So many possible reasons why casino-based entertainment is in a slump. So many more when it comes to explaining why Broadway musicals come to Las Vegas, not from Las Vegas. Might as well start with the funny one.
“As soon as you land at McCarran airport, you’re all of a sudden cheesy. There’s a cheese mist on the runway.” This is from Tegan Summer, who knows what he faces as the writer, director, and producer of Marilyn! The New Musical, which officially debuts June 1 at Paris Las Vegas. (Previews begin May 23.)
“I’ve heard from every single naysayer, every single Cassandra, every prophet of doom,” Summer says of his stage bio of the screen goddess, produced in conjunction with Authentic Brands Group, the keepers of Marilyn Monroe’s estate.
The subtitle New Musical spells out both the novelty and challenge of a legit “book show” that must distance itself from Marilyn’s long history of cameos in Legends in Concert and Rat Pack tributes. But that might be the least of the British impresario’s concerns. You can debate whether Cirque du Soleil has reached saturation on the Strip, but no one is confusing Cirque’s quality with the Nudes on Ice era of Vegas camp.
And, yes, Broadway musicals have a long track record in casinos, including long-term runs for Jersey Boys and Mamma Mia! Certainly, the Marilyn cast is deep with Broadway transplants, including lead Ruby Lewis, who moves over from The Venetian’s Baz — A Musical Tour de Force (the closest genre competition to Marilyn).
But the last two attempts to launch a new musical on the Strip? They were the kind of bombs The Producers huckster Max Bialystock prayed for. Surf the Musical, with a Beach Boys-licensed jukebox, lasted two months in 2012. And a musical spin on the redneck reality-TV hit Duck Dynasty ran just six weeks in 2015.
Perhaps they were isolated cases, with no common cause for failure. The first-time producers of Surf had more dollars than sense, blowing through a reported $10 million without a trial run or workshop. Duck was simply a terrible idea — neither Broadway buffs nor the TV clan’s fans wanted to see it.
Still, you can’t fault the Gloria Estefan bio On Your Feet, or last year’s new musical Bandstand for sticking to the established paths to Broadway, with trial runs in Chicago and New Jersey, despite their local ties: Siegfried & Roy manager Bernie Yuman is a Feet producer, and Vegas-based Bandstand composer Richard Oberacker tested songs in The Smith Center’s Composers Showcase.
But Summer cites the saying, “Be the change you want to see.” He moved his production company, Prospect House, to Las Vegas, and plans to put up two more new works: a burlesque revue about cult pin-up queen Bettie Page, and an EDM musical with star DJ Steve Aoki.
“Why get up in the morning if I’m a producer and I don’t want to produce?” he says.
The Strip’s craze for concert star residencies is the only real suspect to blame for creative doldrums in the showrooms. Ticket-buyers in general seem more cautious and in search of a sure thing, whether it’s branded fare such as Frozen on Broadway, or The Cosmopolitan’s new Opium, a variation on the comic acrobatics of sister show Absinthe.
“No one has a magic wand,” Summer says. “I certainly don’t.”
But maybe he has a secret weapon. After opening Marilyn! and making sure everyone likes it — “We’re a quality show, but we can’t prove it yet until it’s on its feet” — his plan is to bring in a pop, country, or film star to headline for a month or six weeks. (Pitch Perfect co-star Kelley Jakle starred in the musical’s Pasadena trial run.)
It’s an idea that hasn’t been fully tested on the Strip since Chicago opened Mandalay Bay in 1998 with Ben Vereen and Chita Rivera (unless Seinfeld fans count John O’Hurley top-lining Monty Python’s Spamalot back in 2007).
“I’m not sitting here saying we have the answer,” the producer says. “All I’m saying is we have a shot. The rest is down to life, luck, and hard work.”