Empire of the Soleil

French-Canadian circus looks to tighten its hold on the Strip with sixth resident show

Cirque du Soleil and the Las Vegas Strip seem unlikely partners. Cirque’s origin as a scrappy street troupe is far from the manufactured glitz and ersatz nature of Las Vegas. However, Cirque is credited with helping transform the casino entertainment landscape and has consistently engaged Vegas’ attention-deficit auds.

From its artsy beginnings, the org has morphed into an internationally renowned global entertainment company, even though founder Guy Laliberte remains the sole owner of the privately held corporation).

Worldwide grosses are estimated at north of $600 million annually; in 2006, the touring show “Delirium” was one of the U.S.’ top five concert grossers, with more than $82 million in revenue.

In Vegas, “Mystere,” Cirque’s first resident show, is going strong after 14 years; in 2008, the entertainment company will add its sixth local spectacular, Criss Angel at the Luxor, and later this summer, Cirque expects to welcome its 20 millionth audience member.

Cirque consistently succeeds where other legit productions have fizzled for several reasons. Most importantly, there’s no cannibalization of Cirque product. The in-residence Vegas shows have no touring companies. “Each work is individual and unique artistically,” explains Jerry Nadal, Cirque’s senior VP, resident shows division. “To see ‘O,’ you have to come to Las Vegas and see it at the Bellagio Hotel.

“We’ve tried to find unique and rare talent around the world; and if you find a specialty act or character, you can’t re-create that,” the exec notes.

Shows are variety based and tend to be language neutral — also a plus.

Currently in rehearsals for his Cirque show, which will bow at the Luxor in June 2008, illusionist Angel is enthusiastic about the collaborative effort, the first star vehicle for Cirque.

“They understand their art better than anyone in the world,” Angel says. “Cirque has their own form of magic. They’ve reinvented the circus, and I’ve always dreamed of reinventing magic.”

Angel has signed on for 4,600 shows over 10 years, following the same schedule as other Cirque shows: two shows a night, five nights a week for 46 weeks. The company had been researching a magic-and-illusion show for many years, per Nadal, and Laliberte recognized that Angel had something special.

Each new Cirque event is pricey; the Beatles-based “Love’s” production is estimated to have cost $125 million, for example. In addition to his talents, Angel’s devoted fan base is very important to Cirque’s expansion and bottom line.

Each show trends towards a different audience: New York, New York’s “Zumanity,” featuring topless acrobats, is for adults only and capitalizes on Las Vegas’ adults’-playground theme; “Ka,” at the MGM Grand, is more of an operatic, legit experience; “Love” not only has garnered rave reviews (“a graceful and elegant marriage of movement and song,” per Variety) but has brought in an entirely new (and rabid) fan base.

In 2009, the troupe will add another resident Vegas production at the massive City Center, now under construction, based on Elvis Presley’s music. The Las Vegas Sun, meanwhile, has reported a children’s-themed work at Excalibur and a Mandalay Bay show are also possible.

Nadal notes there is heated competish for a Vegas’ visitor’s entertainment dollar, ranging from fine dining to the ultra-lounges, like Tao, to other live theater presentations such as Celine Dion or Bette Midler’s upcoming residency.

As competition has multiplied, Cirque’s marketing strategy has evolved, too. In the 1990s, when “Mystere” and “O” opened, the shows practically sold themselves. These days, the company relies heavily on Internet advertising, promotions and group sales.

“This is not a single-ticket sales’ market anymore,” says Nadal. “We used to turn groups down; now the market is much more seasonal and related to conventions. The more that people book prior to their arrival here, they better off we are from an overall sales perspective.”

Additionally, show schedules alter somewhat per competing events, start times are staggered to take into account conventiongoers’ skeds — and every Cirque show is dark Super Bowl Sunday.

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