[The Strip Sense]

Back to basics—and Garth

After lots of trial and error, Steve Wynn is playing it safe

Party on, Wynn. Party on, Garth.
Photo: Steve Marcus

Let’s get this out of the way right off the top: Garth Brooks will sell out every seat of every show for however long he appears at the Wynn Las Vegas. Period. This is the top-selling American solo artist ever, he’s starved his fans of live performances for almost a decade, he’s forced Steve Wynn to cap ticket prices at $125, and he’s only got a room half the size of the Colosseum to fill.

That does not mean, however, that that’s all there is to say about this deal. Embedded in this decision, in fact, is a great deal of information about the rough, humbling road that Wynn has traveled on the show front since his flawless days as owner of that other little group of joints he built on the other side of the street.

The charming press event at which Wynn and Garth Brooks made this badly kept secret formally known to the world was a minefield of contradictions to me. I know Wynn well enough to know he’s proud of his relationship with Brooks and excited for what he will be able to offer his guests, but I wonder, frankly, if even he is aware of how much he’s changed his story since the Wynn Las Vegas opened.

Take, for instance, the moment when Wynn said, “There’s nothing like a single performer standing on a stage without any help.” It took a little while for me to figure out why that remark was so familiar, but it did finally hit me: Wynn and I sat together at the first performance of Avenue Q in the same theater in August of 2005, and, as the music began to swell, he leaned over to me and whispered giddily, “There’s nothing like the overture of a Broadway show.”

Ah, yes. Broadway. Remember that plan? Wynn didn’t. That quote above actually went like this: “The toughest thing I’ve ever done in the last 40 years is entertainment. Gifted, lucky and wonderful to have Siegfried and Roy. Another stroke of luck to have found Cirque du Soleil early on. But there’s nothing like a single performer standing on a stage without any help.”

Notice anything missing in that timeline? The theater in which we sat was once known as the Broadway Theater and opened as home to that Tony-winning bawdy puppet musical that survived nine months. When it was opening, though, Wynn had lofty hopes for a “theater district” of as many as four concurrent shows on the property. Then came the cancellation of even a third showroom and a year-ish of Spamalot. After that, Wynn went safe with Danny Gans, who, of course, died suddenly in May and left Wynn again with a vacancy.

Wynn shouldn’t sell himself short on the Broadway thing. As much as it appears to be a failure, it’s really just that the two shows he brought didn’t become Vegas staples. Yet he did make it trendy and classy in New York for hot properties to contemplate Vegas and that, more so than the fluky success of Mamma Mia!, is why Phantom and Jersey Boys migrated to Venetian and Palazzo. Of course, Wynn’s not in the habit of taking pride in the fact that neighboring archnemesis Sheldon Adelson has enjoyed great success with one of his ideas.

Wynn has clearly been chastened by those disappointments, and you could tell that by how subservient and compliant he was with Garth Brooks. He accepted at least one fairly surprising and risky proposition, agreeing to release Brooks from his contract whenever the country star wished. “I didn’t give him the same option,” the singer said to laughs.

He also accepted the task of working around Brooks’ rather stringent—and admirable—family schedule, which supposedly necessitated buying the Brooks bunch their own jet. (I’m dubious about whether this is as it sounds. Brooks’ wife Trisha Yearwood was unclear whether they would actually own the plane and could use it for other trips, and the math makes no sense. The total annual revenue from ticket sales is already capped at $16 million—2,000 seats times $125 a seat times 64 shows a year—so I have to believe that Wynn is merely buying time on a jet to ferry the family to and fro.)

But the most significant sea change in Wynn was his overall plan for the theater. Here is what he said at last week’s presser: “Our approach to this room has been that it doesn’t need to be used all the time. Only when something special happens, we’ll be in here.”

This was not, despite Wynn’s statement, how it “has been” discussed in the past. It was ironic that he told the story of taking an effusive Bette Midler to see Brooks in one of his two free trial concerts this summer, because Wynn told me years ago that negotiations with Midler for a headliner gig broke down when Midler’s management refused to promise to help him fill out the rest of the dates with other top-caliber acts. “I couldn’t have a showroom that sat empty 30 weeks a year,” he said to me at the time. As recently as March 2008, when I asked Wynn about rumors he might sign Danny Gans, he said, “I would love to have Danny come over, but he does four performances a week, and it would be great to have him, but, you know, I can’t have a theater with four performances a week.”

Obviously, between then and when Gans was signed, that concern dissipated, and the need to fill the room all the time went away. And that’s fine and great and probably bows to the new economic reality that an empty showroom can be more profitable than a busy one. But Wynn’s history is still on the record.

So while Garth Brooks is a no-brainer future success, and I’m excited myself to see him, it is worthwhile to note that a smart or hard-to-strike deal is not necessarily a courageous or creative one.

As with the decision to lure Danny Gans from the Mirage, this shows that Wynn has become risk-averse. And that’s too bad, because Wynn’s inspired ideas never truly fail all the way, and, more importantly, watching him take a flier was always, always the best show in town.


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