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Cirque’s Outlook -- Some Call It a Mystere

Times Staff Writer

Standing at the jetway at the Toronto airport, Las Vegas mogul Steve Wynn extended his hand to the former fire-eating street performer. For his part, Wynn wasn’t blowing any smoke.

“If you shake my hand,” Wynn recalls telling Guy Laliberte, who helped found Cirque du Soleil, “you get your own theater in the new hotel I am building on the same terms as Siegfried and Roy,” the famed German illusionists-cum-tiger trainers.

Laliberte, who had been dickering with Wynn’s rivals at Caesars Palace, sized up the seriousness of the offer and met the tycoon’s hand to seal the deal.

A dozen years later, Siegfried and Roy still are among the top draws in Las Vegas, playing to a full house every night. Yet in a town devoted to extravagance, it is quirky Montreal-based acrobatics troupe Cirque du Soleil that has upped the ante on entertainment spectacle.

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Today, the Cirque du Soleil empire runs the six-mile length of Las Vegas Boulevard known as the Strip.

Its influence extends from its growing stable of multimillion-dollar productions, which fetch $50 to $150 a seat, to the work of alumnus Franco Dragone, who created pop star Celine Dion’s new show at Caesars Palace.

Cirque’s sales are expected to top $500 million this year and are growing by 15% to 20% annually, says Daniel Lamarre, Cirque’s president and chief operating officer of shows and new ventures.

When its fourth Las Vegas production opens next year at the MGM Grand hotel, Cirque will account for three of every four dollars -- or about $300 million annually -- spent on entertainment at the five Strip hotels owned by MGM Mirage, the nation’s second-largest casino operator.

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Yet increasingly, some wonder whether Cirque’s brand of financial magic will last. Vegas insiders ask whether by doubling the number of its shows, Cirque could start to cannibalize itself. Others question how strong the company is creatively since Dragone’s defection several years ago.

Cirque’s newest show, “Zumanity,” is scheduled to open Aug. 14 at the New York-New York Hotel & Casino and marks a shift away from its traditional family-friendly antics to cabaret-style “R-rated” fare of partial nudity and sexual humor.

“If they don’t take it to another level, they will wobble,” says Wynn, 61. “The issue is not how many shows are there in Las Vegas. The question is whether there is something wonderful and unique in each addition.”

Known for its jaw-dropping gymnastic stunts, special effects, surreal costumes and New Age music presented in eight-to-10-minute acts, Cirque has grown from a confederation of street performers founded in 1984 with an arts grant from the Quebec government into a lucrative international business.

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Laliberte, the chief executive, now runs a company of 2,500 employees from more than 40 nations. The workforce speaks 25 languages and has skills as disparate as juggling and mechanical engineering. By the end of next year, 800 will live in Las Vegas.

All Over the World

Five touring productions that circle from Japan to Europe to North America, two Las Vegas troupes and a permanent show at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., brought 7 million spectators through Cirque’s turnstiles last year. “Varekai,” its newest touring production, comes to Southern California in September.

The Cirque franchise soon may extend to television as well. In the meantime, the company serves as creative content provider for MGM Mirage, for which Cirque is exploring ideas ranging from restaurants to nightclubs to other theatrical shows, Lamarre says.

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The financial arrangement between Cirque and MGM Mirage remains much the same since the day Wynn and Laliberte, now 43, shook hands.

Each party funds half of the production cost of a new show -- in the case of “Zumanity,” $7.5 million apiece. MGM Mirage pays for the theater -- more than $30 million to retrofit the existing hall at New York-New York and $100 million for the MGM Grand project. The big expenses are amortized, and profits are split 50-50. If attendance falls below a certain level, the show will close.

So far that’s never happened. “O,” which plays at the Bellagio, remains one of the town’s hottest tickets. “Mystere,” at Treasure Island, sells about 96% of its seats. Competitors are watching to see whether those numbers hold once “Zumanity” opens.

“Maybe you can overdo something,” says John Marz, senior vice president of marketing and events for Mandalay Resort Group, which operates six Strip hotels.

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Mandalay attempted a Cirque-style show called “Imagine” at its Egyptian-themed Luxor hotel in the late 1990s. But the production, which combined New Age music, acrobatics and magic, closed after a two-year run.

Mandalay Resort Group then took the opposite approach, setting up its entertainment offerings to be “anti-Cirque.” Blue Man Group, an eclectic and wordless musical comedy ensemble, replaced “Imagine” at the Luxor. The big show at Mandalay Bay hotel is the Broadway-style “Mamma Mia!”

“People here want options, and we want to be the ones that offer them,” Marz says.

Before Cirque, Siegfried and Roy were about the only permanent entertainment attraction in Las Vegas beyond the bare-breasted showgirl musical revues and limited celebrity engagements. With their white tigers, tight costumes and dramatic illusions, the German magicians had become the hottest ticket in town after Wynn plowed money into their production and built them a theater at his Mirage hotel in 1989.

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Just four years later, Wynn remembers, the pair grew anxious. They were worried that the new kid on the block -- Cirque du Soleil -- would siphon off customers.

The 1,629-seat theater that Wynn had promised to Laliberte was just about built in his new Treasure Island hotel, right next door to the Mirage. The production “Mystere” would be Cirque’s biggest show to date, unhampered by the theatrical and technical restrictions of the touring company’s previous Bedouin existence.

“Even I was scared to death” that Cirque would collide with Siegfried and Roy, Wynn says.

But within days of the opening of “Mystere,” Wynn says, it became clear that plenty of room existed for both shows. There was “a tremendous pent-up desire for performing arts and creativity” in Las Vegas.

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Proof quickly appeared in the entertainment tax rolls. In the first year after the debut of “Mystere,” according to Nevada tax figures, entertainment revenue on the Strip jumped by $50 million. The show accounted for about $35 million, or 70%, of the gain in 1994.

Even as the first audiences were flocking to “Mystere,” Wynn was thinking of another grand hotel project, the $1.6-billion Bellagio, and he wanted a high-end entertainment act to be a main attraction. Again, he turned to Laliberte.

This time, though, the Cirque executive was reluctant. “He thought it would be too much of one thing,” Wynn says.

Others within Cirque agreed, concerned that they would kill the golden goose “Mystere” had become. Questions swirled from Las Vegas to Montreal. How would a second production compete with the other entertainment in town? How could it be distinct from “Mystere”?

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Artists Skeptical

Dragone, Cirque’s principal creative force during the 1990s, was among the skeptics: “We were scared that it would steal from ‘Mystere.’ ”

Wynn, however, was undeterred. And the executive was not above playing a game of bluff that took advantage of Dragone’s status as an important but ultimately independent contractor to Cirque.

In a meeting with Laliberte and Dragone, Wynn directed most of his remarks to Dragone, outlining the idea of using water as a theme for the new Bellagio and its entertainment. Dragone brainstormed on what it would take to do the show, telling Wynn to expect to dump at least $75 million into building a special theater for the project. Dragone insisted that the theater be ready months before the hotel opened so that Cirque would have a place to rehearse.

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Laliberte, who declined interview requests for this article, apparently did not want Dragone to bolt Cirque and do the project on his own, according to Wynn. “Guy jumped off the couch and said, ‘If you push the envelope, we push the envelope.’ ”

Another handshake gave birth to “O.”

Years later, Wynn concedes that he was as “petrified” as the Cirque team about the success of another production. He had sunk more money into building the specialized venue -- a theater with a 25-foot-deep, 1.5-million-gallon pool -- than any previous entertainment project. “We were on for $102 million by the time we sold the first ‘O’ ticket,” Wynn says.

It all would work out -- and then some. “O” now accounts for $100 million of Bellagio’s $1.1 billion in annual revenue and is the top-grossing show in Las Vegas. The lesson, Wynn says, is that “if the hotel and the entertainment is unique, the market grows.”

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Not only are Cirque’s shows expensive to produce, they’re also expensive to see. “Zumanity” tickets range from $55 to $95. The price of a “Mystere” ticket has nearly doubled to $88 since it opened in October 1993. “O” tickets start at $99 and peak at $150.

That Cirque succeeds so well in Las Vegas is no surprise in the eyes of art and culture critic Dave Hickey, who teaches at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. “It is pure spectacle,” Hickey says. “It is an ideal franchise you can update without retooling because it is not tied to narrative or character.”

Indeed, entertainment without complicated dialogue or plot works particularly well in Las Vegas, where up to 15% of the guests at the big casinos come from abroad.

“You don’t have to speak English to enjoy it,” says Wynn, who sold his casino empire to MGM Grand for $6.4 billion, including $2 billion in assumed debt, three years ago.

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The absence of Wynn did not diminish the confidence of his former company in Cirque. Bobby Baldwin, who heads MGM’s Mirage division, came back to Laliberte in 2000 with yet another request for a new show, this time for New York-New York.

By now, Cirque and its partners were less concerned about a new show stealing ticket sales from its existing productions. “It is like Hollywood,” Hickey says. “If one works, so will four.”

But a new obstacle arose. The two previous shows were performed in theaters tailored to Cirque’s requirements. The new production would have to fit into an existing theater, one that would have to be retrofitted at a cost of $35 million.

Cirque designers solved the problem by creating a more intimate setting with just 1,250 seats, about two-thirds the capacity of its other theaters. Sightlines in the art nouveau-style house are short; the farthest seat is 75 feet from the stage. Some patrons will watch from loveseats directly in front of the stage. In the side balconies, the first rows offer bar-stool seating.

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Love Is the Theme

Lamarre says the look and feel of “Zumanity,” which is being marketed as “another side of Cirque du Soleil,” will match the smaller setting. Love is the theme of the show, and performers will “illustrate all facets of love,” Lamarre says. “But if people are just looking for nudity, they should go to a strip joint.”

Lamarre declined to discuss the nature of the sexual content. Advertising, however, gives some clues. Billboards and other materials depict out-of-focus photos of intertwined bodies and images of nude dancers. One section of the promotional materials is held together by a bra strap.

Staging a distinctive new production -- one that features erotically charged theatrics -- means that Cirque has had to venture beyond the gymnastics meets and circuses, usually in Eastern Europe, where the company normally finds talent.

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For “Zumanity,” Cirque scouts went to nightclubs and to urban blue-light districts, in the process recruiting a drag queen as the master of ceremonies and a former stripper as a dancer.

Wynn says it’s no surprise to him that Laliberte has chosen the risque as a way to break from Cirque’s past. “He has always wanted to do something dark and sexy.”

Besides, an R-rated Cirque fits well with the latest marketing strategy of Las Vegas, which now sells itself with the slogan: “What Happens Here, Stays Here. Only Vegas.” A decade ago, the town marketed itself as a family destination, but Vegas has since reembraced its early roots as an adult playground.

Even the mainstream MGM Grand, where the fourth Cirque show will play, offers “La Femme” -- a kaleidoscope of colored light and nearly naked dancers that is pitched as “the art of the nude.”

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Cirque, which already has tackled water, may turn to fire as a theme in its fourth Vegas Production, which is in development for a 2,000-seat theater in the MGM Grand. Both the hotel company and Cirque declined to answer questions about future plans, saying they wanted to see how the market digested the latest offerings.

Baldwin says he wouldn’t be plowing so much money into Cirque projects if he weren’t convinced they’d continue to be successful. He expects “Zumanity” to add $150,000 to $250,000 a week to gaming, food and beverage revenue at New York-New York.

If he has bet wrong on these latest Cirque shows, the results quickly will be evident. “Vegas is very pragmatic,” says Hickey, the art critic. “If it doesn’t work it goes away.”

Yet when entertainment such as Cirque is successful, it produces a synergy with gambling and fancy hotels that distinguishes the city from other destinations. “The future of Las Vegas is dependent on entertainment and the arts,” Wynn says. “If it loses that, look out for the Indian casinos.”

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