British producer David King has a unique formula for finding success on the Strip: No stars. In fact, his energetic, exciting and enthusiastic performers are even interchangeable for his two debut shows here in Las Vegas.
“The star is the show itself,” David told me confidently. “If a star wants $150,000 a week, then the ticket prices become way too much for the general audience to afford. If the theater has 4,000-plus seats, the rent soars, and thus ticket prices go up big time, too. So if you have a great show with great performers and in a small, intimate room, you have a formula for success -- and everybody wins.”
At age 62, David is one of the world’s most successful musical-theater producers. British newspapers report that he’s as wealthy as Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber and went from the unemployment line to running a multimillion-dollar showbiz empire in less than two years -- and is now the largest employer of singers and dancers in Europe.
Call his formula musicals for the masses, as audiences have given him a standing ovation with his pricing policy and new approach to Strip theater. Incredibly, the performers in his “Spirit of the Dance” that began two weeks ago at his new Broadway Theater in New York-New York will be the same for his ABBA tribute show “Dancing Queen” opening there Tuesday. He transformed Rok Vegas into the new venue: “The theater looks lovely; it looks gorgeous. The concept is right, and the venue is just big enough to deal with.”
“We are not conquering the Strip because Cirque du Soleil has done that,” David told me. “I’ve been offered situations in Las Vegas over the years, but nothing has been to my liking because the producer takes all the risk with nobody paying any money. So I’ve got to come here, find the money and make sure the tickets sell. It’s still a risk, but out of all the deals, I just liked being in bed with the New York-New York people and the MGM family because I think that has got huge potential for me around the world. The hotel is bending over backward to help promote the venue. They want it to work; they want it to succeed.
“To have partners who want it to work is huge because often what happens on the Strip is they say, ‘There is your room, and we don’t need to talk to you so long as you are paying the rent.’ I’ve been offered some fabulous rooms, but not with the backup that I’ve been offered here. The room is not too big, so the expenses are not too big. Everything is really controllable, whereas if you start doing these great big shows with these huge costs, you’ve got to sell a lot of high-priced tickets for the rent to be paid. This formula works for everybody, especially the audiences who want value for the money.”
“Spirit of the Dance” is David’s original show from 13 years ago. More than 30 million people have seen it worldwide, breaking box office records in more than 20 countries.
“Even today, it still sells out wherever it goes. There are no stars, but the show is the star,” he said. “With stars comes all the problems, plus they make all the money, which is not good. So ‘Spirit’ does consistently well. There has been no Irish dance show in Las Vegas since Michael Flatley left. It seemed a quite natural pairing because the hotel has an Irish feel to it -- its Nine Fine Irishmen pub. It just feels right. As far as ‘Dancing Queen’ is concerned, all that I know is that when ‘Mamma Mia’ left town, they were still grossing $250,000 a week, but it wasn’t enough to keep it running. That’s way more than I need!
“It’s a great show. It is a happy, fun enjoyable show with big songs and lots of glitter. What we try and do with all of our shows is have the same dance cast and dancers in both shows. Thus, the dancers learn the Irish dances and then they learn the Swedish steps. It is the only way commercially we can make any sense out of it doing two shows. It’s double duty. … That’s how we are able financially to run; otherwise, we just couldn’t do it at these ticket prices.
“I am quite passionate about afternoon shows. There is a much bigger market for shows in the afternoon than everybody competing at 8 p.m. At 2 p.m., there are still a lot of people in Las Vegas with very little to do, particularly now with the summer heat. When it is so hot that you can’t be outside, people need things to do. There are still crowds of people who want to go to afternoon matinees.
“It’s a work in progress. We’ve nailed down two shows, two big titles as far as we’re concerned, but there is another two or three time slots to fill, and I hope within two or three months when we get a good feel of what’s happening, we’ll fill those shows either with additional shows or repeat performances of what we’re doing. That’s what makes this very exciting.”
David, who started out as a “cheeky comedian playing ukulele at a British holiday camp,” lives in Europe but has his business headquartered in Myrtle Beach, S.C. He also owns a theater there and in Branson, Mo., where he had four successful shows a day. He’s been in the U.S. since 1998 when he toured in “Lord of the Dance” and now has 23 productions available to resorts, including “Man in the Mirror,” “Rock Around the Clock,” “Oh What a Night,” “Motown Live” and “Twelve Irish Tenors.”
“We are on target and in good shape. ‘Spirit’ is doing very well. Every day there has been fantastic audiences. It’s been good and can only build better. It doesn’t happen overnight, but in three months I’ll have a real answer. The way I feel now is the venue looks great, we are in a lovely location, and we are dealing with the excellent people at New York-New York and MGM. That’s so important to a producer; they are giving us every help they can. We are in good shape and on target.”
“My heart and mind are focused on Las Vegas. It took me long enough to decide to do this because it felt right, and as in any business, if you make the wrong choice, then, unfortunately, you go under, and I’m not going to do that.”
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.
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