BWW Exclusive: Tharp Talks SINATRA in Vegas: 'Broadway has tight expectations as to what a show is'

By: Dec. 10, 2010

Las Vegas: Twyla Tharp now wishes she had opened her Sinatra revue in Las Vegas rather than New York because she believes Strip audiences are more open-minded and capable of appreciating her pop-scored dance productions than those on Broadway.

After “Come Fly Away” lasted just six months at the Marquis Theater and her critically drubbred 2005 Bob Dylan show had only 28 performances, Tharp is turning for the first time to Vegas, hoping the great unwashed who go there will offer a warmer embrace. “Sinatra Dance With Me,” a reconfigured version of “Come Fly Away” starts a seven-week open-ended run Saturday.

“People who come to Vegas to gamble have a sharp eye,” said the 69-year-old Tony winner and 2008 Kennedy Center honoree. “They’re looking at the tables, they’re looking at the cards, they’re looking at the chips. They’re looking for information. They’re not waiting to be told what they’ve got. They’re looking to see. I’m gambling they’re going to approach the stage the same way. This is not true of an audience that is accustomed to drama and a book.”

One audience member who adored “Come Fly Away” was casino magnate Steve Wynn, a long-time pal of Tharp’s whose Encore Las Vegas resort boasts a Sinatra restaurant where Sinatra’s Academy Award and Emmy are on display. He asked if she wanted to stage it at his resort.

“Yeah, I would very much like to bring this to Vegas, Steve, don’t you remember five years ago when I said you should do it?” she recalls teasing him.

Back then, though, Wynn was in the middle of hijacking two other major Broadway productions, “Avenue Q” and “Spamalot,” both best-musical Tony winners that skipped all or part of their national tours to sit down at his resort. Both had underwhelming runs here, though, leaving questions as to whether Strip audiences favor book musicals absent well-known music. (The most successful musicals in Vegas have been “Mamma Mia!”, “Phantom,” “Jersey Boys” and “The Lion King,” all of which have loads of long-beloved popular songs.)

Wynn is ready for Tharp now, his showroom mostly empty except the 20 weekends a year when Garth Brooks performs. For “Sinatra Dance With Me,” Tharp has trimmed “Come Fly Away” to a Vegas-sized 80 minutes, axing seven of the 35 songs and focusing the action mainly on one couple instead of four. The Strip version won’t have a female vocalist, relying solely on hard-to-find recordings of the original Rat Packer himself. It opens, she said, with a haunting acapella version of “Stardust” that has never been heard before.

Several Broadway creators cut down their shows for Vegas – “Hairspray” and “Avenue Q” among them -- but few ever say they like to do so. Tharp, however, said she’s happy to be liberated of the Broadway contrivance known as the intermission, which is driven by the economics of concession sales and not creative choices.

“It’s always a problem, getting the curtain in at the end of the first act, having enough of a resolve so that you can bring the curtain in and then opening the show a second time is a little bizarre as a tradition,” she said. “I’ve always preferred to go straight through.”

The choreographer, of course, has long broken from modern-dance tradition, notably in indulging her fascination with such pop icons as Sinatra. The Vegas show marks at least the fourth incarnation of her dances set to his music, the first a pas de deux featuring Mikhail Baryshnikov for an American Ballet Theater gala in the 1970s. Wynn, incidentally, said he hired Baryshnikov to perform it for high-rollers at his Golden Nugget resorts in Las Vegas and Atlantic City back then as well. Sinatra was appreciative and became such a fan of Tharp’s that a segment of “Nine Sinatra Songs,” a 1982 Tharp show, was performed when he honored at the Kennedy Center in 1983.

Tharp’s biggest popular success, however, was “Movin’ Out,” the 2002 Billy Joel-scored dance production that spent five years on Broadway and won her the Tony for best choreographer. The show never came to Vegas because of contractual obligations related to its tour, but Tharp hopes it may someday do so because, again, she has a sense that the Strip audiences that have embraced the non-verbal Cirque du Soleil shows are her people. Mainstream Americans are, after all, obsessed with TV dance competitions these days.

“I would have much rather opened (“Come Fly Away”) in Las Vegas because it’s the right atmosphere,” she said. “They come to have a good time, they’re familiar with the Sinatra legacy, they are visual. And I’m also counting on them to be somewhat open-minded. Broadway is not. Broadway has some very tight expectations as to what a show is.”

So could Tharp be the next Vegas brand to proliferate, perhaps with other shows featuring music from other big-name musical talents? “Sinatra Dance With Me” is now slated for six performances a week through the end of January, but he said, “As long as the people want to see it, it will stay right there.”

He’s hesitant to make lofty predictions, though, chastened by “Avenue Q” and “Spamalot” not catching on on The Strip. Like this one, those were shows he bought because he adored them, and now he realizes that they, like Tharp’s shows, lacked one thing Vegas-goers expect in spades: Eye-popping pizzazz.

“Look, Twyla Tharp doing Sinatra is something I understand,” he said. “I understood it completely. The ‘Movin’ Out’ show, I saw that, that is fabulous. But remember, there’s no spectacle in these dance shows, ‘Movin’ Out.’ There weren’t any spectacular things that happened. People didn’t come flying out of the roof or rise up out of the water. There aren’t any ‘oh-shit’ moments that you could only see in a theater built especially for such a production. So I don’t know. Let’s see how this does.”

Photo by Walter McBride / Corbis / WM Photos