In a romantic moment when two characters declare their feelings for each others, their love gets a visual expression when an octet of circular lampshades rise into the air and execute airborne choreography. Turns out they’re not lampshades at all — they’re drones.
It’s tech more closely associated with warfare and paparazzi, and the use of it onstage marks a first both for Broadway and for Cirque. It also stands as one small manifestation of Cirque’s broader mission statement on Broadway: combining the bones of traditional musical theater with the nouveau-circus stagecraft for which the brand is known. That means high-flying acrobatics, a distinctive musical vocabulary and the kind of envelope-pushing scenery, makeup and technical elements that audiences haven’t seen before — like those flying machines.
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“This kind of thing is almost expected when you buy a ticket to a Cirque du Soleil show,” said Scott Zeiger, president and managing director of Cirque du Soleil Theatrical. “For the three minutes they’re watching those lampshades, the audience is witnessing a $500,000 moment. They may love it or they may hate it, but they can’t see it anywhere else on Broadway.”
The overall production costs of “Paramour,” a love triangle set in Hollywood’s golden age, rings in at $25 million, which is expensive for Broadway but cheap for Cirque. That half-million lampshade moment aims to translate an intimate character beat into an unexpected visual motif, magical enough to fill the Lyric, a 1,900-seat venue that Broadway types often describe as “cavernous.”
The sequence grew out of an earlier, experimental collaboration between Cirque and Zurich-based Verity Studios, who together tested the creative potential of flying machines in a 2014 video segment posted to YouTube, “Sparked.” As in the “Paramour” number, the sequence is performed by autonomous flying machines that, according to Verity’s Raffaello D’Andrea, follow pre-programmed choreography but make their own decisions based on their relation to each other and where they are in space.
“It would be impossible for human beings to pilot these machines to do what you’re seeing, in terms of unison, timing, and choreography,” he said.
There were plenty of challenges in getting those machines to the stage. For one thing, there was tech to be adapted for flying indoors without the aid of GPS, and lighting design had to be modulated so that their flight would read for audiences members all the way at the back of the house. Then there was the fire department to contend with.
“It’s pretty rare that you have to have the fire marshal come to approve a number in your show that doesn’t involve fire,” Zeiger said. The marshal, in fact, nixed the original plan of having one or more of the machines fly out over the audience.
But with the all those hurdles overcome, the drones now perform eight times a week in a number that aims to imbue the mundane with a little wonder. “A lampshade is an everyday object,” D’Andrea said. “To see them fly, it’s like magic.” (The engineer-artist added that similar tech could be used onstage any time creatives want to move something in an arbitrary way in 3D space.)
The cutting-edge sequence is just one part of a production that aims to stand out on Broadway by meshing to legit musical tradition with the daredevilry and technological elements so closely associated with Cirque. “Paramour” has already made a mark at the box office, posting major numbers since it began previews April 16 — but it remains to be seen whether the production will make its mark with theater critics too. The show opens at the Lyric tonight.