While sitting in the darkened Théatre des Arts at Paris Las Vegas during the final stages of dress rehearsals for We Will Rock You I can't help think that if someone had told me three years ago that Las Vegas would become the next big center of musical theatre, I would not have believed them. Las Vegas has always been known as a place where entertainment meets vice and excess and The Strip is the place where grandiosity, glitter, and glitz are the name of the game. The questions is: how does traditional musical theatre fit into this realm?
The entertainment business is constantly reinventing itself and musical theatre is no exception. Shows like Mamma Mia! and Movin' Out have begun to resonate with theatregoers, as audiences crave an alternative to the traditional book musical. Notable examples of the convergence happening in our industry are productions such as Blue Man Group, De La Guarda, Blast! and, yes, even this year's Tony winner for best musical, Avenue Q.
In 1993, the musical Starlight Express opened for an extended run at the Las Vegas Hilton. While three years was an admirable run, many would argue that Starlight, at 90 minutes with no intermission, was not presented as a traditional musical. As a result, the show is not considered to be the pioneer of today's Broadway in the Desert. That title is reserved for the musical Chicago, which came in 1999, to the theatre at the newly opened Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino. The producers were determined to break with tradition and present the show in its full glory, including an intermission. Many people said that Chicago would fail, and yet a year later the show closed after an unprecedented response to a risky venture.
At the moment, Las Vegas is host to a full-length production of Mamma Mia!, Blue Man Group, and abbreviated versions of Saturday Night Fever and soon, We Will Rock You. In the next year, a brand new production of The Phantom of the Opera as well as Avenue Q will join the lineup.
Clearly, there is an expectation that productions in Las Vegas will be big and spectacular. You can't exist side by side with something like Cirque du Soleil's O and expect to survive unless you give an audience the maximum bang for the buck, and it is for this reason that productions such as Mamma Mia! have up-scaled their Broadway production values in order to be competitive. There are however, a number of other factors aside from competition that contribute to this tendency to go over the top. For example, the venues here have massive stage space, often with built-in elevators and automated fly systems and are larger than most Broadway houses. There is often more time and money provided in the form of gaming revenue offsetting the expense of such large-scale productions. Las Vegas is more cost effective than Broadway due to the lower cost of living here combined with the commensurate lower wages.
The need to set your show apart from the competition and to be as cutting edge as possible combined with a maverick spirit and some money to play with drives forward the use of new technologies in Las Vegas.
On We Will Rock You, the show I'm currently working on, the sound design utilizes a D5T digital console from DiGiCo that has not been used previously on a musical in North America. In addition, at the FOH mix position, we are using a DiGiCo D5-TC and the D5 RE. For the monitors, the show uses a Soundtracs DS-00 console. The entire rig communicates over an optical network combined with Ethernet for some desk-to-desk communications. An-drew Bruce has spent the past two years consulting with DiGiCo, attempting to get a truly purpose-built digital theatre sound console with a smaller control surface that addresses the needs of designers, operators, and producers of musical theatre.
Even veterans of countless Broadway shows will find the process of theatrical production in Las Vegas somewhat daunting. It is unclear when the entertainment industry in Clark County became so regulated but there is no doubt that the MGM Grand Hotel fire on November 21st, 1980 — killing 84 people and injuring 679 — had a lot to do with it.
Planning for a production in Las Vegas should ideally begin one and a half to two years prior to opening as there are a number of steps for submission of drawings, and architectural and engineering approvals that need to take place before construction can even begin. The sound system may need to be run into conduits and designed more as an installation or the system may need to take advantage of an existing network of house lines and racks, as was the case with Mamma Mia! For productions where the venue was completely remodeled or is being purpose built, the sound design starts with complete conduit riser drawings and proceeds from there — not something that you would need to deal with during your average Broadway show build!
Las Vegas presents some challenges when it comes to the logistics of theatre production. It's not New York, and most of the sought-after theatrical specialists are over 2,500 miles and a three-hour time difference away. Many of the same issues that plague those faced with doing production in Seattle for a touring show or while in Chicago for an out of town tryout are part of working here.
As far as shops are concerned, PRG has probably the largest facility of any theatrical vendor in the country here but when providing audio for a musical they must rely on their location in Mt. Vernon, NY, which specializes in theatre.
Masque Sound, based in East Rutherford, NJ won the contracts for both Mamma Mia! and We Will Rock You due to not only a competitive price but also because of their ability to provide the specific expertise and inventory that theatrical productions require. Despite the abundance of entertainment produced here, it is often difficult to find particular rental items simply because the casinos own most everything they need. There is not a huge rental market like that which we take for granted in London or New York, as many of the audio vendors in the Las Vegas area concentrate on markets such as AV, convention and trade shows, rock and roll, or casino installations. Companies such as SPL, Pro Sound, SAVI, and Solotec have installed house audio, video, and communications systems in some of the largest theatres, convention facilities, and event centers in the area.
Despite the lower wage scale here, Las Vegas crews have some of the best levels of experience and skills in the industry after having worked on some of the most technically elaborate productions in the world. Many people have migrated here from touring rock and roll or working on cruise ships or for theme parks and there are also plenty of IATSE stagehands who call Las Vegas home.
Local 720 IATSE is one of the largest union locals in the country. Cirque du Soleil is a major employer, and although they are completely non-union, they pay wages that are on par or better than the equivalent unionized shows. Many technicians make a living working in the entertainment areas of the casinos but still more are part of a huge workforce which services the convention industry in Las Vegas. As theatrical productions begin to proliferate there is a growing body of crew personnel who understand the requirements of working in musical theatre and it is a pleasure to work here with them.
There is a synergy of elements that come together to make up the landscape of shows in the Las Vegas valley. The key is to embrace the differences of working here and to be willing to learn to work within this system rather than to try to reinvent it in the image of Broadway. Clearly musical theatre and Las Vegas are a good fit and the gamble with this patron of technological advancement for the entertainment industry has already paid off.
David Patridge is a sound designer, production sound engineer, and audio consultant based in Toronto, Canada. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.