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May 27, 2017

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Q+A: Steve Wynn talks ‘Showstoppers’ ahead of Saturday grand opening

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“Steve Wynn’s Showstoppers” at Encore Theater in Wynn Las Vegas.

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“Steve Wynn’s Showstoppers” at Encore Theater in Wynn Las Vegas.

Tycoon Steve Wynn has built award-winning hotels — the Mirage, Bellagio, Wynn and Encore, to name a few — and created award-winning shows, bringing Cirque du Soleil and Broadway hits to the Strip. At age 73, he hasn’t stopped yet with his visions.

Now he’s the most excited he’s ever been in his life with the creation of his “Steve Wynn’s Showstoppers” spectacular that after previews has its official opening gala Saturday night.

I was invited to sit in on a sneak preview: It’s razzle-dazzle of the highest order. It’s the first show in many a year I’ve wanted not to end. This old but new Vegas entertainment returns the Strip to the glory days of huge headliner names, magnificent music and super songs.

Audiences are singing and dancing their way out of Steve’s Encore Theater in Wynn Las Vegas after watching the 90-minute entertainment extravaganza, and I can’t say that about many shows I’ve sat through in the past decade.

Steve’s 35 singers and dancers backed by an onstage 31-piece orchestra are a stunning ensemble who deliver Muhammad Ali knockout punches with an incredible collection of Broadway songs that were the showstoppers of their time when they premiered on the Great White Way — the lasting anthems of American musical theater.

Think about this: After Cirque du Soleil’s dazzling acrobatics in the French-Canadian company’s eight Strip shows, isn’t it a welcome change just to have music, singers and songs without death-defying aerial acts that could easily interchange from one show to another? (The only tip of the hat to that is with the gorgeous, leggy dancer who swoops down from high above on a silvery moon.)

Don’t for a minute think of “Showstoppers” as a dusty vestige from yesteryear that appeals to the walker-and-wheelchair set. Steve has invested $10 million, so this is as hip and as modern as it could be with infectious lyrics, musical notes you can tap your feet to and sing along with and talented tenors, sophisticated sopranos and boisterous baritones with whom you are emotionally connected.

My younger guest who I’d have thought would have been more at home in a noisy nightclub surprised me by loving the whole package, including the wondrous wardrobe of colorful, hip and modern costumes. It’s an eye-popping evening of excitement and enjoyment. Give me more of that old razzle-dazzle! You have permission to stand up and cheer!

I talked with Steve as he was about to go into a recording studio to add a few more peppy introductions to the nearly 25 songs from 12 iconic musicals. Add them all up, and the scene-stealing catalog of “Showstoppers” musicals have won 43 Tony Awards. “One” from “A Chorus Line” may well top the lot, but “Rocking the Boat” and “Luck Be a Lady” from “Guys and Dolls,” “You’re the Top” from “Anything Goes,” “Razzle Dazzle” and “All That Jazz” from “Chicago,” “Cabaret” from the same-named musical and the closing “There’s No Business Like Show Business” cement the night of spectacular theater.

These are the most celebrated composers and lyricists — from Cole Porter to Marvin Hamlisch and Stephen Sondheim to Rodgers & Hammerstein — to have ever hit the Broadway lights.

It’s almost impossible to single out the individual, vibrant and high-energy performers because they all give their heart, soul and strength with total professionalism to the production. But director Phil McKinley, most recently at the help of “Spider-Man” on Broadway, the choreography of three-time Emmy winner Marguerite Derricks, costumes from Suzy Benziger, makeup designer Luc Verschueren and Emmy-winning musical director David Loeb get full credit for the making of a masterpiece.

However, this is Steve’s dream, his creation — and all because of a birthday party he threw for his wife, Andrea.

Steve told me, “Execution of this project has been perfect. If this isn’t a success, the failure is mine alone. This was my idea. I picked my favorite songs. This was my response to Cirque du Soleil. I thought it was time to have no hydraulics, just raw talent and great music and live music. Everybody executed magnificently.

“The only person on trial here is me. We’ve got to be honest about it, the talent on that stage and the way the people executed it. We did the entire sound of the room over again.

“The kids in the nightclubs can go to nightclubs in any city in America, but there’s not legitimate theater in every city in America. We cannot say without making an inductive leap that young people don’t like legitimate music. What we can say is they’re not exposed to it, but if I’m right about a showstopper.

“Remember I said in the introductory tape that these shows resonated generation after generation with people. No one knew “One” before Michael Bennett opened it on Broadway, but the minute they saw it, they loved it. Without ever having seen it before. There was something about “One” that was great. There was something that got everybody off their seats.

“So I’m saying that if these numbers have an intrinsic resonance with emotion, then they can be cleverly linked together and performed even if they’re repurposed to be a little bit more contemporary. We did one number with girls getting ready to probably go to a nightclub, with the corsets and everyone getting dressed onstage. But they could still be off for a pleasant and wonderful night of musical theater.

“That was the simple idea that this was all about. I didn’t need Richard Gere to do “Razzle Dazzle.” It wouldn’t mean that much more in Las Vegas. I’ll put our Kerry O’Malley up against Sutton Foster any time. Only a few Broadway junkies would know who she is.

It’s the songs, it’s the music, and I don’t think anybody really worries about who is performing it so long as it’s performed professionally at its best level.

Correct. Who the hell sings better than our Randal Keith? That guy has an instrument that’s extraordinary. We’re going to put another number in the show. We’re going to surprise Randal and ask if he wants to do it. As you can tell, we keep tinkering to make it even better than it already is.

‘Le Reve’ Unveiling at Wynn Theater

Launch slideshow »

‘Le Reve — The Dream’ Couple

Performers are lifted out of the water in a scene during “Le Reve — The Dream” on Monday, Feb. 10, 2014, at Wynn Las Vegas.
Launch slideshow »

Steve, you really are by creature of habit a builder, and here you are building a show instead of a hotel.

I know, but you can’t separate entertainment from Las Vegas, Robin. The town has always been owned by the showmen, right? When it was Jay Sarno or Jack Entratter, it’s always been that way. This is not a regional casino. Our visitors get on a plane, they’ve made advanced reservations, this is their vacation. They come to live large.

They don’t come here for the slots; they’re everywhere in 38 states! They come here for the experience, and entertainment is a major part of that. Then service and beautiful environments and getting a massage and going to the pool. They come here for an experience, and it’s the non-casino experience that defines these places.

Las Vegas is no longer the gaming experience.

It never has been, Robin. It never has been. Jack Entratter said that to me. He had the Sands, a place in the sun that made the town. Then along came Caesars with its showroom and Frank Sinatra.

The biggest headliners.

That’s right. I was there opening night, and Andy Williams was the opening act. I was sitting in the last booth against the back wall the opening night at Caesars, and when Steve (Lawrence) and Eydie (Gorme) closed that room, I insisted, because they wanted us to come, that I had the exact same booth. I sat with my back against the wall by the entrance in the back booth in the middle the first night that Andy Williams sang there and the last night that Steve and Eydie closed it.

Showbiz and stardom have always been about the song, the singer and the music.

We’re on the same page. I’m going to get our Lindsay Roginski to come out and say, “I’m Lindsey, I’m from Ohio, and when they announced the audition for this show, I was all excited. I grew up learning to sing and dance so I could be on Broadway someday, maybe even be in Las Vegas. When they announced the show, I came and auditioned, and I was very nervous.” She’ll wear a raincoat, a cover up costume, and sing something at about 50 percent power with an audition piano.

She’ll finish 15 bars, and the audience will give her weak applause, and she’ll say, “OK, so I was a little nervous, that’s what happens in auditions, but guess what? I got the job!” Off comes the costume, the curtains open, and she does “If My Friends Could See Me Now.”

What other favorite numbers did you write into your show?

We’re doing numbers that have the ability to resonate with audiences forever. That are honest and true for this girl from Ohio, and it is about if her friends could see her now. I’m going to surprise Randal when our interview ends. I’m going to play Sammy Davis Jr. doing “For Once in My Life.” I’m going to tell Randal, I want him to come out after Lindsey does and tell the audience that when she says she’s from Ohio, she’s telling the truth.

I want him to say he lives in Las Vegas, and the show is a great moment for him. I’d like him to express it and see if he can do “For Once in My Life.” It’s honest, it’s organic, and there’s no hydraulics. It’s a fabulous singer in front of a curtain with 30 drop dead orchestra players doing a great piece of material.

Steve Wynn-Andrea Hissom Engagement Ring

Andrea Hissom's engagement ring from Steve Wynn at the premiere of Sinatra: Dance With Me at Encore Theater in the Wynn on Dec. 11, 2010. Launch slideshow »

Steve Wynn

Steve Wynn inside the atrium of Encore. Launch slideshow »

Steve, you have no qualms about taking on what Cirque represents, right?

Listen, “Le Reve” is next door. What do you want me to do? I brought Guy Laliberte, Cirque’s founder, here with “Mystere,” we did “O,” then we did “Le Reve” by ourselves. We make $25 million a year with the show; God bless it.

Enough already, I want music. When I hear that orchestra, it’s like I’m stepping into a warm shower. It’s physically delicious.

Music and song are emotional experiences that you don’t get from anything else. Was Encore Theater just waiting for the right moment?

I’m not trying to change the world. I just want Encore Theater to be the temple of live music in this town. You’ll go there, it will always be there. That’s why I built that room, which cost me about $25 million or $30 million, and I have never figured out what do to with it.

I made a dollar or two, didn’t lose any money with “Avenue Q,” “Spamalot” held its own, but it was something that somebody else did somewhere else. I wanted to have our own thing with all the musicians onstage where you could see them.

Steve, when did that light bulb go off in your mind? Was the germ of the show planted as the entertainment at Andrea’s birthday party?

They got the company together, it was the first time they’d had rehearsals, and Phil McKinley said rehearsals would start onstage. We’d rigged up the stage with mirrors because we didn’t have a rehearsal hall. I walked into the showroom and went onstage to say hello to the kids and the birthday company, and they were working on “One.”

I asked how far along they were? All of a sudden the 28 kids in for Andrea’s birthday started singing “One” and moving around me. I said this is too good, we can’t leave this alone, we’ve got to try this as a full-on show. That’s when it happened for me.

We sat down in the villa here. I got everybody together and put together a whole bunch of songs that were my favorites. Obviously they aren’t all in the show. I’ve still got to figure out a way to use some others one day.

Is that the joy of this show in that during its run, you can swap hits in and out?

I’m going to change it all the time. It’s only in the last three days that we talked about doing “If My Friends Could See Me Now” and “For Once in My Life.” It’s going in as fast as Dave can do the orchestrations and arrangements. I haven’t heard Randal sing it yet. He’s got to be able to do it. It’s in front of the curtain. It’s a virtuoso number. He has the instrument. Does he have the confidence to deliver it? I think he does. What a voice that guy’s got.

Steve, in no way is this a knock against Garth Brooks, but I’ve never heard you so excited about a show.

I have never been this excited, and I’ve got to tell you again, the execution by my colleagues has been perfect. If anything is wrong with the show, it’s my fault because this is an indulgence. This is definitely me doing what I love. I went to Penn from 1959 to 1963 in the Golden Age of Broadway. My parents took me to the theater from the time I was 10 or 11 years old throughout the rest of my life.

One time my mother and father took us to New York, got tickets to see “The Sound of Music.” So we walk into the theater, we’re in the sixth row on the aisle. This woman sits next to my mother and says, “You must be very important people.” My mother is very confused and asked why. “Well, you’re here in those seats.” My mother looks more confused. The lady says, “You know who that is over there? That’s David Merrick, that’s Harold Prince, that’s Richard Rodgers, there’s Alan J. Lerner. This is a big night, and you’ve got the best seats. Who are you?”

My mother has no idea. I remember listening to this, and she’s like, “You don’t know? Tonight is Mary Martin’s last night as Maria Von Trapp.” We just stumbled into it. How my dad got those tickets, I’ll never know. I watched Mary Martin do Maria Von Trapp on her closing night, and every number was a standing ovation. It was very emotional; it was a whole different thing.

I watched Robert Preston do “The Music Man,” I saw Rex Harrison do Higgins in “My Fair Lady,” Barbra Streisand in “Funny Girl.” I was hooked from that moment on, and that’s why we now have “Showstoppers.”

Obviously you were bitten by the theatrical showbiz bug, but do you think we can get kids to turn away from the ghastly music in nightclubs to listen to the good stuff?

Ghastly is a soft statement. It’s noise. I’ve got about a 10-minute tolerance for that stuff. I don’t even have any tolerance for it anymore. Andrea and I go into XS or Tryst, but as far as participating, it’s out of the question. David Guetta, Andrea and I are in Botero in the summer on a night when he’s going to work. So we’re in Botero, and we’re going to walk out the back door across the pool, and in the back door you know is the pool entrance of XS.

A kid walks up to Guetta that works for him and says, “Which program do you want to use?” And Guetta says some irrelevant word, he says thank you, and he goes over and sets up the computer. Guetta goes onstage and presses the play button. What in the hell is that? It certainly isn’t Randal Keith singing “Out There” with that voice.

Many people are glad that you’ve taken on the challenge to be unique and different. People are hoping that from “Showstoppers” a whole era of entertainment changes for the better on the Strip.

With 150,000 rooms, Mr. Leach, can we have one theater dedicated to excellence and live music in this town?

I pray so.

I pray so, too. The guy who’s on trial here is me. My staff did a fabulous job at creating the show.

You’ve had great feedback from the previews?

Everybody loves it — 99.9 percent of the people who filled out the form said they’d recommend it to their friends. We’ve continually tinkered with it and tightened it and picked up the pace. I took out Cole Porter’s “You’re the Tops.” I didn’t think it could follow “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better,” so I just took it out. We’re using elegance as a way for the principals to introduce themselves.

I’m trying to make these numbers organic and tell the truth. So when Lindsey says, “If my friends could see me now,” it’s true. When Randal says, “This is my once-in-a-lifetime moment,” he ain’t lying. He’s never been the star of a show this big, with 30 musicians and Dave Loeb conducting.

So that’s the truth of what we’re doing in the room. Honesty coupled with great material and talented people. If that’s not enough, we’re in trouble here. These showstopping numbers have a power of their own. They touch some element of human nature and human emotion that transcends all generations.

* * *

Tickets for “Steve Wynn’s Showstoppers” are $100, $125 and $150, plus Live Entertainment Tax, and can be purchased through the Wynn Ticket Office by calling (702) 770-9966 and visiting WynnLasVegas.com. “Showstoppers” performs Tuesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., with no performances Sundays and Mondays.

Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.

Follow Vegas DeLuxe on Twitter at Twitter.com/vegasdeluxe.

Follow Sun A&E Senior Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.

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