As We See It

[Vegas on My Mind]

Broadway to Vegas: Why the ‘Spider-Man’ musical’s move isn’t a sign of failure at all

Web of condescension: Spider-Man is a Vegas show born on Broadway. Will it thrive on the Strip?
Jacob Cohl, AP Photo

The snickering in hifalutin New York theater circles commenced pretty quickly. As usual, it was smug, condescending and wrong.

“Of course Spider-Man is heading to Vegas,” wrote a Facebook acquaintance who stars in a Serious Play that was nominated this year for a Tony or two. “Couldn’t hack it on Broadway. Vegas = crap like that.”

This is how Broadway snobs and obsessives soothe themselves, by suggesting that Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark was always schlock that belonged not on their esteemed, brainy alley but our lowbrow, vacuous one, the Strip. It closes on Broadway in January and is expected to reopen in the 89109, probably in the tricked-out theater at the Venetian once home to Phantom: The Las Vegas Spectacular.

Inside that bitterness is an uncomfortable truth: Vegas can do New York theater successfully, but New York still hasn’t figured out how to do much that’s Vegas-worthy. It’s an ultimate irony: After a decade of hype about Vegas doing “the Broadway thing,” New York is trying to get in on the Vegas act—and failing.

It’s understandable that they’d try, given how sturdy Vegas hits are. Mystère and O are in their second decade, a boggling feat for all but a couple of New York musicals. Before them, there was Danny Gans and Siegfried & Roy, who’d probably still be performing had fate been kinder. Acts like Penn & Teller, David Copperfield, Donny & Marie, George Wallace and even Carrot Top have all put in more performances and made more money than most beloved, decorated Broadway shows.

Vegas can, in fact, do it all. Some Broadway imports didn’t work out, but many—Mamma Mia!, Phantom, Blue Man Group, The Lion King and Jersey Boys—did. Lily Tomlin and Twyla Tharp found success in both locales, as did Chazz Palminteri with A Bronx Tale. Heck, Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding is still playing here. The Smith Center has proven a solid venue for the Broadway tour circuit, even though some believed local Las Vegans lacked the cultural appreciation for such work. And, of course, the big-name resident headliners—Celine, Elton, Cher, Garth—have all found longevity and opportunity here that New York could never or would never provide.

And don’t let the New York natterers tell you they don’t want all that. Vegas is a more popular, more lucrative and far more varied destination for live entertainment than Manhattan—and that sticks in many craws back East. Some of it is serious—most Cirque shows contain all sorts of deep mythological and literary references for those wanting and able to notice—and some is banal. Something for everyone.

Yes, Spider-Man was a Vegas show born in New York, but that’s not because it wasn’t “good enough” for Broadway. Rather, it’s because the smart money there decided they wanted a Vegas-like melange of acrobatics, pop-rock music and storytelling. That came on the heels of unsuccessful efforts to build a Cirque show that might last in New York, first with the disastrous, short-lived flop Banana Shpeel and then with now-Vegas-resident Zarkana. In 2010, Cirque’s CEO told me he envisioned a six-month-a-year residency at Radio City Music Hall, but Zarkana spent just three months there in 2011 and 2012 before that arrangement was canned.

Vegas shows—even those imported from New York—have several advantages. They’re part of a comprehensive entertainment complex, so they don’t need to support themselves on T-shirts and M&Ms at intermission. Sometimes shows are harmed in the transition from two acts to one, as Hairspray discovered. But just as often, we get a Phantom, a show that was always too long on Broadway and was reduced to its best parts and enhanced by better technology for its Vegas run.

Much of what gave Spider-Man a bad name in New York would be far less likely to occur in Vegas. All those stunt accidents and performer injuries? That was New York trying to learn something Vegas show-runners already know how to do. That ugly feud between creator Julie Taymor and collaborators Bono and The Edge of U2? It might have erupted here, but my guess is the pressure to make a lofty “work of art” as defined by prissy East Coast theater writers poisoned that partnership. The embarrassment of failing to hit arbitrary box office benchmarks? Nonexistent in Vegas, where box office is not publicly reported.

I don’t know if Spider-Man is crap. It might be. But it’s hard to tell when it has only been critiqued in the context of Broadway. That’s a narrow lens, and one that must be broadened if New York is ever going to tap into what makes Vegas stages so lucrative.

I can’t wait to see how those same critics rate the Vegas version, but I expect a healthy dose of mockery. It’s their best defense.

Steve Friess is a freelance journalist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Newsweek and USA Today, among many other outlets.
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