“The Last Two Years, Part 3: ‘The Sun Rises'”

On July 15, 2020, Cirque du Soleil announced that it had entered into a new “stalking horse” purchase agreement with Canada-based Catalyst Capital and a group of its existing first lien and second lien secured lenders, sidelining TPG, Fosun, and the Cassie. The Cirque had new owners! (Catalyst is a private equity firm run by Toronto financier Newton Glassman that specializes in buying the secured debt of undervalued or distressed companies.) At first glance, it’s an anti-climactic end to a saga that Cirque founder Guy Laliberté predicted would be a “battle royale” for control of the entertainment giant. But a drama did play out behind the scenes – one Catalyst said tested the creditors’ resolve as Cirque’s former owners maneuvered against them to try to keep control of the company. “We’re pretty excited about the future,” Catalyst managing director and partner Gabriel de Alba said in an interview with The Globe and Mail, in which he discussed the sale dynamics and how Cirque’s new owners are thinking about the potential for their investment. “What we bring is … a fresh set of eyes to challenge the historical thinking and come up with more optimal ways to run the business while still protecting the creative core from Quebec.”


Catalyst started building its position in March, Mr. de Alba said. He wouldn’t say what it paid but Cirque debt was changing hands for between 40 and 50 cents of the face value of first-lien debt at the time. (First-lien debt-holders are the first to be repaid, ranking above all other lenders.) When Cirque failed to make interest payments in late March on its first-lien credit facilities, and TPG and its two partners moved to transfer some of Cirque’s trademarks and intellectual property into a separate holding company they controlled in exchange for a $50-million loan, lenders faced their first test. As Catalyst saw it, TPG was trying to jump from being an equity investor to achieve creditor standing with direct access to some of Cirque’s collateral. “That is not appropriate because that movement of assets has specific restrictions, especially when a company is on the verge of insolvency, which was the case,” Mr. de Alba said. He said he took on a leadership role within the first-lien lending group, giving them “conviction” in a negotiating strategy to win back the collateral and have their debt recognized for its full value. TPG had said the asset transfer was approved by an independent committee at Cirque and that it was essential as collateral for the $50-million loan from the three owners, which it called “emergency financing” that would otherwise be unavailable given the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The creditors eventually put up the money in a commitment backstopped by Catalyst.

A second surprise came when Cirque filed for bankruptcy protection and unveiled an initial bid by TPG, Fosun and the Caisse for the company that offered US$300-million to restart the circus troupe while paying lenders a fraction of what they are owed. Behind closed doors, the lenders were already in talks with Cirque on their own bid, with negotiations taking place even during the weekend before the filing, Mr. de Alba said. “Maybe what they were hoping to do was to test if the lender group … had the willingness and the ability to recapitalize the company and put new money in,” Mr. de Alba said. “And I guess they were thinking that CLOs, because they have these structural limitations, were not going to be able to commit to funding the amount required for the reopening plan.”

The formal sales process for Cirque started with five qualified bidders, including offers from the TPG shareholders and the first-lien creditor group, according to the latest report by Ernst & Young, Cirque’s court-appointed monitor. Two other bidders joined shortly afterward, the monitor said. In the end, no one was able or willing to match the Catalyst-led offer. Recapitalizing Cirque gives the company the leeway to move through the pandemic and emerge reinvigorated while bringing employees back, according to Mr. de Alba. He said Cirque will focus first on reopening its permanent shows in Las Vegas. But Catalyst is looking beyond Cirque’s traditional model of selling tickets for live performances.

A big part of the new ownership’s plans for the circus troupe involves monetizing its unique brand of entertainment by delivering it into the home digitally. “You’ve seen that Disney is bringing some theatrical shows to [its subscription-based, video-on-demand service] Disney+, like ‘Hamilton’, with great success,” Mr. de Alba said. “I foresee that Cirque shows can also be part of these types of streaming platforms.” [At the beginning of the shutdown, Cirque du Soleil embraced its online platforms by launching a new digital content hub called CirqueConnect, through which the company opened its vault of live show recordings and other endeavors through 60-minute specials, virtual reality experiences, content series and tutorials, music videos, and other family-friendly fare to great success.] Cirque will also partner with industry leaders working on non-scripted entertainment, Mr. de Alba said. “There are a lot of options that were never explored outside the live event business as well as they could have been,” Mr. de Alba said. “The digitization of the content and the [intellectual property] is certainly something that will feed into the next evolution of Cirque du Soleil.”

Making Cirque viable means taking lessons from the mistakes made under the previous ownership, while emphasizing the main elements of past success such as the Las Vegas shows, Mr. de Alba said. “It’s an understanding of the core drivers of the business while at the same time having a very disciplined approach to investing capital,” he said.

The closing of this recapitalization marked a significant milestone for Cirque du Soleil, as it provided the Company with a solid foundation for a successful relaunch, which included driving the business through enhanced fan experiences, a concerted drive into new key markets, backed by roll-out plans for cutting-edge new products and licensing opportunities. Additionally, Cirque du Soleil was pleased to confirm that Daniel Lamarre would remain in position as President and Chief Executive Officer of Cirque du Soleil Entertainment Group, as well as continue to sit on the Company’s Board of Directors. “I am grateful for the trust our new owners have placed in our management team. I am prepared to contribute, along with the new stakeholders, to build upon the successes of the past, apply discipline to our operations and growth and fulfill our mission to bring Cirque’s extraordinary artistic vision to audiences around the world. Together, we have already begun laying the groundwork for the relaunch of Cirque du Soleil and are excited to enter the next chapter of Cirque’s history,” said Daniel Lamarre.

As part of this transaction, Cirque du Soleil also announced the appointments of Jim Murren and Gabriel de Alba as Co-Chairmen of the Board. “We are honored to have Jim Murren and Gabriel de Alba Co-Chairmen of the Board and look forward to leveraging their deep business knowledge to take the Company to new horizons,” said Cirque’s President and CEO, Daniel Lamarre. “For the past 20 years, Jim has been a true partner and has tremendously contributed to the success of the Company. Likewise, Gabriel, as a skilled investor with significant turnaround experience, will bring to the Company a deep understanding of the Canadian and international business worlds, and his leadership and experience will be invaluable for Cirque’s relaunch.”

Jim Murren – Co-Chairman of the Board
Chairman, Acies Acquisition Corp.
Former Chairman & CEO for MGM Resorts International

Gabriel de Alba – Co-Chairman of the Board
Managing Director & Partner, Catalyst Capital Group

Steven Justman – Member
Operating Partner, Abry Partners

Stephen Ketchum – Member
Managing Partner & Chief Investment Officer, Soundpoint Capital

George Kliavkoff – Member
President, Entertainment & Sports, MGM Resorts International

Daniel Lamarre – Member
President & CEO, Cirque du Soleil Entertainment Group

Anna Martini – Member
Executive Vice President & Chief Financial Officer, CH Group

Aaron Meyerson – Member
Principal, Qualia Legacy Advisors

Charles “Chip” Rini – Member
Managing Director, CBAM Partners

In the afternoon of his company’s sweeping announcement, Lamarre was asked, simply: Are we going to be able to sit together at a Cirque show on the Las Vegas Strip one year from now? “Yeah, oh yes, yes,” Lamarre said in a phone chat from Cirque’s Montreal headquarters. “If you’d asked me the same question a few weeks ago, I would have been very pessimistic, but not today.”

Lamarre said the three new vaccines on the horizon would allow Cirque to perform in theaters at full capacity when the company does start its relaunch in 2021 and into 2022. The general blueprint would be the distribution of vaccines in the U.S. beginning in December, followed by a loosening of restrictions into 2021 (first quarter would be the dream scenario), then the start of reopening Cirque theaters on the Strip.

The pandemic rendered a specific reopening timeline impossible at this point. But Lamarre said the re-launch of shows would likely begin first with “O” at Bellagio and “Mystère.” The plan for which order the shows would continue to resume is not set, but Lamarre listed “Love” at Mirage, “MJ One” at Mandalay Bay and “Ka” at MGM Grand. Shows would reopen every two weeks or so, ideally. Each production would require two months of rehearsal time, and cost several million dollars to return to the stage. “We will have to lose some money, at first, to be able to make money,” Lamarre said.

“The most important thing right now is we have hope at the end of the tunnel,” Lamarre said. “If we can start distributing vaccines as early as next month that gives me a lot of optimism for Las Vegas. To be able to reopen with the same number of seats in our theaters would be an amazing bonus for us.”

By January 2021, vaccines for COVID-19 began rolling out from Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson and Johnson. These vaccines were found to be “highly protective against severe illness, hospitalization, and death due to COVID-19”, and so the global community slowly started to open back up.


On April 21, 2021, Cirque du Soleil announced that the “Cirque du Soleil sun is rising” as the company marked the reopening announcements of four of its most iconic shows after being closed for more than a year due to the pandemic.

Mystère will return to its stage at Treasure Island on June 28, 2021, and “O” will mark its first performance on July 1, 2021. LUZIA will return with an engagement at Royal Albert Hall in London starting January 12, 2022, while KOOZA will be presented under the iconic Big Top in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic starting November 25. In addition, Cirque du Soleil Events and Experiences, the company’s fully integrated international turnkey creative and artistic content solution provider is ramping up operations.

“This is the moment we have all been waiting for,” said Daniel Lamarre. “Almost 400 days have passed since we had to take a temporary hiatus, and we have been anxiously awaiting our return to the stage. I am so proud of the resilience of our artists and employees who persevered during the most challenging times with stages dark around the world for so long. I just can’t wait to see the lights go back on.”

And then it made even more announcements…

The Beatles LOVE, a Cirque du Soleil creation and co-production with Apple Corps Ltd., will reopen at The Mirage on Aug. 26, 2021. Michael Jackson ONE by Cirque du Soleil, in collaboration with the Estate of Michael Jackson, will reopen its exclusive residency at Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino on Aug. 19, 2021. Alegría, Cirque du Soleil’s emblematic production, will be in Houston, Texas, under the Big Top at Sam Houston Race Park as of Nov. 18, 2021. KOOZA, a production acclaimed by more than eight million spectators and critics around the world will perform at the Old Port of Montreal as of April 28, 2022.

“This is only the beginning. We look forward to sharing more exciting news in the coming weeks,” added Daniel Lamarre.

But while shows like “X: The Land of Fantasy” in Hangzhou, China had been operating since June 3, 2020 and JOYA in Mexico since July 3, 2020, others would not make a grand return as Cirque du Soleil eventually restarted. Amaluna and R.U.N were two of the first casualties of course, but over time, we’d hear about others.

On November 16, 2020, Cirque du Soleil informed the cast and crew of Zumanity about its permanent closure. “Zumanity was a groundbreaking departure for Cirque du Soleil when it opened in September of 2003,” said Daniel Lamarre. “We are forever grateful to the extraordinarily talented cast, crew and staff who helped make Zumanity an unforgettable experience for more than 7.25 million guests.” After wowing audiences with more than 7,700 shows, the last performance of Zumanity took place on March 14, 2020 before it was shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Zumanity wasn’t the only resident show that would get the axe. On January 20, 2021, Cirque du Soleil announced on its Facebook page that it would not be opening NYSA on the Potsdamer Platz in Berlin as originally planned. “Due to the current situation and uncertainty, we have unfortunately made the difficult decision not to resume the creation of NYSA. We thank you for your enthusiasm.” NYSA was to be a modern tale that followed the story of Nysa, a fearless young woman who longed for adventure and open skies. “Her curiosity and courage will give her the power to step into the unexpected and fly towards new worlds,” the initial announcement stated. “Inspired by youth and its desire to push the boundaries and aspirations for a better future, the character looks to the outside world for a sense of what life could be if she let her imagination soar and if she allowed herself to take risks.” NYSA was originally scheduled to open on October 28, 2020 but was pushed back to October 27, 2021 due to the Covid-19 Pandemic. It was now officially been canceled.

The Cirque would go on to solidify its commitment to the other resident shows, however:

Contract extensions for “O” at Bellagio, The Beatles LOVE at The Mirage, KÀ at MGM Grand and Michael Jackson ONE at Mandalay Bay have been signed. Additionally, Treasure Island and Cirque du Soleil have recommitted to Mystère with a contract extension of up to 10 years! More than 70 million visitors have experienced Cirque du Soleil shows in Las Vegas since Mystère opened in 1993 and Cirque du Soleil looks forward to continuing that legacy when the shows return safely to their theaters.

Then, for the second year in a row, Cirque delayed “Under the Same Sky”. The world premiere had been scheduled for April 23, 2020, then pushed to April 2021 by the COVID-19 pandemic (and creative difficulties), was again postponed to spring 2022. However, as Cirque du Soleil’s resident shows in Las Vegas got back on their feet and plans to restart touring shows began to gain traction in the last half of 2021, “Under the Same Sky” was not on the list. In fact, neither was TOTEM, AXEL, or VOLTA. These shows were quietly scuttled as plans moved forward. DRAWN TO LIFE would make its debut, MESSI 10 would perform in Riyadh, TWAS THE NIGHT would return for Christmas, and BAZZAR, OVO, CRYSTAL, CORTEO, and KURIOS would all get future tour dates. Things we’re looking up.


On Tuesday, November 30, 2021, Cirque du Soleil named Stéphane Lefebvre, a chartered accountant who has been Cirque’s operations chief (COO) for the past year, as its chief executive officer (CEO), effective Dec. 1. He replaced communications specialist Daniel Lamarre, who will take a step back into an executive vice-chairman role after two decades at the helm.

“The two of us went to war together” to pull Cirque out of the COVID-19 crisis, Mr. Lamarre said in an interview ahead of the official announcement. “And now we’re looking for Stéphane to bring the company to the next level.” They’ll maintain that teamwork now, with Mr. Lefebvre, 54, in charge of daily management while Mr. Lamarre focuses on business development and relationships with key partners such as casino operator MGM Resorts and Disney.

Mr. Lefebvre joined Cirque du Soleil from aircraft simulator maker CAE Inc. in 2016 in the wake of the change in Cirque ownership. He was finance chief for four years at Cirque, leading three acquisitions as well as its post-bankruptcy recapitalization. The soon-to-be-CEO is a known quantity at Cirque and liked by its creative teams because he has an appreciation for the value of their work, Mr. Lamarre said. Other colleagues describe him as a sweet and easygoing person with a sharp mind. Lefebvre insists he’s not just a money guy. “My background has more than just the financial aspects of management,” said Lefebvre. “I’ve been working in different businesses. Since I joined Cirque du Soleil six years ago, I’ve been involved in different parts of the business, not only the financial part … including the strategy of the company and including its operations. “And I’ve done that in my previous career as well. I worked for an amazing company called CAE and I was highly involved in operations. I am a (chartered professional accountant) by trade but I’ve got more than just finance in my background. I have a lot of interest in arts and what the creative team’s capabilities are. … One of my favorite meetings was when we reviewed creative content for upcoming shows and I have the pleasure and benefit of having an amazing creative team.”

“While there was no specific timeframe for me passing the baton after 20 years building this amazing organization, I feel privileged to have contributed to the rebirth of Cirque du Soleil and feel now is the right time,” Lamarre said in a statement. “There is no doubt in my mind that Stephane Lefebvre, after being instrumental in the relaunch of our operations, is the ideal next leader to take Cirque du Soleil forward to the next stage in its evolution as a company founded on the conviction that the arts and business, together, can contribute to making a better world,” he added.

Recapturing revenues and clawing back profitability remain colossal challenges for the Cirque. Openings have been staggered but the company plans a more aggressive schedule of touring show relaunches starting next year. Ticket sales have been stronger than expected too, with pent-up demand fueling an initial surge, the two senior Cirque executives said. Still, they acknowledged the fragility of the global health situation and said they are pushing cautiously, going only into countries and cities with high vaccination rates and rigorous sanitary measures. “Financially, we’re in really good shape right now,” Mr. Lefebvre said. He said Cirque started the year with about US$180-million in cash for operations and also has access to untapped credit.

Lefebvre has promised a seamless transition at the top of the company as its stable of live shows worldwide continue to reopen. “It is an honor for me to take the lead of this Quebec flagship company, one of the largest contemporary live entertainment producers of the world,” said Lefebvre in his own statement.

Asked if realigning the company’s executive structure was a condition of the purchase, Lamarre said, “Not at all, and by the way, this was my recommendation. If I would have decided to remain as a CEO, I would. But my decision was to make sure that we ensured the stability of the company for the next 10 years. I’m not getting younger! I really pushed for that transition plan to be in place because I’m not looking short-term. I’m looking mid-term. There’s only one way to learn to be a CEO, it’s to be a CEO and that’s why I thought Stéphane moving in as a CEO, and counting on my presence full-time for a while, I think is the best scenario.” Lamarre added that the board insisted that he remain as Executive Vice Chairman.

Lamarre said he’s most proud of his role in stabilizing the company through the shutdown of all of its operations in March 2020. He has a book coming out in January, “Balancing Acts,” chronicling his time with the company. And his hand-picked successor is a prominent, new power player on the Las Vegas entertainment scene.


Credit ratings agencies such as Moody’s have expressed concern about the extent to which Cirque’s business is centered on Las Vegas, where its partnership with MGM counted for an estimated 35 per cent of its US$950-million in annual pre-pandemic revenue. But Mr. Lefebvre sees it as a steady source of cash flow, a financial anchor of sorts that the company can build out from as it relaunches shows in other cities in the months ahead.

What might put Moody’s more at ease is the fact that Cirque itself said it would be doing less shows than before, while embracing its ‘super markets’. “The reality now is, and we made it very clear with our new owners, maybe it’s better to have fewer shows and focus on having a stronger presence in strong markets,” said Lamarre.

He cited as an example of this that they will now have a new show in Montreal every year, rather than every two years, which was the case in the past. (The Cirque just signed a new 10-year deal with the Old Port to have a new show every year.) Cirque du Soleil also plans to do the same thing in Toronto, Los Angeles, and London. “So the 10 super markets we have, we can go there every year,” said Lamarre. “Only that will change the financial model of Cirque. You have Vegas that gives you a lot of stability. Then if you add 10 super markets that adds another layer of sustainability.” And, of course, Las Vegas. Lefebvre has been conferring with Cirque Senior Vice President Eric Grilly and Vice President of Operations Matt Nickel in Vegas. The company’s next planned production is a New York-themed show at New York-New York, in the former “Zumanity” theater.

Aside from that production, there are no formal plans for a new Cirque show on the Strip in 2022. As Lefebvre said, “In the near term, we’ll continue working on certain front-end marketing initiatives that we have launched in this year, together with MGM, to help support our growth in the box office.” By the time the NY-NY show launches, Cirque will present five shows in MGM Resorts International hotels.

“Mystere,” at Phil Ruffin’s Treasure Island, is the lone exception. “I will be continuing to nurture the relationships with our great partners MGM Resorts, AEG, Disney, [and] Vidanta.” Lamarre said of his new role, which is a full-time position. “I will also be involved in new business development.”

“I’ve taken up this challenge with a dose of humility, because this company has been through such a rough period,” Lefebrve said. “We’ve been in the trenches these last 18 months. Thank God, we can count on the amazing team in Vegas that supported the relaunch of the operations. I certainly feel privileged now, just having seen people’s reaction to coming back into theaters and seeing our shows.

“That makes me feel extremely excited about the future.”

However, by the time Cirque du Soleil began opening up more and more (just as global economies breathed a sigh of relief), a more infectious variant of COVID-19 reared its head – Delta – a more transmissible and harder hitting version of the disease. Although more of a concern for unvaccinated individuals at first, Delta’s appearance didn’t slow the company’s resurgence down any. And even though pubic vaccination rates weren’t as high as hoped (all performers and associated persons had to be vaccinated), there seemed to be a light at the end of the tunnel for all this.

But then an even easier transmissible variant appeared – Omicron – that even seemed to evade the protections from the available vaccines. Public infection rates soared over the holidays, runs of TWAS THE NIGHT in New York City, ALEGRIA: IN A NEW LIGHT in Houston, and more were canceled as performers caught the disease.

And so while Cirque du Soleil may have announced that “Intermission is Over”… the pandemic and its effects still linger on. What will 2022 bring? At this point, all bets are off.