Curtain Calls in the Desert
Las Vegas has long been the Live Entertainment Capital of the World. Since the city’s humble beginnings in the 1940s, big name entertainers have taken to the stage to beckon tourists to this growing desert oasis.
So, when plans to build The Smith Center first emerged around 2009, there were some in the city who were skeptical of the need.
“There were a lot of people that thought, ‘Well, you know, you’re the Entertainment Capital of the World…don’t you have enough showrooms already?’” recalls Myron Martin, president and CEO of The Smith Center.
Las Vegas, at the time, was the largest city in North America without major league sports, an academic medical center, or a first-rate performing arts center.
Nearly a decade later, the city has all three.
Since opening in 2012, The Smith Center has quickly become ground zero for the local arts and entertainment community. As for the Las Vegas Strip, acclaimed shows and headliners still bring in crowds from around the world. The city’s community and regional theaters are also growing in quantity and quality.
“It’s an exciting time,” says Ross Mollison, founder of Spiegelworld, the entertainment company that produces Absinthe and Opium on the Strip. “The economy is booming, and everyone is working hard. I think it’s a great sign for Vegas entertainment going forward.”
Martin agrees: “Isn’t it great to be living in Las Vegas right now, while the history books are being written about it?”
From Broadway West to Next …
Prior to opening The Smith Center in 2012, Martin was a driving force in bringing Broadway productions like Mamma Mia and Hairspray to the Las Vegas Strip.
There were even whispers at the time of Las Vegas becoming Broadway West.
The Broadway invasion brought Avenue Q and Monty Python’s Spamalot to the Wynn Las Vegas, and Mel Brooks’ smash hit The Producers to Paris Las Vegas.
In 2006, a revised staging of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera debuted on a new $40 million stage at the Venetian Las Vegas.
Phantom – The Las Vegas Spectacular was a shortened version of the original, with added flash and no intermission. Tony Award-winning director Harold Prince made the adjustments in order to accommodate the tastes of Las Vegas tourists.
“When we scheduled the Vegas production of Phantom, I was aware that it had to be one act…but also that the audience would expect a bit more production,” recalls Prince. “So, we went about re-programming the famous chandelier to drop over the audience’s heads and stop abruptly. We added the exterior of the Paris Opera House in gold, some pyrotechnics, and…we redesigned the Venetian Theatre to suggest the Paris Opera interior with all its boxes and audience (in this case mannequins in period costumes and beautiful jewelry).”
Despite receiving excellent reviews, even being designated the best Vegas show of that year, Phantom – The Las Vegas Spectacular closed in 2012, ending its run prematurely, just like all the other Broadway shows that hit the Strip.
Prince voiced his disappointment with the closure at the time and still feels a sense of remorse. “I always thought we should and could have run longer and regret that we didn’t,” he admits.
As for Broadway West in Las Vegas?
“Well, that never happened, obviously,” says Martin, who thinks hoteliers are no longer looking to Broadway as “an easy way” to sell tickets on the Strip.
“Tourist come here expecting to see superstar headliners and unique productions such as Cirque du Soleil…to be amazed and to see something that they might not be able to see at home,” he says. “People don’t have to come to Las Vegas to see a Broadway show. Most of them get to see the tours when they come to their home towns.”
Enriching the local community
Though tourists weren’t looking to Las Vegas for Broadway, Martin did learn from Hairspray that there was, indeed, “a pent-up demand for Broadway in Las Vegas.” It just happened to be among locals; and there aren’t enough of those to support a Broadway show 52 weeks a year.
The Smith Center, on the other hand, is “designed to accommodate a giant turn in touring productions [of Broadway shows] that come in with 10 or 15 or 20 giant trucks of scenery…many of which skipped Las Vegas altogether before.”
Martin believes that any initial skepticism about building a $470 million performing arts facility on the 61-acre Symphony Park in downtown Las Vegas quickly faded once locals realized its benefits to the community, from improving public education to enriching the local arts.
“This isn’t all about finding the most profitable commercial attraction and booking it and making money,” says Martin. “This is about inspiring the community.”
He expected The Smith Center would have an impact on the already burgeoning downtown; assuming, for instance, that restaurants downtown would be busier on show nights.
“What I didn’t personally expect is how restaurants in Summerlin and Henderson and throughout the valley are getting this new rush of traffic from people who are going to the show, but they want to eat in their own neighborhood,” he says.
The addition of The Smith Center has also seemed to inspire the performing arts community. While community and regional theaters have had a long history of attracting locals in Las Vegas, some have noticed there seem to be more popping up in recent years.
“I notice an increase in quality, in number of theaters and in the theaters that are willing to take big risks, do new work and challenge audiences,” says Karen McKenney, who ran the Rainbow Company Youth Theater for 35 years before retiring in July.
The city is also now home to two performing arts public schools. The Las Vegas Academy of the Arts opened in 1993, while Del Sol High School was re-established as a performing arts school in 2016.
McKenney believes the addition of the Smith Center has challenged local companies to work at a higher level.
“None of the community theaters in town have the sort of budget that they have, so if you’re doing something that might come to The Smith Center you want to find a way to put your own spin on it, that makes it stand apart…or go further afield and select material that would never in a million years be presented at The Smith Center,” she says. “It has really pushed us all to think outside the box.”
The “Wow” Factor
Originally the Las Vegas Strip was all about headliners. Soon came the showgirls and magic shows. When Cirque du Soleil swung into town with Mystère in 1993, it took everyone by storm.
Now, there seems to be a broad combination of shows on the Strip, even afternoon shows for kids. Spiegelworld’s Mollison believes there’s room for everyone, noting “there’s, like, 50 million people who come to Vegas.”
Like Martin, he believes that tourists come to Las Vegas looking for something outside of the ordinary.
“You see them at check-in, whether you’re at Caesars Palace or the Cosmopolitan, and it’s almost like their pupils are dilated or maybe they’re just a bit wider, and they’re not necessarily like that when they get on a flight at McCarran to leave, but when they get here, it’s ‘Were in Vegas!’ and they’re going to have a fun time,” he says. “They want to go out and have a big night and see something fun and I think that our shows are tailored for that, they’re tailored for fun.”
In addition to the tourist crowd, Mollison is grateful to receive an enormous amount of local support.
“They love to bring their aunties to the show and shock the hell out of them,” he says, “to take them to something that’s a bit more risqué than…Celine Dion.”
Spiegelworld came to town while The Smith Center was under construction, though the company originally signed on with the stalled Fontainbleu Las Vegas in 2009. In 2011, the entertainment company signed on for six months on the Roman Plaza at Caesars Palace. Now their acrobatic adult cabaret Absinthe has been going on nearly eight years.
Spiegelworld’s newest space-themed variety show, Opium, blasted off earlier this year at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas. The company also has a new disco-related show in the works for a Las Vegas venue, yet to be named.
“When we first came to town, people were like ‘you’re opening a show in Vegas, are you crazy?’ There were no new casinos being opened. The Cosmopolitan had already opened,” recalls Mollison. “I think that was part of our success, because we did something new and everybody was excited about it. We came in and put the show on and everybody’s been fantastic since.”
The city is currently booming with new hotels and restaurants. The Vegas Golden Knights skated into town last year and took the hockey world by surprise. Superstars like Lady Gaga, Aerosmith, and Gwen Stefani have signed on for residencies through 2019 at venues up and down the Las Vegas Strip. The Raiders are headed to the Las Vegas Stadium (under construction) for the 2020 National Football League (NFL) season.
From nightlife to convention spaces, “it’s just a regeneration of the existing industry,” says Mollison. “I think Vegas is set to boom for the next few years.”
Even with his successes, Mollison points out that the odds aren’t always in your favor when putting on a Vegas show.
“You’ve got to work really, really hard. You’ve got to be really, really clever. And then you’ve got to be lucky,” he says. “Sometimes the luck goes your way and sometimes it doesn’t.”
That’s just how Las Vegas rolls.