We love Las Vegas, my wife and I. Not the gambling mind you, but the atmosphere, the ambiance, the life of the place. And the shows, especially the Cirque shows. Seeing Mystère together, and realizing the joy we shared in that beautiful show, was one of the experiences that helped cement our relationship.
Over the years the Las Vegas market has become a critical part of Cirque’s business as they have expanded from one to now seven (soon to be eight) shows on the strip. The overall management of those shows, as well as others taking up residencies in cities around the world, now rests in the hands of Jerry Nadal, Senior Vice-President of the Resident Shows Division.
We got to know Mr. Nadal during the planning and execution of CirqueCon 2006: Las Vegas! (www.cirquecon.com), when he was General Manager of Resident Shows. With his approval the Resident Shows division staff (as well as staff at the five Vegas shows) pulled out the stops to make the weekend truly memorable for our members.
As we were preparing for our latest trip to Las Vegas (to see Viva Elvis! and catch BeLIEve “2.0”) we asked if we could sit down with Mr. Nadal for a chat, to talk about the shows and his outlook on things of interest to Cirque fans. We were delighted when the theater veteran with much press experience (“I was even asked why we hire kids, because it’s ‘child abuse.’”) found time in his busy schedule.
Our hopes were dashed, however, when an equipment delay on our connecting flight to Las Vegas meant we would miss our appointment. But fortunately for us, Mr. Nadal (who was also experiencing travel mishaps himself) had time on our last day in Vegas.
It was mid-morning on Monday, September 17, 2010 when we arrived at the newly-renovated Cirque Resident Shows HQ just south of McCarran Airport. The heat of mid-morning abated quickly as we waited inside the building just next to the new front desk area. It was also the day representatives from several area universities were in the building talking with artists about educational opportunities and career transition topics.
Mr. Nadal greeted us soon after we arrived and escorted us back to his office on the south side of the building, a private office with windows facing the Airport. The occasional soft roar of jets and heavy trucks rumbling down East Sunset Road provided a backdrop to our conversation.
51 year-old Jerry Nadal (Nay-DELL – “It’s Spanish; my grandfather came from Spain.”) hails originally from New York. He spoke openly and frankly about Cirque and its business. Some of what we spoke about at the time would later change – it wouldn’t be too long after we spoke that Banana Shpeel was cancelled and closed, the Radio City Music Hall show was named (Zarkana) , and the “Michael Jackson The Immortal World Tour” was announced and tickets put on sale.
But we first wanted to hear about his history. While he might have ended up where he wanted to be, it didn’t start out that way. “I have a bachelor’s degree in Transportation Management and I’d always wanted to go to law school. You think of all the touring I did, it actually works! (laughs). I really did a whole business track.”
“In my junior year of college I worked for Irving Trust Bank on Wall Street and from there went to United States Lines. Then I started going back to school, looking at some marketing courses, and left U.S. Lines because they were going through bankruptcy. I ended up at Chase Manhattan Bank doing marketing at the branch level. But I had always done theater work on the side, tons of community theater.”
“When I was 28 I realized I was calling in sick for a week at a time because I was working [overnights during technical rehearsals] at the theater as a Technical Director. I forget what production I was doing, I think it was, “Anything Goes.” I came home [one morning] and it was like 5:30am. I was [living] at my parents’ house and they were having breakfast, getting ready to go to work. They knew it was tech week so my Dad said, “Are you going to work today?” I said, “No, I’m not going in all week.” And he said, “Don’t you think your priorities are a little misplaced?” I said, “I’d love to have this conversation with you, but I’m going upstairs and going to sleep now.” (laughs)
But the question stayed with him and got him thinking, though perhaps not in the way his father might have intended. “Right after the show opened I went in to Chase and quit. I just said nope, not interested in doing this anymore. And they thought it was a joke until they realized everything was gone from my desk.”
“My first [“real” theater] job was a couple of months after that in the Equity Library Theater in Manhattan which has since closed (Ed: in 1990). They were like a workshop place, a “letter of agreement” theater. That was my first gig, five dollars a day. My parents thought I had completely lost my mind, but they were supportive. They said, “As long as you can pay your bills, do you thing.” And that’s where I started doing theater work.”
As his career developed, Mr. Nadal worked his way up through the theater ranks to working in Las Vegas. “I was Business Manager on “Starlight Express” when it was running at the Las Vegas Hilton. We opened on September  of 1993, a few months before Mystère opened. I [had] never lived here; I was working for Troika Entertainment (www.troika.com) doing a lot of Broadway stuff – one-night-ers, touring. When “Starlight” closed in 1997 (Ed: Nov 30) Karen Gay (who is now our Director of Global Citizenship) was Company Manager. [Cirque] had just posted an opening for a Company Manager job on Mystère [which Karen got]. Karen called me one day a couple of months later and said, “Hey, they’re looking for a Company Manager in Biloxi [Mississippi]. Steve Wynn’s (Ed: then-CEO of Mirage Resorts) building a place down there and they’re going to put in one of the touring shows. Would that be something you’d be interested in?””
“I’d had enough of the one-nighter Broadway circuit so I put my resume in [and] flew out to Vegas [to meet] with Bill Riske (the General Manager at the time) and June Wood (the H.R. director). [Cirque] had four shows running at the time, and we talked about Biloxi and they asked if I would ever be interested in a position in Vegas. And I said no, I don’t like Las Vegas – and I learned never say never!”
It seemed he was in the right place at the right time as he accepted the Company Manager position for “Alegría” at the Beau Rivage. “I think timing in life is everything.”
“When I started [Cirque] was a very small company [and] in 1998 we had just de-centralized. Which, if you look back now, was probably too much too soon given that we didn’t have all that much product [at the time]. But [that] was the year we almost doubled the size of the company; “O” and La Nouba opened and we had Dralion in production which opened in April of ‘99.”
“We moved Alegría into the theater at the Beau Rivage in Biloxi (Ed: opening on May 20, 1999). So I started in the Resident Shows division, which was brand new at the time. They created the division because [prior to that] it had only been Mystère, and “O” was coming online [soon]. I got to work with the European division because Alegría was in Europe, and I went over there to negotiate contracts with the artists [for the Biloxi run]. So I got to meet all the people in the Amsterdam office and worked with that group. I [also] stayed with [Alegría] for the last few cities because the Tour Manager at the time was getting ready to bring Quidam over from the U.S.”
Then in Montréal I met a lot of people because we had a production team [there]. [And also] working with the Vegas [Resident Shows] division proper. We ran about 18 months down [in Biloxi] and then put the show on tour (Ed: to Australia and Singapore). They asked me to stay as the Tour Manager, so I took the show over to Asia and got to work with everybody in the Singapore office. [It was during] our Asia tour in 2001 when [Cirque President] Daniel Gauthier gave his notice and said he was leaving the company. So we re-centralized the company, closing the Singapore office and downsized the Amsterdam operation. I then began working under Jacques Marois and the people in Montréal for a year. I then left the [Alegría] tour to come here and start as Company Manager on KÀ, which then started to have its multiple delays because of the size and scale of the thing.”
“So I really made my way around the company and got to meet all of the major players at the time. And about three months before we were going to open KÀ Michael Bolingbroke, who was [General Manager of Resident Shows] at the time was given a promotion. [Cirque CEO] Daniel [Lamarre] wanted him back in Montréal and he became Senior Vice-President [of Resident Shows]. They posted the General Manager job and I got [it]. And when Michael left the company (Ed: In 2007 to become Chief Operating officer of England’s Manchester United football club (www.manutd.com)), Daniel then took his job and split it up. It wasn’t even an option – he said, “I’m making you Senior Vice-President!” (laughter) So that’s how we get to today.”
As befits the title of Senior Vice-President his responsibilities are wide-ranging, which means lots of meetings and travel. It also gives him the opportunity to be on the Board of Directors for the local NPR affiliate, KNPR 88.9FM. Though it makes him wish for more time for himself and his kids, twin boys Harrison and Wilson that he and his partner Gene Lubas (Artistic Director at Viva Elvis!) adopted in 2007. “For the Resident Shows I’ve got [responsibility for] 12 shows. Seven here [in Las Vegas], one [each] in Orlando, Macao and Tokyo. And Theater Shows [which includes] Wintuk, Banana Shpeel, the Radio City Music Hall production, and Kodak. And the Asia operations.”
“So I oversee two General Managers and everything that’s under them. (Ed: They would be Kathy Meranchnik-VP & GM Theatre Shows Division and Jack Kenn-VP & GM Resident Shows Division.) The General Managers are really focused on operations for the shows. And I have the division level stuff; finance, H.R., I.T., Marketing & Sales. [I’m] generally [responsible for] the operations of shows and anything that’s new, [such as] when the contract is signed [and] it comes to us and we start gearing up for the operational and sales and marketing aspect.”
Looking for Opportunity
We began our discussion of Cirque business by asking how the demographics of the various show types (touring, arena, resident, theater) vary. “The one thing I found, even doing the touring shows in Australia and Asia and over in Europe with Alegría, is that the demographics on tour tend to be more families. Although with La Nouba at Downtown Disney we find that the audience is never more than 10% children at any given time. We see fewer families, obviously, here in Las Vegas.”
“In Tokyo [for ZED] it’s much broader. Many more kids, mostly women and children. Men make up a much smaller proportion of that market just because of the way Japanese culture works. [In] most families the wife does not work and stays home with the kids. So that’s why we have primarily a matinee schedule in Tokyo. And also because of the distance from Tokyo out to Tokyo Disney Resort (www.tokyodisneyresort.co.jp). The shows are at 1pm and 4pm now. We have about 20 night-time shows scheduled at 7pm (Ed: spaced out over several months) because of school trips and the group sales we do, and then we’re adding performances where necessary.”
With seven shows currently running in Las Vegas, press and fans are wondering if the forthcoming Michael Jackson resident show will be the long-discussed “saturation point?” “Guys’ take was always, “If there’s a theater there [and] somebody’s going to have a show in it, it may as well be one of mine.” And I think we’ve made a conscious effort that, [although] there are similarities between “O” and Mystère – what you might call “classic old-style Cirque shows” – I think everything else we’ve done since then has been a broad departure.”
“There are people that look at Viva Elvis! and say it’s not enough Cirque. But if we asked people, “If we took the Cirque name off of it what would you think?” they’d say it’s phenomenal. So it’s an educational process with the audience, on the marketing side it’s about how we market and how we go after market segmentation.”
“I think Michael Jackson will be something different, and [will] bring a whole different audience. Because Michael Jackson was popular across generations. So I think you’ll have people that are my age that grew up with Michael Jackson and you’ll have those fans that continue to follow him. And it’s going to bring us a large African-American audience which we don’t currently attract right now. So I see nothing but opportunity there for us.”
Mr. Nadal has been qoted as saying that 85-89% of Cirque’s Las Vegas tickets are sold within 1 week of performance, and that half of Mystère’s tickets are sold day of show. Changing economic conditions mean that statistic is in need of revision. “That was an old article. Now I would go even further and say the majority of our tickets are being sold within 3 days of performance, the majority being sold day of. Especially in this market.”
Even “O” with its legendary sell-outs? ““O” doesn’t have the advance [sales] it used to. [In Las Vegas] we sell on a four-month rolling advance, so we’re always opening up weeks of shows [four months in the future] as we move forward. And [for “O” they] would always essentially sell out [way in advance]. But that’s not the case anymore; we’re probably selling out a maximum of a month [in advance].”
“But it totally reflects the traffic coming into the market. There’s a lot of last-minute people coming in, a lot of package deals. We’ve sold a lot more tickets within the context of packaging with tour operators than we’ve had in the past, because people that are coming here [now] are really on a budget. Very quickly, within three months in 2009 the market went from high-end convention into maybe what Vegas was 20 years ago.”
But that change doesn’t mean they would consider revamping the Las Vegas shows, as has been done with La Nouba, ZED and ZAIA. “Let’s take Mystère for example, which is the oldest [Las Vegas] show (Ed: debuting at the end of 1994). It’s still doing very good business; we’re still [at] 80% [ticket sales]. [For] the amount of money it would take to do any kind of major refresh of the show, you couldn’t lift the occupancy enough to cover the cost. [From a marketing standpoint] you wouldn’t be able to say it’s all new or half-new.”
“[The changes to La Nouba were] a Disney request; we accommodated them on it. [With] La Nouba we hadn’t touched anything. It was essentially the same, a lot of the same people stayed. So we replaced the German Wheels at the beginning with a Japanese skipping act. That concept [came] from Quidam and [we] took it to the next level. Then we replaced the chair balancing, which is in Viva Elvis! now, with the juggler from Kooza.”
Cirque has seen much growth come through creating new shows and converting older ones to a format that can tour arenas, opening up new, smaller markets. With a number of successful resident shows, we wondered what factors determine where a resident show might be a good fit. Is it the city, the demographics, the deal with the theater partner? “All of the above.”
“Obviously we look at the demographics, not just the city. It’s really got to be more of a tourist destination, that’s why [Cirque] has worked so well [in Las Vegas]. [It’s] why Orlando is working, why it made complete sense for us to go to Tokyo, and Macao, frankly. [Decisions] come from Montréal, that’s Daniel Lamarre. We all discuss it – see opportunities that come up – and discussions happen with Daniel and the Executive Committee.”
It has been our understanding that casino resident show contracts forbid issuing videos of shows, but we wanted to know for sure. Dovetailing on the answer given by Cirque CEO Daniel Lamarre in our exclusive interview with him back in Fascination #77, June 2010, not issuing Las Vegas show videos is by mutual agreement. “[The contracts] don’t forbid it, but they have exclusivity. And we’ve never felt there was value [in doing a video]. And the casinos didn’t feel that there was a value in broadcasting the show or making it available. They wanted that exclusivity, that if you want to see it you have to come here to see it.”
That runs counter to the success Cirque found with the La Nouba DVD, however, as the broadcast and DVD sales of that show did boost ticket sales. “[As opposed to Las Vegas] you’re going down [to Orlando] with a different mindset; you’re going down there for the theme parks and everything. Because of our deal with Bravo at the time [after the broadcast of La Nouba in April of 2005] we actually saw an increase [in sales]. People would say they saw it on TV and it was something that interested them. It did [increase sales] and we’ve said that to people.”
“But the hotels say they want to maintain that exclusivity and we don’t have a problem with that.”
That means the broadcast of “KÀ” on ARTE-TV (Association Relative à la Télévision Européenne, a French-German TV network, www.arte.tv) back in late December of 2008 wasn’t a hint of a future DVD release. “It was an opportunity that came to us from the TV station; they asked to do it. It was [broadcast] over two nights over a holiday period. One night was [the show] and one night was behind-the-scenes. We thought it was a good opportunity. At the time because of the growing international market we thought there was great value in showing what was there, the size and scale of it, because what we’ve had through Europe have been touring shows.”
“So we thought there would be good value there. And we knew that through social media and YouTube there would be chunks that would end up making the rounds. I don’t think it’s hurt the show at all.”
For shows outside of Las Vegas however, we have reason to be hopeful. With regards to both ZED and ZAIA, “We are looking at taping those shows. We haven’t done it as of yet, but if we taped them obviously they’d be for sale in North America.”
The upcoming 2-hour PBS special, “Flowers in the Desert,” coming in late November, is also something for fans to look forward to. “I know Daniel Lamarre is in the middle of negotiating that now. We’ve had conversations with the hotels because it will involve filming at each of the shows. I think it will be a great selling card for us.”
One of our major reasons (or, really, excuses) for visiting Las Vegas this time was to re-visit Criss Angel BeLIEve to see the revamped production. If there is one show that has been extensively revamped, it is this one. It is much different now than when we first saw it. We agree with what several others have said and written – most of the “Cirque-ish” elements have been removed in favor of a more straight-forward magic show. But we wondered if we had seen the “final” version of the show, and what might happen next.
“Was the straight jacket back in?” Mr. Nadal asked. No, Criss did not do his straight jacket escape in the show that we saw. “That’s going back in; we had some rigging stuff we needed to correct on that. I think the majority of it is in now. Cast changes are in, costume changes are in, music changes are in.”
“He was talking about wanting to add additional stuff but at [some] point we had to say, “Here’s the budget, we don’t have any more money for that.” Because he, like us, is one of those guys that will dream something up and want to put it into production. And we would [have to] say – no, we have to present a show that’s finished and let it run.”
He then talked about changes being made to the marketing of the show. “We’re redoing the marketing visual. The name’s going to stay the same but the visual, the key art, is going to change. There will be a whole new marketing campaign that will go out around the second anniversary, right around Halloween. And then I think it will be more of a PR push.” (Ed: Criss Angel has since announced that two more illusions will be worked into the show, with a re-launch in January, 2011. To get a look at what might be the new marketing visual, see www.luxor.com/entertainment/entertainment_Believe.aspx .)
“What we’ve seen is that when he went out and did his whole P.R. circuit for the sixth season of “Mindfreak” our sales jumped significantly. And he’s been much more low profile with [BeLIEve] because he wanted to get all of his changes in. And with all of his responsibilities that’s not something you [can] change in two or three months.”
Indeed, the process has taken more than a year. “It’s taken that long. We had contracts with the other artists and we didn’t want to [suddenly] say, “You’re out.” We let the contracts play out until July when they were finished. So I think it just took this long, without killing anybody, to get to where we are.”
“[So there’s] going to be a big promotional component to it. I can’t envision doing another press night and having it all ride on another night individually. The press has been wanting to come back but they’ve been respectful [when we’ve told them] it’s not done yet. But if we go out and say – “We’re done!” – and people want to come back and see it, they’ll come back and see it.”
“I think social media has much more influential power than the mainstream press does anymore in that regard anyway. So if people have seen it in blogs, that kind of thing, I think it will take on a life of its own.”
Criss has since done a series of interviews discussing the changes to the show, check out the best one we found at: < http://www.lasvegasweekly.com/blogs/luxe-life/2010/oct/29/exclusive-criss-angels-magic-warehouse-and-all-new/ >
The other show we came to Vegas to see was Viva Elvis! We liked the show, it was large and powerful and very personality-centric and literal; appropriate for an icon as large as Elvis Presley. We were surprised, though, to find an insert in the newly-published program crediting Napolean and Tabatha “NappyTabs” Dumo (who have become highly visible due to their work on Fox’s, “So You Think You Can Dance”) as well as Mark “Swany” Swanhart and Catherine Archambautt as choreographers. Were they brought in late, we asked, to assist Writer and Director Vincent Paterson, who is listed in the main program as co-choreographer along with Bonnie Story?
Mr. Nadal was frank. That’s part of the evolution we’re going through with it now. “Viva Elvis! started with Vincent Patterson doing everything. And Guys’ feeling was it was too traditional an approach, including the choreography [which] at the time was very 50’s to match the costuming. Guy’s whole take was always – If Elvis were here today, if Elvis was performing on that stage, and [knowing] he was cutting edge and revolutionary in his time, what would be on stage right now? [It would] be more contemporary, more hip-hop kinda stuff. Napoleon and Tabatha represent all of that so we brought them in and it did change the choreography around quite a bit.
No Breathing Space
Turning our attention to other shows under Mr. Nadal’s purvue, we had to ask about Banana Shpeel’s closing two months early in New York. (When we talked it was still intended for the show to continue touring, it would be some weeks later the tour was cancelled and Banana Shpeel erased from Cirque’s website memory.) “I think we had so much baggage attributed to the show because of the delays in New York that the shows fate was sealed,” he replied. “Regardless of the fact that the reviews for the show were much better than they were in Chicago. So it was a financial decision to close it.”
Were more changes made to the show before its opening in Toronto? “We had the layoff during the summer and there were more changes and tightening that was done. We just opened in Toronto; last night was press night. And it got 3 out of 4 stars from the Toronto Star. I think the review was like, “Third Time’s the Charm!” (laughter) I’ll take it.” (Ed: See the original review from Sept 20 by Richard Ouzounian at < http://www.thestar.com/entertainment/theatre/article/864038--banana-Shpeel-third-time-s-a-charm-for-cirque-act >
“But [it was] a very different departure for Cirque and the reviews said it, even in Chicago. We were constantly compared to a touring show or a Vegas show, and it’s not. And we asked people specifically, “If this did not have the Cirque name on it what would you think?” “Oh, it would be different then.””
The idea that the name Cirque du Soleil conjures a certain image in the mind of the public, and that perhaps Banana Shpeel didn’t fit into that image, is not lost on him. “There’s a huge expectation factor with the Cirque name. We’ve managed to get a certain degree of success and set a certain degree of expectation. The name of the company is big and it brings big expectations.”
Mr. Nadal commented that future engagements for Shpeel would have been, “…three weeks, two weeks, one week. It’s on a North American Broadway-style tour. After Toronto we’re next at the Golden Gate [Theater] in San Francisco (Ed: www.shnfs.com/theatres/goldengate). We have it booked until next July, and we’ll see how it does and take it from there. The idea is to keep it [touring].”
And what was the biggest take-away from the difficulties of launching the show? “You do not do it in the eye of the New York press! (laughter) And Chicago is not an out-of-town market!” (laughter)
The instant (and mostly negative) reaction Cirque got from the first previews of Shpeel in Chicago got us to talking about a larger issue. “There was a great article in the Wall Street Journal talking to Broadway producers. [And it talked about how] in live entertainment you need an audience to shake a show down. You can rehearse comedy in a studio as long as you want. [But you need] somebody sitting out there that it’s fresh for, and [see if] they’re laughing or not. That’s how you shake down your show and work on it. And that was always the idea behind preview periods. You got to work on your show, whether it was in New York or on the road, before you basically said you had a finished product on your hands.”
“Now the minute you open your doors [and] let somebody in with an iPhone or any kind of device, they sit there and they’re tweeting away and …”
There’s a review up on the web the next day, we added. There’s no breathing space anymore. “No breathing space,” he agreed. “And it’s unfortunate because it needs that. It’s a challenge for the industry for sure.” (Ed: See the original Jan 22 article from the Wall Street Journal here < http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704320104575015092801295862.html >
Turning to another New York production, it seems Wintuk’s future is in doubt after this fourth season, a victim of Cirque’s prodidgious replication. “We were talking about touring it, redesigning the sets to fit into theaters. But we’ve got so much product in North America we thought it probably wasn’t a good idea. So I’ve been looking around for different places to put it.”
His mention of so much product in North America set my wife and me off on our latest Cirque rant. For some reason Cirque du Soleil has decided to inundate the Seattle market with no less than four shows over a two-year period. In 2010 we had Kooza in the Spring and Alegría Arena in the Fall. In 2011 we can expect Quidam Arena in the Spring and OVO in late fall. While some might think this an abundance of riches we think having so many shows in so short a time can burn out the “specialness” of a Cirque du Soleil visit. Mr. Nadal agreed adding, “We’re looking at that internally now. Because last year Daniel divvied us up into Resident & Theater Shows (Ed: which Mr. Nadal oversees) and Arena & Touring Shows (Ed: overseen by Jacques Marois). And we’ve been discussing a much more comprehensive review [of the touring plan] for the last couple of months.”
The resident shows in Asia were next on our list, as we were very interested in the process and rationale behind changes to both ZED and ZAIA. His explanations shed quite a bit of light on how you adapt a show to local cultures.
We started with ZED, which has been changed from a two-act two-hour show to one-act 90-minutes. But Mr. Nadal was quick to point out, “It was originally designed as a 90-minute show. Then about a year or so before we opened Oriental Land Company (www.olc.co.jp/en/) came back to us and said, “You know, with what you guys do with Fuji (Ed: Cirque’s corporate partner for its Japanese tent tours, www.fujifilm.com) with the big top, it’s an intermission show; we want to have the same basic experience.””
“Our feeling was [that] it’s apples and oranges. In a resort setting people have a limited amount of time, especially [in Tokyo as] compared to Orlando. The average length of stay [in Tokyo] for people that actually stay in the hotels is 1.1 days. It’s essentially a day-tripper market; if you’ve got your day planned out, to take two-and-a-half or three hours to [see a show] is too much.”
“And that bore out after the first year. We saw that and recommended we go to a 90-minute version. Without the intermission the show ran for just under two hours. So Pierre Parisien, our Senior Artistic Director and Anne-Marie Corbeil, the Artistic Director on the show, came up with a plan. Basically they took the whole show and just snipped at every act – 30 seconds, 40 seconds here and there, and that brought it down. It actually worked out quite well. If you see the show now, and you had seen the full version, you really can’t tell the difference.”
“What [that’s] allowed us to do in Tokyo is work with Disney a little bit more. Because they have what they call an “After 6” discounted park ticket because it’s only open a couple of additional hours. So we’re doing a combined After 6 Park Ticket and the ZED show ticket, so it’s a big incentive for people coming in.” (Ed: Tokyo Disney Resorts’ “After 6 Passport” is offered for 3,100 yen on Monday-Friday and allows visitors access to the parks from 6-10pm.)
As we began talking about ZAIA, we first reminded Mr. Nadal of a comment he had made about the deal for ZAIA being structured so that Cirque didn’t take any risk. From what we have come to know about Cirque over the years this seems perfectly in character, but we wondered how exactly they did it.
“We said, “No!” (laughs) When we had discussions with the Venetian (Ed: www.venetianmacao.com/en/), at the time we said that we didn’t think it was a market that was ready for anything like this. And we said we’re basically risk averse, we don’t do real estate. Which I think has put us in very good stead these past two years with the economy the way it is.”
“So we just said no, we’re not interested. And they kept coming back, and Sheldon [Adelson, Chairman and CEO of Las Vegas Sands] just said they had to – had to – have it. And we said, “Well, this is what it’s going to take to get us.” And we did the deal and that’s the deal that they signed.”
“[Venetian Macao] had a rough period financially in 2008-2009. When they signed the contract with us they looked at it as a loss leader, and then they were saying they couldn’t look at it as a loss leader. [And we said,] “Well, then you have the wrong show here, because this is what we designed and built for you based on these specs.””
“Franco [Dragone]’s (Ed: www.dragone.be) show (Ed: The House Of Dancing Water (.com)) just opened across the street last week (Ed: at The City Of Dreams Macao (.com)). Which is great, because now it establishes Macao as a destination. So the whole idea of an integrated resort isn’t just the Venetian anymore, it’s there now. And all these other properties coming on-line have to provide entertainment, [it’s] in their deal with the mainland government.”
“I think Macao had like a two-year setback because of the economy, but I think it’s got the potential to literally become the Las Vegas of Asia in the next five to six years.”
The challenges of opening a resident show for the Chinese market were considerable, but it didn’t keep Cirque from thinking big. And from adapting to circumstances. “We [originally] wanted a poetic show, a cabaret show, and then a mega [show], something even bigger than ZAIA [in Macao]. So when Steve Jacobs (Ed: CEO of Sands China Ltd at the time) came in and we [mutually] decided OK, we’re no longer going to [have] a three-show format in Macao, [and we were] going to keep the one show, we looked at what we could do to upgrade the acrobatics.”
“We’re in the middle of doing [those] upgrades now because we delayed it; it’s taken awhile. We’re doing a new [double] trapeze act. The issue with trapeze is that at some point you have to give the catcher a break, there is not a lot of non-stop action. By doing the double structure [like the trapeze acts in ZED and La Nouba] it’s going constantly and it’s got great energy. So we looked at what we were doing in Macao and we said we wanted the [trapeze] act to reflect what we did with ZED. We also wanted to change the music there.”
“The opening number is [now] much more acrobatic than dance in nature. They’ve rebuilt a lot of the [set] buildings, there’s some trampoline-type work between the buildings so it’s much more energetic, much more high-energy.”
“The Globe and Poles [act] has been replaced by an acrobatic Chinese lion dance, similar to Dralion (the dance on the balls), but with more acrobatics – the lions jump from the balls onto different elements. [The Globes and Poles] never really worked because of the height of the space, with the [support] lines that you could see; they looked like they were just hanging there.”
“And we’ve put in a roller-skating act as well.”
“We [also] looked specifically at the clowning. Now that [we know] it’s primarily a Chinese audience, as opposed to the international audience they thought they were going to get, [we realized] the European style of clowning doesn’t necessarily work with the Chinese. Now it’s much more slapstick.”
“And the storyline, from what we’ve been told by the Chinese, wasn’t extremely evident. They like to know what they’re going to see and what they’re seeing. The whole idea of [the “Zaia” character] being this little girl like Alice [in Wonderland] who travels through space kinda got lost on people. There was [also a] love interest with Romeo and this duet strap act [that they did]. Well, the original [Zaia character] girl just left her contract. So we didn’t replace her with another acrobat but with more of a character, and the guy that plays Romeo [now] does a solo strap act. And [Zaia the character] now appears in every act as it goes through these different planets and stuff. You’re on the journey with her, and that’s become much more evident so it’s cleaned up the storyline.”
“We’ve done a lot! Pierre Parisien’s (Ed: Cirque’s Senior Artistic Director) in the process of finishing that now. In October we take a two-week break and take out the old structure. The new structure gets loaded in and the new act doesn’t go in until the end of December. It’s currently being built now by the Tabaras family in California; they’re building the act for us. And then it’ll go over there and we’ll rehearse on it.” (Ed: The Tabaras family are owners of Circus Vargas, a California circus troup, www.circusvargas.org.)
“The idea is to re-launch ZAIA but a little bit bigger in mid-January next year. We’re also looking at the visual [artwork]. We made the decision [originally] to not have a Chinese name for ZAIA, [which] probably was a mistake in hindsight. So now we’re coming up with a Chinese name that’s all been researched by the [Cirque] Brand department and with the Brand department of Venetian within the Chinese market.”
Cirque’s Chinese experience has caused some introspection as well. “We tend to go into markets and not play to a specific market, and we’re realizing in China that you may not be able to get away with that. It really is an educational learning experience. You can see a ton of acrobatics in China but you’re maybe not going to get the level of acrobatics or artistic element that we bring to it. So there’s an educational process that has to go on with that.”
And what happened to the other Macao shows that he mentioned? “The Macao II show is on a back burner. I think if we have another cabaret-style opportunity [the idea might get developed]. Macao III was just a discussion that we needed a big show, so that hadn’t really gotten very far down the pike.”
“But we’ll see what opportunities come up in Macau. They’re going to be building theaters in those properties across the street, they have to put something in them.”
In other international Cirque plans, we wanted to know how the announced Dubai show was progressing. “It’s about as active as the construction in Dubai right now. (laughs) I guess it all depends on what ultimately happens in Dubai. That’s so far on the back burner it’ll be quite a while before it gets resurrected, if at all.”
New Challenges for 2011
Back on the domestic front, 2011 poses two significant challenges for Cirque on opposite ends of the country. Firstly, Zarkana will soft open in New York City at Radio City Music Hall on June 6th with the Gala scheduled for June 29, and Mr. Nadal was interested in telling us about their preview event. “Last week we did a big sales event at Radio City Music Hall. We needed to do a big event now because Radio City’s our bigger challenge next year. Its 700,000 tickets we have to sell in 17 weeks.
It’s a big show, on the size and scale of [the Las Vegas shows]. It will travel and do two or three cities a year. Right now we’re looking at two or two-and-a-half 747 cargo planes to move it; it’s massive. It’s [run is] 17 weeks in New York City. We’re negotiating right now with a big city in Europe for the November-December period (Ed: Later said to be London, England.). Then we have a contract for the State Kremlin Theatre Palace in Moscow for 10 weeks [from the] end of January until April. And I’m looking at another city for a couple of weeks, and then back to New York. So it’s going to do two, ideally three cities a year. European and US [cities], too, depending on the US market.”
“But Radio City’s where it’s going to kick off so we brought in anything sales-channel related in New York. Tour operators, group sales people, tickets brokers, ticket operators. Last week we sent out 2,100 invitations and got 2,000 people, which was fantastic. We had [Cirque President and CEO] Daniel Lamarre speak. George Fertitta, who’s the CEO of New York City & Company (the tourism board) spoke and really got behind the company. He went, I think, way beyond his prepared remarks with a very nice endorsement of the company. (Ed: NYC & Co is “the official marketing, tourism and partnership organization” for New York City, www.nycgo.com.) We brought in two special acts to present. [Show director] François Girard got up and on their big LED screen in the back showed all of the renderings of the show. He described the show and told people what was going to happen. And Elton John did a video for us because Nick Littlemore is the Composer, and he’s a protégé of Elton John’s. He’s an Australian who has been working out of London and Elton’s been working with him. We premiered one of the pieces of music to one of the special acts we did. Jay [Kimbro, Director of Sales for Theater Shows, whom Cirque hired away from Disney last year because of his New York City contacts] came out and gave a sales pitch and we handed out sales kits. It was about a 45-minute event at Radio City that went very well.”
“The same thing’s going to happen this week for Kodak,” he continued. “We’re meeting a bunch of city officials tomorrow night and then on Wednesday afternoon we’re doing a luncheon for about 1,500 people; tour operators, ticket brokers, to help set up the run for Kodak.” (Ed: Working on that will be Director of Sales for the Resident Shows Division Pamela Devine, Mr. Kimbro’s counterpart.)
Shortly after Zarkana comes the show moving into the Kodak Theatre (.com) in Hollywood, IRIS (soft opening July 21 with the Gala September 25). “Next year Hollywood is going to be a test for us because we’re not anchored to anything. These [Vegas] shows are here because we drive 3,000-plus people a night through the rest of the casino. [La Nouba is] an anchor for Downtown Disney; when we’re not running those restaurants tell us that they see a major drop-off. So we bring a lot of people into Downtown Disney. And you get a lot of ancillary revenue.”
“Hollywood is going to be interesting because, [while] we’re part of the Hollywood and Highland (.com) complex it’s really going to be more like the Broadway model in that we’re hanging up a marquee saying, “Come See The Show!” So we’re putting a lot of pre-planning emphasis into tour operators, working with the cruise ships, going after national audiences.”
“We’re actually the last show of the 2010-2011 season of Center Theatre Group (.org) at the Amandson. (Ed: In a season that also includes “Next to Normal,” “33 Variations,” “God Of Carnage,” and “Les Misèrables.”) Because Jordon had a relationship with them we spoke to them a couple of years ago and asked if they were interested in doing a special offering to their subscription base. Because they have a huge subscription, about 40,000 subscribers. And they said no, because for them it’s all about customer service and how they treat their subscribers. They’ve built that group over [many] years and once they walk out of their space (their theater) from a customer service standpoint they no longer have control.”
“So we asked them to give us their concerns and [let us] see if we could address them. We guaranteed them prime seating for their customers. [We’re] the last show of their 2010-2011 season, in a four-week window toward the end of [Kodak] previews,. They actually put it on the subscription without knowing anything about the show; just based on the strength of the company and what they’ve seen come through L.A. before. We’re excited about it. It gives us a little cushion going in. Plus those subscribers are the major theater-goers in L.A. and that creates buzz that goes around.”
We also talked a bit about the forthcoming Michael Jackson shows, for which just a few details were available at the time. We first asked if the two shows (the touring arena show and the Las Vegas resident show) would be the same. “[They are] two completely different productions. The touring show, which is going to open October 2 in Montréal and is designed for arenas, is really an arena tour. And then there will be a second show that’s done here in Las Vegas at a theater yet to be named.” (Ed: Turns out it will be Mandalay Bay, opening in early 2013.)
“From what I’ve been told [there are] two separate creation teams, two different Executive Producers. And from what I understand now there will be two different Musical Directors as well. I don’t know what the creative plans are, that’s kind of under wraps. Jamie King is directing [the arena] show [and] I think there will be multiple choreographers.”
Would the success (or lack of it) for the touring show have any impact on the resident show? “I don’t see how [the Michael Jackson show] could possibly lose. Not with the people that we’ve got and the interest in it. To have done the Beatles so many years after they broke up, to do Elvis so many years after he passed away. With Michael Jackson it’s still raw, I think. There’s still an intense amount of interest.”
“And Sony’s going to be releasing new [Michael Jackson] albums as we go along because of all the material that they’ve found. I don’t see [the show’s success] as a problem. Plus the [MJ resident] show is going to be well into its creation phase by the time [the MJ touring show] opens next year.”
As our time was running down, we asked Mr. Nadal some of our favorite questions. Our question about the best business decision Cirque ever made gave him pause. “There have been a lot of good ones, so it’s hard to peg. I think the best business decision is that – at Guy’s insistence – [with] any deal we’ve done with anybody we’ve never given up an inch of creative control of the shows. Whether people liked them or not, we maintain 100% control. Creativity is the heart and soul of the company and I think the fact that we’ve never compromised on that to make a deal with anybody has served us very well.”
We always like to ask our interviewees what suggestions they have for those trying to make their way into the theater (or circus, or music) business. Mr. Nadal started by pointing out Cirque’s outreach to the technical theatrical community. “It depends on what you’re doing and where you’re coming from. If you come out of school and want to be a stage manager, one of the shows in Vegas is probably not the one to start on; you want to get some more experience first.”
“We have a large outreach to the universities through our Technical Show Support department. We’ve given a lot of assistance to the Stagecraft Institute of Las Vegas (stagecraftinstitute.com). There’s a couple out of Oklahoma, [teaching] in university settings, that lived in Montréal back when Cirque was first starting up. They got to know Gilles Ste-Croix and lent [Cirque] one of the theater workshops [at] the university when Cirque was building one of its first sets, or so the story goes. And they’ve stayed in touch.”
“So we help support [the universities], we [take] about 20 or 30 people that come from different universities and put them through our training. If you’re going the automation route, or those specific channels, we end up doing internships and we hire directly [from that]. We do a lot of internal training as well.”
“[When we give talks I say], “Get as much experience as you can, work in as many places as you can. And don’t worry about whether it’s union or non-union. It’s all about getting as much experience as you can. Any experience is good experience. And the pay level doesn’t matter. I tell people grab what you can, never be out of work, even if you’re working for low money. I did that. I did a children’s theater tour, I did a summer stock production, buying Ramen ten for a dollar.”
When we asked him for suggestions for young executives, he commented, “You need to stay current with what the competition is doing. For me, you need to view anybody that sells a ticket as competition. Because there’s only so many entertainment dollars [to] go around.”
“And it tends to be the first thing that people start to cut back on, or people look to find value on. Because it’s disposable income. But like Guy has said many times, if you take a look at the Depression or the recessions that have followed, the entertainment industry has generally been the last to go into a recession and the first to come out of it. Because people need escape. I think that’s what we provide really well; it’s a great escape whether it’s 90 minutes or two hours.”
“So I think staying current with what’s going on in the industry [is important]. [Also] making sure your employees are happy and the culture of the company is respected at all times. Constantly talking to [your] people, because the higher up you go the less you hear. Hence getting on the Cirque Tribune website (laughs). But just making sure people are happy.”
Huh?! Wait a minute – wait. Did a Senior Vice-President at Cirque du Soleil just admit on the record to looking at Cirque fan websites? Indeed! “I go on the Cirque Tribune website (.com) [occasionally] to see what’s going on. [Inside the company] we’re aware of [Cirque’s] projects but not the nitty-gritty of it. And then you find out, wow, these people know more than we do internally. It’s kind of cool. Because obviously people that are on Cirque Tribune are your core. These are the people that are talking about you non-stop, and that ultimately sells tickets.”
His interest in his “core” audience also extends to CirqueCon (for which we are eternally grateful). “If you have your core fan group, your rabid fans coming in, to be able to give them access and that kinda stuff, the return comes many many times over. [With CirqueCon 2006: Las Vegas!] we weren’t looking to see if there was an immediate bump in ticket sales because it was a small group of people. But if each person talks to 10 more people it’s like throwing a rock in the middle of a pond and you watch the ripples go out.”
He finds his greatest challenge to be, “Ticket sales, and making sure that it’s a broad enough appeal. [Cirque is] a high-end product, there’s no other company in the world that has 70-75 people on stage, 100-150 technicians. That’s a huge chunk of money on a weekly basis to keep the shows running.”
“But we have to make them affordable, so they have to have broad appeal. So that it’s not just in that luxury-brand niche, that it’s an affordable ticket for people coming in with a family.”
Not only keeping the shows affordable and the appeal broad, but meeting the expectations of the audience as well. “I think that they still come expecting major acrobatics. I would hope we get to the point when people see [the name] “Cirque du Soleil” they know they’re going to get high quality, top production values, and value for their ticket price.”
All the hard work and travel away from home brings great satisfaction, knowing, “…that we make people happy; seven days a week, around the globe, 24-7. You just have to go into any of the theaters [and] listen to the audience response to be gratified with what you’re doing. Especially in the kind of time frame that we’re working in now.”
And he never regrets taking his father’s advice and rethinking his priorities all those years ago. “It was a leap of faith. It [was] one of those situations where you follow your heart, and [theater work was] really where my interests and my passion were.”
“And I gotta say, since I left the bank in 1989 I’ve never taken a sick day!”
My sincere thanks go to:
Mr. Nadal, for so graciously spending time with us,
Julie Loewen, Executive Assistant to Mr. Nadal,
And my wife LouAnna for putting up with my sometimes obsessive hobby.