‘Miss Spectacular’ waiting patiently

Chances are you’ve never met Sarah Jane Hotchkiss, or heard her singing about her dreams of “the audience roaring, the people adoring me so … “

But someday, Jerry Herman hopes, you will.

That’s because Sarah Jane Hotchkiss is none other than “Miss Spectacular.” And “Miss Spectacular” boasts the most recent score by the Broadway legend who brought you, among other musicals, “Hello, Dolly!” and “Mame.”

In June, Herman won a Tony Award for lifetime achievement. He’ll be back on Broadway in April with a transfer of the hit London “La Cage aux Folles” revival. (The original earned six Tonys when it debuted in 1983.)

And while some think “Miss Spectacular” also should be on Broadway, Herman maintains that the Strip is exactly where she belongs.

Like its title character, “Miss Spectacular” has yet to realize her Vegas dreams — even though, in the beginning, the show seemed poised to hit the equivalent of a first-pull Megabucks jackpot.

Curtain up: Las Vegas, in the last few years of the 20th century.

Spotlight on: Steve Wynn, casino magnate.

Then as now, Wynn rules a casino empire. As our story begins, however, that empire is Mirage Resorts: Bellagio, Treasure Island and The Mirage, which feature a gallery showcasing Wynn’s art collection, an exploding volcano and battling pirate ships.

But there’s no all-singing, all-dancing Broadway musical to wow the crowds — which is exactly what Steve Wynn told Jerry Herman.

“He gave me this whole list of things he owned,” Herman, now 78, recalls in a telephone interview from his Beverly Hills home. “And then he stopped and looked at me and said, ‘The only thing I don’t have is a Jerry Herman musical.'”

Not surprisingly, Wynn’s pitch worked.

“Well, how can you not respond?” Herman says, chuckling.

Sparked by Wynn’s enthusiastic invitation, Herman hatched an idea for “a musical with a thread of a story,” one devoted to Midwestern dreamer Sarah Jane Hotchkiss’ efforts to metamorphose from “Miss What’s Her Name” to “Miss Spectacular” by winning a contest to represent the Strip’s newest megaresort.

For the musical, destined for The Mirage, the composer wrote a bouquet of hummable melodies designed to accompany eye-popping production numbers, most of which were to unfold in Sarah Jane’s vivid imagination, triggered by that patented Vegas sound of a slot jackpot.

Think “Jubilee!” with “a thread of a story,” Herman says.

While the score sets the stage for “exciting production numbers,” from ballads to bawdy comedy songs, the project also features the one ingredient “that’s the secret of all my shows,” Herman explains. “Somebody to root for.” Somebody who follows in the iconic footsteps of Dolly and Mame, characters who embody the “strong need for an audience to connect to a great character.”

Wynn’s reaction to “Miss Spectacular” was everything Herman had hoped for — and then some — because he asked the composer to “put together a group of people who would be willing to record it,” Herman says.

That preproduction “concept” CD, featuring Herman’s handpicked lineup of singers, was recorded in a Southern California studio in 1999.

On the CD (released in 2002), veteran Strip headliner Steve Lawrence swings a Rat Pack-worthy “Las Vegas,” saluting “Fantasy Island on land.” When Lawrence first heard “Las Vegas,” he was very impressed, he recalls. “I thought it possibly could become the unofficial theme song of Las Vegas,” the way “New York, New York” has become associated with its title town. (Wynn was so enthusiastic about the number that he joined Lawrence in the recording booth during the session.)

Other featured performers on the CD included Christine Baranski, Michael Feinstein and Debbie Gravitte (whose credits include the London concert revival of Herman’s “Mack and Mabel”), who gives voice to Sarah Jane herself.

After the “wonderful, joyous, exhausting” process of recording “Miss Spectacular,” Herman “cried like a baby,” he admits, because “I felt like I had a new score” — his first stage musical since “La Cage” 16 years before.

In Wynn’s view, producing “Miss Spectacular” was “like spittin’ and hittin’ the floor. That’s how easy this show’s gonna be in Las Vegas,” Wynn said, as quoted in Wall Street Journal columnist Christina Binkley’s 2008 book “Winner Takes All: Steve Wynn, Kirk Kerkorian, Gary Loveman and the Race to Own Las Vegas.” (Repeated attempts to interview Wynn for this story proved unsuccessful.)

“I will always be grateful to Steve Wynn and to all the people on that album who gave their time and talent,” Herman says of the “Miss Spectacular” CD recording. “It was quite a love fest.”

But in Las Vegas, everybody knows love’s no substitute for money.

In May 2000, Wynn sold Mirage Resorts to MGM Grand; while that sale is often cited as the beginning of the end for “Miss Spectacular,” Herman also mentions another cause.

“At the very moment we were ready to do it,” he says, “Cirque du Soleil fever came over the city.” (Cirque now has six productions running on the Strip, with a seventh, “Viva Elvis,” opening soon.)

Which may help explain why, for the next few years, Herman unsuccessfully tried to interest other casinos in producing the show, triggering periodic rumors that “Miss Spectacular” would be making her Vegas debut after all.

One rumor had multiple Tony-winner Tommy Tune (who once headlined “EFX” at the MGM Grand) directing, with Vegas veteran Paige O’Hara (the voice of Belle in Disney’s animated classic “Beauty and the Beast,” who’s now appearing in “Menopause: The Musical” at Luxor) mentioned for the title role.

So far, however, the closest O’Hara’s gotten to “Miss Spectacular” is one of its songs: the comic “Where In the World Is My Prince?,” which she frequently performs as part of Herman’s touring “Hello, Jerry!: Celebrating the Music and Lyrics of Jerry Herman.”

Every time O’Hara sings “Where In the World Is My Prince?” the number “pretty much stops the show,” she says.

Herman believes that someday, some way, “Miss Spectacular” will find her way onto a Vegas stage.

“It does frustrate me that it’s never been seen or produced,” acknowledges Herman, who considers it “some of my best work.”

He’s received “lots of requests to think about it as the basis of a Broadway show,” but “I know it belongs in Las Vegas.”

Then again, the Las Vegas Herman had in mind when he wrote the show’s score — symbolized by sequined, strutting showgirls — isn’t what it used to be.

And despite the success of some musicals on the Strip (including “Phantom of the Opera” and “Jersey Boys”), Las Vegas has yet to become the “Broadway West” that Wynn envisioned when he presented the Tony-winners “Avenue Q” and “Spamalot” (both now closed) at his namesake casino.

Yet O’Hara still believes “Miss Spectacular” would “definitely be a huge hit,” with “a wide range of appeal” — in part because “it was written for Las Vegas by one of the greatest Broadway composers of all time,” she says. “I think Vegas would really be sad if it doesn’t get produced.”

For his part, Herman’s not sad, just resigned that he, and “Miss Spectacular,” must wait to hear “the audience roaring, the people adoring me so … “

But he remains confident that “there will be a place for ‘Miss Spectacular,'” even if he’s “letting fate take over” to determine when, and where, that place will be.

Contact reporter Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

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