Cirque du Soleil’s Broadway Balancing Act


The dancer emerges from stage left, in white tails and top hat; from stage right comes a juggler in a black tuxedo. And then begins a choreographic throwdown — the dancer taps, the juggler balances a cane on his nose — a prelude to the best-of-both-worlds spectacle promised behind the Art Deco curtain.

The circus is coming to town, but this time with a story to tell.

Cirque du Soleil, a global entertainment behemoth that has 17 different shows running worldwide, is once again trying to establish a long-running production in New York City, the major-league market that has most stubbornly frustrated its ambitions.

A previous Cirque attempt at narrative theater, “Banana Shpeel,” disastrously flopped at the Beacon Theater in 2010; a more traditional (for Cirque) acrobatic show with multiyear aspirations, “Zarkana,” quietly faded away after productions at Radio City Music Hall in 2011 and 2012.


So now Cirque is trying a high-wire hybrid — a combination of theater and acrobatics, with a splash of old Hollywood, in one $25 million musical called “Paramour.” And, never one to bet small, it is opening the show cold on the world’s most famous stage: Broadway.

The timing is, to put it mildly, challenging. The company, long dominated by its storied founder, the fire-eater-turned-billionaire Guy Laliberté, just last summer was acquired by a group of investors, led by the private equity firm TPG, that is closely watching costs as it seeks revenue growth.

And Broadway, always home to more flops than hits, is particularly competitive this year — there are currently 36 plays and musicals, many with strong reviews and crowd-pleasing titles or stars, vying for attention and audience before “Paramour” begins previews this weekend at the Lyric Theater in anticipation of an official opening on May 25.

Cirque arrives on Broadway with enviable strengths: a well-known brand, a stable of world-class acrobatic performers, considerable marketing muscle and deep enough pockets to let a show build. And the company, explicitly pitching its show to domestic and international tourists, is opening after this year’s Tony Awards eligibility deadline — meaning it won’t be hurt or helped by the spring awards cycle — and on the eve of summer, when out-of-town visitorship is especially high.


“The people that work there are really smart artists, but how are they going to make their next step? That’s what we’re all watching,” said Diane Paulus, a theater director represented on Broadway this season with “Waitress.” Ms. Paulus in 2012 directed a big tent show, “Amaluna,” for Cirque, and in 2013 won a Tony Award for “Pippin,” which was noteworthy for its successful integration of circus arts with dance.

“It is a big question mark for Cirque now,” she said. “What’s next for them, and how are they going to break new ground after they broke ground so powerfully 35 years ago?”

“Paramour” is expensive by Broadway standards — at $25 million it costs twice as much to mount as “Hamilton” — but not for Cirque, which once spent $165 million developing a single show, “Ka,” in Las Vegas.

“Obviously we want to be successful in New York because it is such a large market and such a large tourist destination, but this is not even close to a bet-the-company type of thing,” said David Trujillo, the TPG partner who is managing that company’s Cirque investment. “This is one show.”


“Paramour” is distinguished from most other Cirque productions by the use of a script with dialogue, original songs (10 of them, composed by the frequent Cirque collaborators Bob & Bill, along with Andreas Carlsson, and played by an eight-piece band), and a fully realized story (a love triangle, set in Hollywood’s Golden Age, involving a film director, his muse-like star and a composer).

But it also has plenty to appeal to die-hard Cirque fans: contortionists, jugglers, trapeze artists and tumblers; trampolines and teeterboards; banquine (human pyramids) and hand to hand (partner acrobatics on the floor) and hand to trapeze (a woman travels between a male porter on the ground and one on a trapeze, representing the love triangle).

The show will make heavy use of technology — it includes video projections and eight costumed drones — and, in an attempt to mimic the circus, will break the fourth wall with a strap act above showgoers, a chase scene through the theater and rappelling into the audience.

Every circus needs its ringmaster, and here it is Scott Zeiger, an alumnus of concert promoting, Ringling Bros. and touring Broadway shows, who two years ago started Cirque Theatrical, a new division of the company.


He has been selling the show exuberantly — at a recent event for the news media, he pretended to have forgotten his prepared remarks, prompting an acrobat holding a sheaf of papers to tumble across the stage for a bit of circus humor. Then he framed the case for “Paramour”: “What we are trying to do here, and I think we’re doing well, is seamlessly blending the best of Broadway — singing, dancing, acting, of course — with all that is Cirque du Soleil’s signature artistry — incredible acrobatics, amazing costumes, cutting-edge technology, and sheer whimsy and joy.”

One day after the press event, Mr. Zeiger had to manage some tougher news. The company’s leaders, dissatisfied with what they saw during an early run-through of the show (a “lions’ den,” in Cirque lingo, comparing the executives to predatory carnivores), abruptly ousted the show’s leading man and said they wanted the running time cut by 10 percent, to get it under two hours.

“Paramour” is being developed by much of the same creative team, and features two of the most distinctive scenes (a rooftop chase with trampolines, and a live filmstrip with dancers in frames) as “Iris,” a $100 million homage to the history of cinema that Cirque hoped would become a permanent installation in Los Angeles but instead closed after 19 months. (Cirque productions cost more money than Broadway shows because they often involve newly built or reconfigured performance spaces; they take more time to develop because of the complex training required for risky acrobatic acts, and more money to run because of the larger troupes.)

Some fans worry the echoes of “Iris” mean they’ve seen this show before. But the creative team says the similarities between “Paramour” and “Iris” are limited and largely thematic.


“There was a little bit of a desire to build from ‘Iris,’ but in the end we took a completely different direction,” said Shana Carroll, who designed the acrobatics for both shows.

Ms. Carroll typifies the top-flight circus artists working on this project — she is a former Cirque trapeze artist who left to found a highly regarded contemporary acrobatics company, Les 7 Doigts de la Main, and is now working with both firms. (She calls Cirque “the godfather company” and 7 Fingers “the rebels.”)

The shows’ director, Philippe Decouflé, is a French dancer, trained in mime, who has become a choreographer and is fascinated by shadow acts and other innovations involving light. He said he is inspired, in part, by the geometric dance patterns of the movie choreographer Busby Berkeley.

The cast is big for Broadway (small for Cirque), with 22 acrobats and 16 actors, and as is typical for Cirque, is multinational and multilingual, with performers from 13 countries. It includes one pair of identical twins (the aerial strap artists Andrew and Kevin Atherton), one married couple (hand-to-trapeze performers Sam Charlton and Myriam Deraiche), and 10 alumni of national gymnastics or acrobatics teams.

The show also requires more safety precautions than most Broadway productions do, given the risks involved with acrobatics and the memories of the woes that beset performers in “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” a previous tenant in the same theater.

Cirque has deployed acrobatic coaches in New York to monitor safety at all shows; the acrobats train daily, watched by health and wellness experts, to try to prevent injuries, and there are safety briefings for cast and crew. There are also quiet signals: a fist to the top of the head means “I’m O.K.”; “hup” means “I’m ready”; and “short” means “my landing is off.”

Most of the cast, and most members of the creative team, have never worked on Broadway before; dance workshops were held in Paris, where the director is based, and acrobatic acts were developed in Montreal, where Cirque has its headquarters. For nine weeks, the show rehearsed at Grumman Studios in Bethpage, N.Y., because there were no spaces on Broadway big enough; when the show moved into the Lyric, Cirque built a gym under the stage for the acrobats to continue their daily conditioning.

“We’re learning a lot from one another,” said Justin Prescott, a 28-year-old dancer from Houston who has never seen a Cirque show, but is now performing in “Paramour” — he is the featured tap dancer at the show’s start, and is learning to do simple acrobatics on a vertical pole.

Joe McAdam, a 23-year-old acrobat from England who had never seen a Broadway show, was a competitive trampoliner before joining Cirque and touring with “Amaluna.” He has had to rein in his jumping for “Paramour” — he does flips off a teeterboard, and had to be admonished not to leap so high because he was disappearing from view above the show’s 25-foot-9-inch proscenium. (And yes, there were jokes about making lighting adjustments while he was up in the fly space.)

“It’s very interesting to see how the actors work — it’s very different,” Mr. McAdam said. “And the stage is so big. I’m curious to see how it’s going to feel with the audience in it.”

Cirque began performing in New York in 1988, and over the next two decades sent a stream of big-top shows to the city, running for a few months at a time, first in Battery Park, where they sold quite strongly, and then, when development of that area forced them to relocate, on Randalls Island. Over time, as the company’s productions became seen less as a hot new thing, appealing to affluent adults, and more as mainstream family fare, the company began presenting shows, for shorter periods of time, at Madison Square Garden. Although critics often sneered, audiences were healthy.

The stumbles with “Banana Shpeel” and “Zarkana” reinforced existential questions shadowing Cirque: Has the company, once a group of Quebec street performers and now a giant multinational, lost its way creatively? Has it oversaturated the New York market by coming too often? Or has it fundamentally misunderstood the differences between Las Vegas, where the company has eight shows running simultaneously, and New York, where the entertainment options for consumers are more varied and competitive?

“Cirque definitely was hip when everyone first discovered it in the U.S. in the late 80s and early 90s, and it contributed to the redefining of Las Vegas as an entertainment destination and a family destination, but by the late 2000s they were starting to reach a peak, and perhaps had lost a bit of that magic,” said Louis Patrick Leroux, a theater professor at Concordia University who serves as director of the Montreal Working Group on Circus Research. “But they still have an extremely strong brand — I can’t think of many companies, other than Disney, that have their recognition — and they’re in a period where they’re redefining what their presence is.”

The company went through a period of retrenchment, with significant layoffs in 2012 and 2013, but now, with the new owners (including a Chinese investment firm, Fosun, that is a minority partner), is aiming for growth, particularly in China, where it has just opened its first office in Shanghai, is building a theater for a permanent show in Hangzhou, and is planning touring shows. New York and London are also major expansion targets, as are, to a lesser extent, Germany and the Middle East.

Mr. Trujillo said that, in the wake of the acquisition, his firm had helped Cirque “get rid of distractions,” like investments in restaurants and bars; hired new financial executives; and identified areas for potential revenue growth: further adaptations of existing properties (like “Toruk,” a circus prequel to the movie “Avatar”), music events, water fountain and light shows, programming as part of real estate developments (like theme parks or casinos), digital marketing, premium pricing, brand licensing and show sponsorships.

“They had just stalled — it was a stable business that was ready for the next step of growth, but needed a partner to help them achieve,” Mr. Trujillo said.

“Paramour” is not the only Cirque show coming to New York — after Labor Day, the company is also bringing in short runs of its two new touring events, “Toruk,” at the Barclays Center, and a much-praised big top show, “Kurios,” to Randalls Island.

But “Paramour” is the big hope — a major project by the new theatrical division, which also hopes to bring to Broadway a stage version of the live broadcast of “The Wiz” that it developed with NBC last year.

“We know how brutal Broadway can be, but I think we have the right ingredients to sustain the position here, serving the Broadway audience and the Cirque family at the same time,” said a bullish Daniel Lamarre, the company’s president and chief executive. “There is no other market where the competition is so furious — you have a lot of great shows in this city — so that’s why we’re coming at it in a very humble way. We just hope that we can make our mark on Broadway.”

{ SOURCE: Michael Paulson, New York Times | }