In 1981, when I was 14 years old, I saw my first Las Vegas show. Siegfried & Roy: Beyond Belief had just begun what would be a seven-year run at the Frontier, and my parents deemed it suitable for my 6-year-old sister and me on two accounts: It had magic, and it wasn’t topless. Imagine my disappointment when I perused the program and learned that the late show included “the Beyond Belief nudes.” How dare Las Vegas grow a conscience on my behalf! It didn’t know my tastes.
I remember Beyond Belief as being … quaint? Corny? At the time, Las Vegas entertainment was stigmatized as being hopelessly atavistic, and even as a teenager I was dimly aware of that. The Strip, circa 1981, was dominated by fading headliners—your Paul Ankas, your Ann-Margrets—and (topless) variety shows such as Lido de Paris and Jubilee! This was several years before the very idea of “Las Vegas Entertainment” was changed—and as he did with so many other aspects of Las Vegas, I would argue Steve Wynn was the one who changed it.
Consider: Who took Jay Sarno’s wild idea of building entertainment elements into the resort itself—outside of the showrooms, where anyone could see it for free—and blew it up to volcano size? Who first brought Cirque du Soleil to the Strip (setting off a kind of sexy circus arms race in the process)? Who added high art to casino floors, where people continue to not notice it? Who pretty much set the bar on superstar residencies by paying Garth Brooks millions to come out of retirement, then millions more for a private jet so Brooks could commute to his part-time job in the desert? And who hoisted Siegfried & Roy out of the variety-show-with-boobs rut and built an epic, Disney-style production around them—complete with a fucking Michael Jackson theme song?
Wynn not only did these things, but he has dominated the Strip long enough to casually dismiss the trends he himself created.
The reason I’m bringing it up now? Because he appears to be doing it again, with Steve Wynn’s ShowStoppers. The multimillion-dollar Broadway spectacular that opened last week in the Encore Theater is a collection of “show-stopping” numbers from classic Broadway shows. Granted, ShowStoppers doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel—in fact, with no central story, it’s basically Wynn’s Broadway mixtape. (He even narrates the show’s transitions, an odd choice with so many great performers onstage capable of doing the job.) And while it’s often wonderful to look at and packed with terrific, high-energy singers and dancers, when all is said and done, it’s not that far removed from the musical variety shows of Vegas yesteryear. (I got a real Jubilee! buzz during a rhinestone-studded version of “Razzle Dazzle” from Chicago.)
It is big, atavistic and, yes, corny at times. And you know something? That’s fine. ShowStoppers is exactly what we need now. Just look at the world we live in: Cirque seems maxed out. Our big-money headliners—Celine Dion, Santana, Elton John—are thisclose to retiring from the stage, if they haven’t already decided to do so. Britney Spears doesn’t have the depth of following those performers do, and isn’t making many new fans just below drinking age.
It’s time for the full-cheesy Vegas variety show to come back. We’re ready for it. We’re ready for a full-on return to sequined outfits, juggled chainsaws and squirm-inducing big-band versions of recent hits. We’ve exhausted our money and resources pursuing what we think the world wants Las Vegas to be, when all the while tourists have been coming here hoping to find what we were. We have to change the game—so why not go with what we’ve known, and give these people one heckuva Vegas show?
Las Vegas is plainly entering a new phase, one that de-emphasizes gaming in favor of hospitality and entertainment. I can’t say I’m surprised to see Wynn leading the way to a new paradigm; you can say what you will about the man’s politics or personal taste, but you can’t deny that he’s helped to keep the lights on these past two decades.
I wholeheartedly believe that his ShowStoppers will bring us full circle entertainment-wise, at a time when this city desperately needs to start again. And if some of those new variety shows happen to be topless, I suppose that’s between us and our conscience.