Site not look beautiful? Click here

Buttman Does Vegas

Porn mogul John Stagliano has reinvented himself—for the moment—as a Vegas impresario with his dazzling, arty Strip show The Fashionistas. But will the risky venture succeed? Richard Abowitz spent weeks behind the scenes to document the show’s creation.

Richard Abowitz

Despite having sent feelers through a mutual friend, adult actress Caroline Pierce, and being repeatedly assured by the publicist for The Fashionistas of John Stagliano's undying enthusiasm for this story, my first meeting with the infamous porn icon know as "Buttman"—now reinvented as a Las Vegas show producer and director—was a disaster.


The publicist, Wayne Bernath, had arranged for me to meet Stagliano at a rented dance studio near Boulder Station during a rehearsal. But on the hot August afternoon, I got lost trying to find the studio. Wayne called twice to check on my ETA and implied that Stagliano was not at all pleased at my tardiness: Apparently, Buttman was on a very tight schedule. Still, when Wayne greeted me at the door, he assured me again how thrilled Stagliano was that I was there to document the transformation of his four-and-a-half-hour porno film The Fashionistas into a Las Vegas dance revue to be staged at a new club at the Desert Passage mall at the Aladdin.


I was thrilled, too. How could I resist a front-row seat to watch something so unlikely and, to be blunt, so staggeringly ridiculous unfold? Don't get me wrong; I didn't intend to do a hatchet job. Caroline (who had a role in the film version of The Fashionistas) made me promise that, twice. I only planned to tell the tale of Stagliano's staging of The Fashionistas. That, of course, should be plenty, since, in case you missed it the first time: This is the story of a guy renowned as "Buttman" bringing to the Strip a contemporary dance interpretation of his marathon porno film.


But from the moment I met him, it was clear that pornographer stereotypes do not at all apply to the 53-year-old Stagliano. There is nothing sleazy or flashy about his appearance. When we are introduced, the star of the more than 50 Buttman films is wearing tattered blue jeans and sneakers. He has a mop of rumpled hair to match his casual air—the look of an absentminded college professor, except that there's nothing distracted about him. Rather, as we spoke, the poor guy seemed so put upon that he was about to be overwhelmed.


Surrounded by people asking him questions or relaying information, Stagliano sat, legs crossed, yet shifting nervously in his chair and constantly twisting his glasses between his fingers. His cell phone never stopped ringing. All the while, he focused his attention on about a dozen dancers running through the choreography for a number accompanied by loud industrial music. He radiated that he had no time for small talk.


"What is it you want to do a story on?" Stagliano demanded.


As I tried to answer, Stagliano's head continually darted to either side of me to keep watching the dancers. Suddenly, he interrupted my explanation with an incomprehensible shout as he buried his face in his hands and began rubbing his hands all over his face and hair, finally moaning: "No, no, that won't work."


He briefly returned his attention to me. "I really think I have too much going on right now to commit to this. But I'll tell you what, get me some samples of your work to read through that show the sort of thing you want to do, and I'll get back to you with a firm answer." A look of pain crossed his face, "It's just that everything so far has been overbudget and slower than expected."


I felt for him, because in addition to the show being a fiasco, for all sorts of reasons, I also fully expected this porn tycoon to lose a big chunk of his fortune on this foray into the big leagues of Vegas entertainment. Of course, that was going to be part of the fun in reporting the story, too. But at the moment, none of that mattered, since I could tell I was getting brushed off. In case I never saw Stagliano again, which seemed likely, I blurted out the one question I wanted an answer to: "John, why are you doing this show? Is this a publicity stunt, are you in it to shock people, or is it a vanity project? Do you expect to make money? I mean, what is your goal here?"


"I just want it to be good."


Slim chance, I thought.


Walking me to my car, Wayne tried to assure me that the story wasn't in grave jeopardy. He explained the obvious: Stagliano was under a lot of stress. He had hoped to have the show opened by now—or by the latest in another week. But Krave the club on the Harmon side of the Aladdin (once the Blue Note), couldn't even accommodate cast rehearsals yet because of the construction of the stage, monitors, lighting, computer and sound system required for The Fashionistas.


"Just send John a short e-mail explaining what you want from him in terms of demands on his time," Wayne advised.


A few days after this conversation, Bernath sent out a press release committing to an early September opening. (That date, too, would be postponed.) This was all exactly as I expected, only I had hoped to watch it happen.


I did as Wayne suggested, sending Stagliano an explanatory e-mail. Since we're both on AOL, I could see he had deleted it unopened and unread. I sent another. He deleted that one, too.



• • •


A couple of weeks later, Wayne finally got the story back on track. "John is able to rehearse in Krave now, and he is a lot happier. He loved your samples. He told me he read them. Go over there tomorrow, and I'll tell him to expect to you."


When I got to Krave the next day, it was clear that the show was not going to open any time in the near future. The stage was far from complete, and the club was still being built out. It was by now early September and Wayne no longer gave out anything beyond "soon" for an opening date.


I found Stagliano standing in front of the stage, trying to rehearse dancers through robotic choreography to Herbie Hancock's "Rock It" as carpenters offered a distracting counter-rhythm. Even above the hammering, I could hear John's cell phone ringing. Despite everything happening, he seemed so gracious and pleased to see me that at first I thought he was making fun of me. Later, I understood that Stagliano was never thinking about me at all. With him, it was always all about The Fashionistas. During our first meeting, he was merely unhappy with the way things were going and, perhaps, even feared the debacle I still expected.


Stagliano knows people here think the idea of Buttman doing a production show is laughable; long before encountering my skepticism, he was scorned by more than one casino entertainment director. He was even made to look foolish pitching his show to the new owners of the Golden Nugget on a reality show. Now, however, things have changed, and though the start date might not be clear yet, Stagliano has confidence that his vision will make it to the Strip intact, and he's ready for a reporter to be there to bear witness.


So it was with ever-increasing enthusiasm that Stagliano spoke on that day and over the next few weeks. "Once I get started talking, it is hard for me stop," he says. Among the first things Stagliano said is that nothing we talk about will be off the record because he is already censoring himself. I think he may believe that; yet, whenever we spoke, his answers always seem totally uninhibited. I've noticed this trait in Caroline and many others I've interviewed who work in adult entertainment. I suppose if you can have sex on film with a total stranger, you may find it easier to expose your naked thoughts to a reporter, whereas most people find that awkward. John, I learn quickly, has no problem exposing his naked thoughts. When he is vague, which is often, it is never from a lack of candor; the problem is that, especially when talking about The Fashionistas, the flood of his own ideas easily distracts him. Also, John's thoughts, feelings and views of his show are so clear and present to him he assumes you see them, too. As a result, he is often obtuse and his answers lack focus. Case in point: What did he mean when he said he just wanted The Fashionistas to be good?


"It's not really a money-making thing. I can make a ton more money just making a couple extra videos. But I've wanted to do a dance show since 1983. I've wanted to do a show like this—with very little dialogue, and with emotion coming out of the words of the songs, because every song in the show is moving the story forward, and the words to the songs enhance the story. One of the reasons I started making porno movies in 1983 was to make enough money to do a dance show."


That may be one reason; John, however, chose to highlight another reason in his autobiographical essay on the Buttman website, which instead suggested his motives were a mix of the pragmatic (he was an economics major at UCLA) and the perverted:


"In 1983, people were just starting to produce porno movies on videotape ... and I was in the right place with some of the right skills to produce them. Actually I knew nothing about filmmaking, but I was bursting with ideas about how to make better porno films because most of them were so bad. But more than that, I was the right person to make porno because I have been a huge porno fan all my life. ... For as long as I can remember, I couldn't get enough porn."


Before his career in that industry, Stagliano had wanted to be a professional dancer. In 1977, he came to Las Vegas to audition for a show at the Stardust. He was rejected and found work as a Chippendale dancer instead. The success of his porn movies was phenomenal. For budgetary, practical and artistic reasons, Stagliano became his own cameraman, and the Buttman films pioneered a style that became known as "gonzo." According to Mark Kernes, an editor at AVN, the adult-industry trade magazine:


"The stuff that he makes himself is very impressive. The guy has turned out some great stuff. And his stuff continues to sell well over the years. He is a very popular filmmaker. Everybody knows John Stagliano."


In the long term, as significant as his films was Stagliano's decision to create a company, Evil Angel, to distribute them. "He is probably the premier producer and distributor of non-story-line, hard-core videos," Kernes says. Even after Stagliano's performing career ended in 1997, when he was infected with HIV, Evil Angel continued to thrive, making Stagliano among the most successful, wealthy and respected pornographers in the country. In a business packed with slime, Stagliano's reputation appears immaculate, and in conversations with directors, performers, agents and competitors, no one had a bad word to say about him. A few even asked me to help them better network him. And, as bizarre as it seems, people in the adult industry who know of Stagliano have no doubt that he has a cunning plan to make a fortune on this Vegas venture



• • •


One reason people in the industry may feel this way is that The Fashionistas, which John wrote, directed and produced, succeeded despite breaking almost all of the conventions—many a direct result of Buttman's legacy—of the business. It wasn't shot on video but on film, at a cost of more than $500,000. As opposed to the storyless quality of gonzo porn, The Fashionistas is totally plot-driven. I remember talking to Caroline by phone while she was shooting The Fashionistas. It was at the conclusion of a grueling 17-hour day on the set. "Please, no details!" I told her. This was my usual response to my friend's career, which I, of course, appreciate in the abstract but don't care to know the specifics of. In this case, the specifics of her work in The Fashionistas would include an AVN award nomination for Caroline's part in a sex scene. (When we discussed her, Stagliano clearly relished turning the tables on me as I blushed listening to his praise of how Caroline's uninhibited performance deserved that nomination.) But that didn't happen to be the scene shot on the day Caroline called me from the set. Instead, she wanted to tell me about something far more shocking.


"You don't understand," she said. "The entire day ... the entire day I was acting. We did nothing but dialogue!"


In fact, The Fashionistas is a full 280-minute motion picture epic. (The DVD—a four-disc set—comes with 45 minutes of extra sex, a 110-minute making-of featurette and even a bonus CD soundtrack.) Despites its outrageous budget and length, The Fashionistas was a sensation: a best seller that garnered an unprecedented 22 AVN nominations (it would win a total of 12 for the film and DVD releases). It was while attending one of the annual AVN award shows that Stagliano began to conceive of creating a Las Vegas production show.


"I came to Vegas and saw the other shows," he says. "I realized I could do a show in this area. I had already been thinking I'd do some kind of dance thing. I'd already met with a choreographer. I realized that The Fashionistas is the great name, and I could do the whole movie as a dance show. So I spent a lot of time organizing my thoughts into a story, and rewriting stuff. From an intellectual and a content point of view my show is lot stronger, because it actually is a story about sex, whereas the others are just vignette numbers."


But, although it is based on a porno and written, produced and directed by a man who has built an empire out of his ass fetish, Stagliano had no intention of making the show version of The Fashionistas the most outrageous spectacle ever seen on a Las Vegas stage.


"I don't want to push any envelopes sexually here. The basic concept of the movie is here, but there is a big difference. The numbers in the show are more fun and playful, sexy dancing, where as in the movie it's more serious S&M. Fashionistas as a film was pushing the envelope a bit. The next film I do is going to be really crazy."


Stagliano broke off to instruct two dancers working on a girl/girl routine choreographed to a Madonna song. When the dancers resumed, he turned to me: "This is nothing compared to what I want to do on film."


To the adult industry, a dance production in Las Vegas might be an eccentric approach; nonetheless, Buttman expanding into Sin City was a perfect fit. As Kernes of AVN says, "I was taken a little aback when I heard it, but it made sense when I thought about it." If forced to hazard a guess, Kernes, like most people I spoke to in the adult industry, thinks Las Vegas is about to observe Stagliano's Midas touch.



• • •


But if Stagliano expected Sin City to welcome his ideas for The Fashionistas, he got a rude awakening. At the Paris, he left a package with a concierge who was a fan of the Buttman videos, but that got him little more than a polite call from the entertainment director. "At the Venetian, I gave a proposal to their entertainment director and never got a call back. At the Stratosphere, I got a call back from a guy who was interested and said he wanted to have a meeting. But then I pursued him, and he didn't. I guess they went their own way with Bite. Let's see how well that turns out for them."


But nothing infuriated Stagliano more than his January 2004 meeting, staged for The Casino, with the new owners of Golden Nugget. Stagliano had given a package on The Fashionistas to the television producers in advance and was under the impression that the owners of the casino had reviewed it. "I went into that meeting thinking they were genuinely interested in my show. But the Golden Nugget never heard of me and my show until the moment I walked into that office live on camera." On the episode you can see Stagliano, accompanied by Bernath, trying to enthusiastically pitch The Fashionistas as the owners respond with a mix of boredom and mockery. Stagliano blames The Casino's producers: "They wanted to have something interesting for the TV show by creating an uncomfortable moment for the owners of the Golden Nugget and create good theater by presenting me as a sleazy pornographer." The segment ends with Stagliano, somewhat desperately, offering to pay rent for the showroom. The Golden Nugget's owners weren't interested.


Stagliano remained undeterred, and if you're trying hard to spend money in Las Vegas, someone will always turn up willing to take it. In Stagliano's case, it was LA nightclub impresario Sia Amiri, the new owner of Krave, a nightclub planned for the space that was originally the doomed jazz club The Blue Note and then the dance club Ibiza USA.


"Sia was putting together a deal with the former Ibiza owner that was an investment package thing to buy him out from his lease and pay him off over time. Sia was selling shares in that deal, and I bought the majority of shares under the condition that I could put my show in there."


As Karen Stagliano, John's wife and right hand, recalls it, "The whole club thing came about just because he was looking for a place. He came home one night and said, 'This is how I am going to get my show going. What could be bad about it? If I lose money, I lose money.'" So with that, John Stagliano entered the nightclub business, too.


And this is the main reason I think Stagliano is going to lose so much money in Las Vegas. CityLife recently referred to the space as "seemingly cursed": For starters, there is no direct entrance into Krave from either the Aladdin or Desert Passage. The only entrance is at the front door on Harmon. To make matters worse, self-parking at the Aladdin makes for a long walk to the club, and sneaking into the Harley Davidson parking garage risks towing. Obviously, the Aladdin's transition into Planet Hollywood may be good for business in the long term, but for now there is an aimlessness about the identity of the host property, and, as Stagliano ruefully acknowledges, no rush to finish building a partially constructed sidewalk that would make for a much easier walk from the Strip to the club. None of this means Krave is doomed, only that the challenges the club faces are imposing, and it is clearly not easy for Stagliano to be on the sidelines in dealing with them.


"The biggest problem I have with this whole deal is that I've invested a considerable amount of money in someone else's business judgment, and that is Sia Amiri with the nightclub. If I were the whole leaseholder here, were I doing this whole thing by myself, I would feel somewhat more confident, because every time I've done that in my life, I've been successful. But I can't do all that stuff, and I have to depend on someone else in this case. And Sia has great ideas, and he has hired many good staff here, and I think it is going to work. But I still have to trust. Sia has a different style from me."


That difference in style was clear at the October 2 opening of Krave. Sia is an immaculate dresser with hair that reminds me of Bill Clinton's expensive cuts. When I interviewed him, he was friendly but formal and always on-message:


"The concept behind Krave is to mix everybody: homosexual, heterosexual, meterosexual and alternative lifestyle people. Call it like a G-spot. It is for everybody to come into and have a great time. Specifically we are going after the gay and lesbian market—and everybody that feels comfortable around them."


When I asked about the parking problems, Sia denied it was even a concern.


"The parking situation never was the problem. It was just the venue was never up to the standard. There is plenty of parking."


When Stagliano speaks about his Las Vegas investment, the economics major tends to vanish and the only numbers in his head are songs from The Fashionistas. Still, he says, "I do expect to make money, not very much of it. It will take me a long time to pay off the initial investment. I could make money on this whole deal. But I just like going to an environment that is creative in the dancing field. I always wanted to be a dancer. This is the show I've always wanted to do. So I am."


Besides, whatever his concerns, investing in Krave allowed Stagliano an opportunity no casino would likely have granted him: He could do whatever he pleased in terms of the creation and staging of The Fashionistas. Stagliano took full advantage of it. In fact even he admits his production is almost too large for the venue:


"It is certainly a great place to present my show. I've had the freedom to build the stage the way I want to build it. We've created an environment where The Fashionistas can be presented really well—maybe too well, because we got 20 dancers on stage, and we can only fit 250-300 customers in the audience. It kind of overwhelms you with the presence of the show in this room. I remember thinking in the dress rehearsals, sitting where the audience is, that it is intimidating having these performers right on top of you. But we did it all on a reasonable budget, because I also worry that enough people need to come to the show so that I can make the money back."


Reasonable, of course, is a relative thing, and it is safe to say that no show in such a small room in Las Vegas has received this kind of upfront investment. Though I feel like a Philistine pointing and asking "How much?," I can't resist asking about the spectacular and intricate system of linked video monitors that backdrops the stage. Dale Larsen, the technical supervisor, proudly tells me, "That is state-of-the-art and should have cost us about $400,000, but I found a way to do it for only about $100,000."



• • •


A few days after the opening of Krave, on October 5, a Tuesday night, Stagliano has scheduled the soft opening, traditionally a period before the full marketing campaign kicks in, when a show is open on the lowdown while taking advantage of an audience and regular performances to make any necessary final adjustments.


Late that afternoon, Stagliano is finally able to rehearse a crucial scene with two of the leads, Marceea Moreno (Jesse) and Enrique Lugo (Antonio). A major piece of equipment, a platform that lowers Marceea to the stage from the ceiling, is for the first time in full working order.


Enrique was also the choreographer for The Fashionistas, and found Stagliano very different from any other director he has worked for. "First of all, he knows exactly what he wants. It was so specific. He is not trying to experiment. He knows what he wants in each melody of the music and in each guitar solo. John is a really intricate, perfectionist guy."


They rehearse the scene with the platform twice. "Let's do it one more time," John says. And after that: "Can you rehearse it one more time for me?" As he watches, John turns red and begins rubbing his temples. He then puts his hands over his face and head again before covering his mouth once more. I've seen this before, and to give Stagliano some space, I offer to go to get his 3 1/2-year-old daughter some chocolate milk.


Stagliano adores his daughter, and she is the one person whose interruptions he never begrudges. According to Karen Stagliano, his daughter had a lot to do with the decision to embark on The Fashionistas at this time. "John really wanted to do something where he could bring his daughter to work."


When I return, it is just over an hour before show time and John is in agony. "I can't have perfection tonight. I have to make a difficult choice between whether or not Jesse's computer screen stays on long enough to work for the story—for important stuff that is supposed to be going on, clues and things for the whole story—or ..." John pauses, unable for a moment to express the horrible alternative. "But if I do that ... if I do that, the transitions between every one of the numbers in the first act will be rough, because I will have to do that manually, and so I have to anticipate the ends—sometimes I chop off the ends or sometimes I let things go too long, and it is not sequenced: It is not a perfect edit." The only consolation is that act two may not be a complete disaster. "Now, it could be like that for the whole show, but there might be a way at the end of the first act, when I have a couple seconds of black that I can do some things. I am going to experiment for things to do for the start of act two. ..." He hunches over and starts frantically working the knobs and dials of the boards.


Meanwhile, he is cajoling cast members into rehearsing a scene involving a giant spider web. "This is the first time they are doing the web as it is supposed to be done," he explains. Then he tells them: "Can we practice the web first and then we'll do the web again?"


A few minutes before showtime, John turns resigned as he tries to console himself that this is a soft opening. "We're going to be working on it for awhile. There is going to be blood. I have not spent any time really directing for two weeks now, because I have been so involved in technical problems."


I tell him my story on him is going well, at least, and he sighs. "I just hope it has a happy ending. ... Enrique, you don't think we need to practice that web one more time?"


"They have it," Enrique shouts back from the stage.


"They have it?" John sounds dubious. "Are you sure?"


As the rehearsal continues, John's daughter plops herself on Marceea's lap. "That is my spider web, and I climb down it and eat Enrique," Marceea narrates, and punctuates her story by tickling the little girl, who giggles in delight. "Give me a kiss," Marceea says. The child complies. Though only 21, Marceea has no nervousness about the opening, though she is worried about one thing. "John's opinion means a lot to me," she says. "I never know what he's thinking; he goes like this all the time." She does a dead-on imitation of John running his hands over his face and hair.


After so many delays, it is perhaps fitting that the debut performance of The Fashionistas started almost 20 minutes late. But then the one thing I wasn't prepared for happened: The show was great. It is among the most adventurous and exciting things I've ever seen on the Strip, and I am no fan of dance.


Stagliano's view of stagecraft is muscular and aggressive. Aerialists come down over the head and columns erected on both sides at the back of the audience are used to host action that makes the entire theater at times feel like a stage. The costumes range from slutty to stunning while always being memorable. It turns out that having such a large cast and such extraordinary production values confined to such a tiny room enhances the visceral power of The Fashionistas. And, just as impressively, Stagliano is a master of little touches that make a big difference. For example, he has hired a live drummer to pound along to the soundtrack, which goes a long way to elevate that stale, cheap, canned vibe that usually comes from using prerecorded music for a live stage event.


Obviously, Stagliano has made full use of every aspect of his background. The show manages to be more erotic than any other show on the Strip while at the same time, as Stagliano promised, it never pushes envelopes in terms of overt sexual content. It is humorous and sly without being campy or cheesy. Most impressive is the casting of the Fasionistas: a group that is as sexy and as skilled at dancing as any cast on the Strip. Of course, it helped that Stagliano was typically intense and open with his wallet when it came to getting the talent he wanted. To get just one chorus dancer from Canada, for example, he had to take on U.S. immigration twice after her first application was denied.


Stagliano puts it this way: "The show is designed to have enough interesting subtexts and things going on that it needs to be seen twice. I am not sure I am going to pull that off. I am pretty sure I am going to pull that off."


I think he pulls it off. But this isn't to say that I think The Fashionistas is a perfect show. In fact, his very success at creating a show so packed with ideas and demanding for the viewer may well be his biggest problem. Since Stagliano is after an audience and not an NEA grant, The Fashionistas probably runs about a dozen minutes too long, and in particular a scene that involves a dance class could use some trimming. The ending also feels a bit anticlimatic—the scene just before it upstages it by being such a show-stopper: It features most of the cast onstage for a wild and eclectic dance to "Whole Lot of Love," climaxing in a fantastic use of the spider web. But most of all, The Fashionistas happily violates one major Vegas taboo, one that has nothing to do with sex. Lacking almost any dialogue, the narrative is nearly impossible to follow on first viewing, and that means the show can be confusing. Beyond being about a love triangle between two girls who run a fashion company and a man who is a famous European designer who they want to work and play with, I found the plot murky. Yet, this was only a minor hindrance in my enjoyment of the show.


The night after the opening, I take Caroline to see the show. John spends the entire performance hunched over in the control booth, so engrossed in technical details that he has forgotten to button up his shirt. Caroline loves the show. She was so moved by the finale that she cried. She told me that knowing the movie makes a big difference.


After the show, we head over to say hello to John. Overjoyed to see Caroline, he immediately asks her what she thought. While she is telling him her reaction, Stagliano kneads my friend's ass like it is a stress ball. Caroline doesn't mind a bit.


"I think he was just really relieved to have someone around from his world like me, where it is perfectly fine to grab a handful of my ass," Caroline says as we head to the car. "He sure can't do that with the showgirls. I bet he misses LA."


That night, I watch The Fashionistas DVD (skipping the sex scenes). The story centers on a famed fashion designer, Antonio, who has found success but wishes his work to become a more artistic expression of his creativity and sexuality. He hooks up with an American fetish-clothing design firm run by a dominatrix and her girlfriend. Together they create a risqué line of clothing and have lots of sex as both girls compete for Antonio's attention. Caroline's character (interestingly, not transferred into the show) is a voice of reason who appears late in the movie, a skeptical buyer for a department store who keeps pointing out to Antonio how little commercial potential the entire project has. Caroline's character demands to know what Antonio thinks he is trying to accomplish with this line of clothing; the designer responds with a familiar line: He just wants it to be good.



• • •


After a week of performances, the cast has things down pat and the technical problems have been worked out. Even with two weeks to go before the official media opening, set for October 27, the show was already beginning to generate buzz with members of other casts on the Strip coming to check it out. But the biggest boost The Fashionistas got came courtesy of Mike Weatherford's review in the Review-Journal's Neon section, which opened:


"A pornographer has just embarrassed a lot of people. Adult Video mogul John Stagliano has shown the producers of Skintight, Midnight Fantasy, Bite and even Zumanity what a real Las Vegas adult show can be, if one is not concerned with selling tickets to charter planes of tourists."


The Neon review singlehandedly gave credibility to The Fashionistas as a quality show in the same league with far more costly and high-profile competitors; it could not be dismissed just because of the background of its creator. Of course, as with any new show, Weatherford detected a few problems, including the dance class scene, of which he noted: "You keep waiting for something to happen besides an aerobics class." Despite such minor reservations, the review was a huge coup for Stagliano. Weatherford was so impressed with the tremendous quality of the show that his review, too, was far more concerned about The Fashionistas' potential commercial failure than any artistic problems. "Everyone runs out of money sooner or later," Weatherford observes, and adds later, "Since Stagliano was bold enough to create a show and then figure out how to sell it, maybe someone can help him figure out how to keep it around." One of his suggestions—that the show shift from an 8 p.m. to a 9 p.m. start time—was in fact already in the works and soon implemented.


Though most people would be thrilled by this review, Stagliano was not. Rather than celebrate, he called a meeting of the cast before that evening's performance to discuss the review and find out any criticisms the cast may have. He has encouraged an atmosphere of honesty and he benefits from it. Some cast members tell him that the plot is hard to follow, and everyone agrees that the aerobics class goes on too long. A few people even mention the awkwardness of the ending.


I called John the next day to find out his response to the criticism from the cast and to find out if he is planning to change anything in the show.


"No, because they didn't have any criticism."


"Yes, John, they did. Everyone said the aerobics class runs to long."


"Well, I disagree. They've seen it too many times. They don't know how it plays for an audience of people seeing it for the first time."


I then tried to explain to him why some of the cast and I thought that there were pacing problems at the end, since "Whole Lot of Love" felt like a big Vegas ending finale.


"Instead of going out with a bang your show ends with a whimper," I said. "I understand the thematic and narrative reasons you want to do that, but the audience is conditioned to think that they are at the big finish."


John then explains all of the reasons—narrative, thematic, symbolic—for the ending as it is.


"This is what I really like about you, John, and what the review praised you for as well," I said. "I tell you that the problem is that this isn't how Vegas shows end, and your answer is that this is how mine does.


"Thank you, I guess," John says. He then again explains all of the narrative, thematic and symbolic reasons why the ending can't be changed.


When the official media opening night arrives on October 27, except for a program being handed out to summarize the plot and action and some fine-tuning here and there, almost nothing has changed since the first performance. In fact, probably not too much has changed since Stagliano first sat down and imagined the show over a year ago. So, for now, Stagliano's unwillingness to compromise his vision and his artiness means that The Fashionistas certainly makes more demands of its audience than other Las Vegas shows. But the benefit is that this show displays the sort of unbounded creativity and aesthetic ambition that is unheard of in a production show. The media opening ends in a standing ovation. Robin Leach, who has a sharp eye and tongue, is blown away:


"This is a giant step forward for Vegas in terms of dance," he says. "It is magnificent. The level of the dancing and the choreography is unbelievable. The costumes are wild. It is incredibly good. It is so classy and so sexy."


As in Field of Dreams, John Stagliano has built it, and now—even as the triumph of the media opening celebration continued around him—finally he is worried if people will come:


"To tell you the truth, I've been very distressed about marketing the show for the last couple of weeks. The stress has just been killing me. It is not fun when you have only 10 paying customers and the rest, giveaways.


"But that's OK. We'll get there, because the show looks great. We are doing a really good show, and I'm real happy with the show right now, for now, for tonight, I'm really happy with the show and where it is at."


Now all that is left to do is to convince 250 or 300 people, five nights a week, that a man renowned as Buttman has made an ambitious and creative and wonderful dance production based on a long S&M porno movie that is worth spending a chunk of change and some Vegas vacation time to take in. Compared to actually creating such a show, how hard can that be?

  • Get More Stories from Thu, Nov 4, 2004
Top of Story