Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Bad Vibrations: Why Surf the Musical Wiped Out

Surf the Musical was an ambitious gamble, even in a city known for big bets. And it looks like the show's producers have crapped out after just six weeks.

The $10 million jukebox musical featuring the classic music of The Beach Boys told a nostalgic tale of love set in the So-Cal surf culture of the 1960's. Featuring cutting edge video technology, live musicians, and proven talent (including the director of the original production of the smash hit jukebox musical Rock of Ages, which inspired the awesomely bad Tom Cruise flop this summer) and Adrien Zmed (whose screen credits include Grease 2 and TJ Hooker, which put him far from the A-List but proves he knows what the eff he's doing). The real gamble was the fact that the producers spent so much money on a totally original production instead of opening an already proven hit in Vegas.

I can't stress enough what kind of brass balls it took to do this. Nobody opens original productions in Las Vegas. Just look at the shows playing there now... there are something like 72 Cirque Du Soleil shows (and a few Cirque ripoffs), Phantom of the Opera, Blue Man Group, and the somehow still extremely popular Jersey Boys. (I'm not trying to criticize the show when I saw somehow extremely popular... I'm just shocked that a show about pre-rock and roll 50's pop singers has resonated so deeply with audiences, many of them young people, for so long. But those Four Seasons songs are ridiculously catchy.) The common thread among all of these shows is that they were all established smash hits long before they opened in Las Vegas; every last one of them was a relatively safe bet with a built in fan base ensuring they'd have audiences waiting for them when they opened.

Even established smash hits sometimes don't catch on in Sin City for whatever reason, as shows that are still running in other cities like Avenue Q, Monty Python's Spamalot, and the awesomely cracked out We Will Rock You (where the music of Queen frees the minds of masses the masses from a corporately controlled dystopian future) all had relatively short runs on The Strip.

The only original production I can think of off the top of my head (because I'm too lazy to do real research on this, basically) that came out of Las Vegas was Mike Tyson's Spike Lee directed one man show, Undisputed Truth, which did well enough to earn a limited Broadway run. (Note: some of you will try to trump me and point out that most of the Vegas Cirque shows originated there, as did variety spectacles like the long running Jubilee! at Bally's, tribute acts to The Rat Pack and Elvis, and the many adult shows on The Strip, including the one with boobs and vampires. To which I respond: you know I'm not talking about variety shows, tribute acts, adult revues, or artsy fartsy French-Canadian acrobatic spectacles, so don't be a smart-ass.) But that show starred a pop culture icon with deep roots in Sin City telling a crazy tabloid tale. Also, a one man show is a helluva lot easier (and cheaper) to stage than a full scale musical.

One could argue that the music of The Beach Boys would have been enough to draw in audiences, and while they're one of the most popular bands of all time, currently wrapping up a hugely successful reunion tour, and more influential than ever (with bands as diverse as Best Coast and Animal Collective clearly influenced by their classic sound), even splashing their name across all of the show's advertising wasn't enough to turn Surf the Musical into a hit. Show goers in Vegas are almost entirely made up of older tourists looking for a sure thing when they're spending over $100 a ticket. When it comes down to a choice between Jersey Boys, a name-brand jukebox musical with tons of great word of mouth and Tony wins under its belt, why would anyone choose the new upstart instead, even if you prefer The Beach Boys to Frankie Vallie and the Four Seasons. Another issue was that The Beach Boys never officially endorsed the show. A lavish premiere where Brian Wilson walking the red carpet and looking confused with the rest of the band in tow would have been a great promotional opportunity. But the problems go deeper: the producers needed more than cover versions of decades old Beach Boys tunes and the second lead from TJ Hooker to sell their ambitious show to the masses. (TJ Hooker's third lead, Heather Locklear, might have helped, come to think of it.)

I didn't get to check out Surf the Musical, so all of this is conjecture on my part. Perhaps the show was  a magnificent Broadway style production that used classic Beach Boy tunes in exciting new contexts. But based on the many reviews I've read, I highly doubt that. The storyline was pure 60's surf movie simplicity about a guy losing a girl and working to get her back from the arrogant bad guy. When was the last time an earnest surf movie was a hit?

Reports for the show's attendance were extremely bleak. No performance sold more than 200 seats in Planet Hollywood's 1,500 seat Peepshow theater, while one night was attended by an abysmal 50 people. The show began running previews on June 29 and opened officially on July 17. The last performance will be on Wednesday, August 15. That's about six weeks of shows and millions of dollars lost. All of which is very dispiriting, because I love the idea of producers originating a new show in Las Vegas, even though it seems counter intuitive. I respect the moxy of the producers for betting so big, but their bet was fundamentally flawed, like a Blackjack player hitting on 19. No wonder they went bust.

So what could they have done to succeed with an original show in Las Vegas? I (of course, y'all know I gots to get in there) have a few (fully unsolicited) ideas that might be prove helpful to the next brass-balled producer who attempts such a feat.

Make it Vegas-centric
People come to Las Vegas for a Las Vegas experience. For a show to succeed, set it in Sin City and make it about something quintessentially Las Vegan. Play up the spectacle, the excess, the sin, and the city's rich showbiz and mob related history. The Beach Boys could be the basis for a great show, but the whole production seemed so So-Cal centric. Why not make it about 60's Vegas and set it to the beat of Rat Pack classics? Or just call Marty Scorsese and ask him if the rights to Casino: The Musical are available. (The last part is mostly a joke, but how amazing would that be, really?)

Base it Around Something Currently Popular
Not to say that The Beach Boys aren't one of the most popular bands of all time, but they're not exactly hip with the kids. While the sweet spot for selling show tickets in Las Vegas is probably middle aged to the genuinely elderly (because young people generally go to Vegas to party, not listen to show tunes) it would perhaps be wise to base a show around a more relevant act. Garth Brooks has been selling out his intimate shows at The Wynn (even though the lowest ticket prices are nearly $300), so why not base a show around his stuff or other country hits? (Has there ever been a country music jukebox musical? I cop to being one of those music snobs who says he listens to "everything but country," but I'd be more than happy to familiarize myself with the genre if I could make millions of dollars putting one together. Just say the word, producers.)

Feature a Genuine Star
Not to besmirch a showbiz survivor like Mr. Zmed, but he's not the kind of name who will draw in the big crowds looking for something fun to do on their vacation (though I'm sure there is a large contingent of TJ Hooker fanatics out there, posting on message boards and kicking themselves for missing out on the very brief run of Surf the Musical). Vegas shows have to draw the attention of people from all over the world, so you've gotta a pander a bit. And there's no better way to pander than to bring in a really big star. Celine Dion nearly sold out every performance she gave at Caesars Palace for five years and was so successful that they brought her back for another residency. The same thing happened with Elton John, and as mentioned above, Garth Brooks has been knocking it out of the park at The Wynn. Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, Cee-Lo, and Shania Twain will all launch residency shows in the near future. Why not get a big star to headline an original production? Recruit Prince for a live action Purple Rain! Cast David Bowie and some puppets in a full scale Labyrinth musical! The possibilities are endless.

Or they could just call it a day and pay Zach Galifianakis a gold yacht filled with money to star in The Hangover: The Musical.

1 comment:

  1. I supplied all of the custom painted and vintage surfboards for the show. I was sadden that the show didn't last, but the show itself was awesome! Eric from