" experience.

Mr. WYNN: You sit down and a headsman comes out with an assistant, because we're going to behead somebody. He's got the big axe and he's giving instructions to the assistant where to put the tarpaulin, which is all blood-stained, so that the people in the front row don't get splashed. And there's all kinds of high jinks.

(Soundbite from "Spamalot")

Unidentified People: (Singing) We're knights of the round table.

LUNDEN: But can Broadway-style entertainment compete in a marketplace where Cirque du Soleil can invest $165 million for its newest extravaganza? Almost the equivalent of the cost of an entire Broadway season. MGM Mirage executive Alan Feldman.

Mr. FELDMAN: Las Vegas is Las Vegas. The entire paradigm of entertainment is very different here. The scope and the scale of the shows that we produce in Las Vegas are completely different than those which are produced on Broadway, but there are some Broadway shows that fit into that concept and that context very, very well.

LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden.

MONTAGNE: To hear music from the shows, including "Mamma Mia's!" title song, go to our Web site,

(Soundbite from "Avenue Q")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) that wants a Tony.

Unidentified Man: I bring the best of the world here for you.

Unidentified Group: Avenue Q.

Unidentified Man: Only in Vegas.

Unidentified Group: And Broadway.

MONTAGNE: And this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rene Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP (Host): And I'm Steve Inskeep.

(Soundbite from "Avenue Q")

Unidentified Man: Only in Vegas.

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