After swaying in his seat and mouthing the words to songs he seemed to know quite well, Paul McCartney wasn't bashful about coming down to the stage after the fifth anniversary performance of Cirque du Soleil's "Love."
"It started off as a fantastic show five years ago, and it's still the hottest thing in town!" he proclaimed to the audience.
Not that it had much competition.
In fact, the June 8 celebration of the Beatles show brought into focus just how unique was that week in 2006, when "Love" wasn't the only multimillion dollar show to open.
On Thursday, "Phantom -- The Las Vegas Spectacular," a shortened yet supersized $35 million version of the Broadway blockbuster by original director Hal Prince, also planned to celebrate five years at The Venetian. ("Phantom" officially opened June 24; "Love" June 30 after both previewed that month.)
The arrival of two titles, with a combined 38,000 tickets to sell each week, turned out to be a high water mark. It could be years, if ever, before the Strip ever sees another week to rival that heady June of interest-only mortgages and anything-goes investment on the Strip.
While "Love" turned out to be a recession-proof $100 million bet, "Phantom" has been the bigger miracle of survival. The musical's struggle is more typical of ticketed (i.e., non-nightclub) entertainment of the past five years: standing discounts to fill seats, a reduced performance schedule, cost-cutting.
Beyond that, however, "Phantom" won unprecedented concessions from three labor unions to keep its cast and crew working, a situation comparable to Detroit automakers and their unions.
'LOVE': A HARD DAY'S ACT TO FOLLOW
Granted, it was one of the more amazing feats of show business: getting the four business interests of the Beatles to agree on anything, much less a show in Las Vegas.
Through much of his life, Canadian director Dominic Champagne notes, "the big question was when the Beatles are going to get back together?" Even with John Lennon and George Harrison gone, "We knew we had the opportunity to at least play at this great reunion."
But if "Love" seemed impossible to screw up, you can talk to the producers of the "Spider-Man" musical, or ask George Lucas about those "Star Wars" prequels.
"We knew we were playing with fire," the director reflects on the morning after the cast performed for McCartney and the families of John Lennon and George Harrison.
"It could have been a nightmare, and I could have felt like I killed the legacy."
Instead, "Love" is the show Cirque now struggles to live up to, the one that made two successive Las Vegas titles ("Criss Angel: Believe" and "Viva Elvis") look labored and uneven by comparison.
Champagne credits McCartney and music producer George Martin for giving him the liberty to take chances and not take the easy path of doing "O" with Beatles music. "It had to be something different, as the Beatles brought something different when they came into the pop music landscape," he says.
It's obvious to any "Viva Elvis" patron that Cirque was banned from representing the tragic dark side of the Elvis Presley legend. But "Love" charts both the rise and fall of the '60s dream, and uses "A Day in the Life" to evoke Lennon's mother being hit and killed by a car.
"You can hear a silence that you never hear in any Las Vegas theater," Champagne says. Though the original rules were to avoid anything personal, the director asked McCartney if he thought the car-crash metaphor was a good idea.
"He told me, 'I'm sure John and (his mother) Julia would be so pleased to have this moment of their lives shown on the stage."
"Fortunately 'Love' surfed on the wave of the success it started with," the director says. But beyond the box office, there is the sense that "the people in the audience don't want to leave the theater, while usually after a show in Las Vegas" -- he makes the sound effect -- "Whoosh! They leave in seconds."
'PHANTOM' NOT READY TO FADE INTO NIGHT
While audiences instantly knew "Love" was one of a kind, "Phantom" works hard to sell the uniqueness of the Las Vegas product.
Anthony Crivello, who stars as the masked mystery man, says he routinely hears from VIP customers who tell him no other productions in the world compare.
With its name and advertising aiming to convey that this is, indeed, a superior "Phantom" in terms of its custom staging, "I think it is communicated without hammering it," the star says.
But, "Like the rest of the country, people had to take pay cuts, and there were concessions made across the board to keep the show solvent," he says.
It could be argued that "Phantom" was shopworn by the time it came to the Strip. Others say its woes are less due to content than to deals at the outset that might have been part of the irrational exuberance of the 2000s.
While Cirque owns its creative content, "Phantom" pays both hefty royalties to its creators and a "reverse guarantee" to its landlord. The producers pay all costs including the electric bill, and guarantee a certain weekly profit to The Venetian.
Unlike his company's "Peepshow," co-producer Scott Zeiger notes the Broadway musical can't be visibly trimmed without the audience noticing. "People have an indelible blueprint in their brain as to what 'Phantom' is. You need that full orchestra. You need those extraordinary costumes. You need all that scenery."
Beyond the elimination of two actors sharing the Phantom role, most cuts were offstage. Zeiger says The Venetian, as well as venders and the unions involved with the show, cooperated to achieve operating efficiencies. "Just like any business, you create new incentive programs based on the gross sales, as opposed to guaranteed incentives."
"We have a landlord and a partner at The Venetian that wants us there," Zeiger adds. As long as that cooperation continues, "We're going to run as long as there's an audience."
"Will we stay there long enough to see a sea change in the economy? Gosh, I hope so," he adds. "That would be great for everybody."
Barring that, it's safe to say you can at least mark your calendar for the 10th anniversary of "Love" in 2016.
Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.