I’m getting “A Little Help From My Friends” today with guest blogger, Andy Walmsley. Andy is an Emmy award winning set designer that lives here in Las Vegas. He just recently finished up the set for Human Nature’s new show at The Venetian. He’s really proud of it. I’m proud of him too! It looks amazing! Andy wanted to write about his experience and give his take on Vegas entertainment. Enjoy his blog!
HAS VEGAS LOST ITS SPARKLE ?
If you were to walk thru the Cosmopolitan Casino, valet-to-strip the answer would be NO, but what of the Entertainment scene in Vegas ?
Lets start at the beginning of my love affair with Las Vegas. My first trip to the “ entertainment capital of the world “ was in 1990 and my first show? Siegfried and Roy at the Mirage. A producer friend in London had set me up with comps and the VIP booth front center, as the lights dimmed none other than Michael Jackson and entourage where seated in the booth next to me and shock Jock Howard Stern sat a few tables away, Dragons, Tigers, Elephants and two bedazzled Germans enthralled me for the next 90 minutes and I was Hooked, I turned to my girlfriend and said “ I’m going to live here one day .”
At the time I was still living in the UK and working on West End musicals and my own version of Vegas glittery shows in the form of the last of the great TV entertainment shows, before they where killed off by reality TV talent shows ( I was a part of those too so I do have some blood on my hands ) I returned to Vegas roughly every 18 months after that first trip to see as many as 15 shows per trip until ten years ago when my prediction came true and I moved permanently from London to the States making Vegas my home.
Although I wasn’t around in the “ good old days “ of Vegas I certainly did witness the end of the real big production shows that lined the Strip, I saw Lido de Paris, Follies, Enter the night, City Lights, Lance Burton at the Hacienda, Splash versions 1, 2 and 3, EFX and many more. But when I did finally make Vegas my home the cancer had set in, I am referring to the dreaded Four wall deals.
Now much has been said about the 4 wall deal model now almost mandatory in all Casinos, hell people have blogged about 4 wall hell, written articles, vented on facebook, I hear Clint Holmes is even writing a musical “ Four wall the musical “ so there’s not much I can add but for those who don’t know what I’m talking about simply explained 4 wall means that the producer of a Vegas show or on the smaller shows the headliner themselves have to pay rent to the casino to perform in the showroom, they pay rent, crew costs, box office charges and sometimes a percentage of their tickets to the casino then they pay for marketing, all the costs of running their show, musicians, dancers, etc and whatever (if anything) is left they get to put in their pockets. In the old days the Casino would cover all these costs and then pay the entertainer a handsome fee to play golf all day then turn up in the evening and do a couple shows, Most entertainers now spend all day wooing the countless ticket brokers who eat into their revenue but are the new necessary evil when selling tickets (I own www.vegasliveshow.com damn more blood on my hands) and then after a full days work in the office or pounding the streets kissing babies and cutting the ribbon at the opening of a new carpet store, they get to go to the Casino and actually perform the show they have spent all day peddling.
I’m not here to bitch about 4 wall deals ( although I just did…god damn it ) but I want to explain how this system that crept in 12 or 15 years ago really marked the end of an era for Vegas entertainment and not just effecting the income of the towns entertainers, producers etc but directly affecting the experience of the audience.
In the Siegfried and Roy era the Casino’s would throw money at the creation of a show, each new show opening trying to out do the last and draw people away from the competitor casino with a more outrageous and lavish feast for the eyes, bigger sets, more lights, better sound, scores of showgirls, dragons tigers and elephants ( you get the idea.)
Today it is hard even to find an available room to put your show in with over 100 shows playing in Vegas ( fun fact.. there are more shows playing in Vegas than both Broadway and the West End combined ) and then when you do mount a show the outlay has to be trimmed to the bone because of the never ending costs and broker commissions. The larger shows still spend a decent amount of money and the smaller one man shows in small rooms simply cant afford to lavish investment on eye candy It is the medium sized shows I have a beef with.
The medium sized shows usually play in the 500 / 800 seat rooms and its pretty rare that they compete visually with the Vegas shows of the 70’s 80’s and 90’s. If there is a band at all it’s likely 4 or 5 musicians ( being paid a fraction of what they used to make ) what of the famous Vegas showgirls ? well you’ll be lucky to see 8 on stage, more likely 6 and as for spectacular costumes or scenery.. forget it !
I often sit in crummy showrooms watching cringe worthy shows, under lit, backed by a black curtain and I mouth to myself “ the entertainment capital of the world “
There are a few exceptions, of course Cirque Du Soleil always spend bucket loads of cash on production and it shows. Also great respect goes out to Steve Wynn who has always valued entertainment and I am very enthused by the possibility of him producing a lavish new production show currently called ‘ Funhouse ‘ that I hope gets thru its current development stage and makes it to a reality with lots of visually interesting scenery.
The reason I bring up scenery is because one of my many hats but by far the one I am most known to wear is that of Set Designer. I have done several shows here in town, the smaller shows I get it, I really do get it, they at best can only afford basic minimal scenery ( usually none ) I have designed a few very small shows and often I don’t even charge them for my services ( I’m friends with most of these entertainers and I am happy to help as I know it can be tough establishing a show here and I want all shows in Vegas to succeed ) I have done a few of the medium sized shows, Terry Fator for example who trusted me with a big chunk of his own money before it was known if his show at the Mirage would truly succeed. The money Terry spent was a fantastic investment and his show does look slick.
Most recently ( in fact just opened last week ) I designed the new Human Nature Motown show at the Venetian. The four amazingly talented Australian guys have had a very successful run at the Imperial palace ( now re named the Quad .. btw what the hell is a Quad ? ) When they signed the deal to move to the Venetian they and producer Adam Steck brought me in to add polish, gloss and sparkle to the visuals of their show. I stood at the back of the theater last week for the first preview performance and it all hit me like a tonne of bricks ( hence I wanted to write this blog ) That when these medium sized shows actually spend real money ( and boy have Human Nature and Steck bitten the bullet and spent the dollars on this production ) well it shows.. I mean you can really tell and it goes way beyond what the eye can see, it’s a psychological message you are sending the audience. The kind of people who enjoy live entertainment in Vegas watch the TV entertainment shows like American Idol, Dancing with the stars and they are conditioned to seeing that quality of big budget set, lights, video support, and talent. They notice even if at a sub conscious level when there is a simple black curtain half a dozen lights and 4 show girls. The entertainers may well be doing a great job but the audience even if they cant put their finger on it can tell there’s something missing.
There’s no question that Human Nature have insane amounts of talent and in fact it’s worth mentioning that the quality of entertainers who end up with shows in Vegas are for the most part equally as talented as those who went before them in the more Lavish productions decades ago, but what Human Nature have done with their new show by allowing me to spend money in the right places is create an overall experience for the audience that goes beyond their skills, the band and the evergreen Motown catalogue.
I was very proud watching the show last week, not because of the work I had personally done but because as a team, me, lighting, sound, video, choreography all of us, we brought back to the medium sized Las Vegas show some sparkle, some gloss, a fantasy world that the tourist can escape into for 90 minutes.
It’s going to be tough for Adam Steck to go backwards visually with his future productions and I know he loves to create quality when the economics allow but my hope is that other producers see the show and understand what can and should be done and much more importantly that the casinos see how these shows should be done as they where back in the day and that they can help the producers in the future to make the economics work so that money can be spent entertaining their guests and creating a lasting positive experience that ultimately massively benefits the Casino itself.
I’m not sure if the 4 wall days are numbered but perhaps there is a compromise where the casinos can help the producers a little more and we can all once again enjoy the type of visual feasts that gave Vegas the name “ the entertainment capital of the world.