Will Spamalot Win Big in Vegas?


Other Broadway transplants have bombed, but lower ticket prices and a spacious venue may power the Python

Eric Idle knows he's taking a bit of a gamble opening Monty Python's Spamalot at the Wynn Las Vegas (WYNN) casino. Live theater productions in Las Vegas have popped up like chips on a craps table in recent years. Already a number of successful Broadway shows have lost their shirts in Sin City. The musicals Hairspray and We Will Rock You closed after short runs. Spamalot opened on Apr. 1 in the same theater that briefly housed Avenue Q, another Broadway transplant that bombed.

That's why the 64-year-old British comedian gets dead serious when the question of Broadway moving to Vegas comes up. "I don't think anyone comes to Vegas for Broadway," says Idle, who wrote the lyrics and co-wrote the music to Spamalot. "You come for a show that entertains you."

Idle says Spamalot's success on the Great White Way, which includes three Tony awards and a string of sold-out shows after it first opened in March, 2005, was a bit of a fluke. "We were permitted on Broadway," he says. "We scraped by because we made people laugh. I don't think we'll be allowed to do it again."

Nipping and Tucking

Casino mogul Steve Wynn is placing his bet carefully. He added a balcony, expanding the number of seats he could sell from 1,200 to 1,500. Wynn's deal also prohibits the Spamalot touring show from playing anywhere in Southern California or Arizona. The two states provide more than a third of Vegas visitors.

Ticket prices, too, will be lower—at least by Vegas standards. The least expensive seats for Spamalot start at $49 and tickets top out at $99. A recent survey by travel newsletter Las Vegas Advisor found there are now 17 shows with top ticket prices of $100 or more in Las Vegas, vs. just 12 last year. Tickets for successful Cirque du Soleil productions such as O and the Beatles tribute Love, range from $69 to $150. "We're not a cirque, we're a flying circus," Idle says, referring to Monty Python's Flying Circus, the sketch comedy show that made Idle a star in the 1970s.

Idle trimmed the Vegas version of Spamalot by 20 minutes, cutting out the intermission and one song. That allows Wynn to boost tickets sales by running two 90-minute shows on some nights. It also gets guests out into the casino, where they can shop, eat, or gamble. On the way, they can stop at three merchandise shops outside the Grail Theater that sell $20 soundtrack discs and $10 cans of souvenir Spam.

Viva Las Vegas

Spamalot is based on the 1975 hit movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a spoof of the legend of the Knights of the Round Table that featured the six-member Monty Python troupe. The movie cost just $400,000 to make—about what the Broadway show paid its attorneys, Idle says. The movie's investors included members of British rock bands Genesis, Led Zeppelin, and Pink Floyd. "The rock-and-rollers always went for Python," Idle says. "They made about 1,000% on their investment. They didn't really want it back."

Idle has long had his eyes on Vegas. In the late 1980s, he tried to bring a live version of Monty Python to town, but the effort fizzled after one of the original Python members dropped out. In Spamalot, the quest for the holy grail stops at a Vegas wedding chapel. In another scene, a character shouts out, "What happens in Camelot, stays in Camelot," a reference to the popular Las Vegas tourism slogan. "It always seemed to me that they had get to Vegas," Idle says of his kooky characters. "It's a place where knights would dance and sing."

The Vegas production stars John O'Hurley, who played the character J. Peterman on Seinfeld and more recently swung to first place on Dancing with the Stars. Spamalot takes comedic shots at Vegas lounge legend Wayne Newton and Baywatch star David Hasselhoff—who happens to be starring in a Vegas edition of The Producers at the Paris Hotel & Casino, just down the Strip.

The show has opened to strong ticket sales, with many nights selling out. Las Vegas Review-Journal theater critic Mike Weatherford gave it an "A." His colleague, columnist Norm Clarke, even noted that Vegas icon Elvis Presley was a big Python fan.

Palmeri is a senior correspondent in BusinessWeek's Los Angeles bureau.

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