Guy Laliberte, right, at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, 2007, touting the contract to produce Iris.
I’m not schooled in business matters, only have a lifetime of impressions, and I of course don’t have access to the books of Cirque du Soleil. I do know that: (1) the man in charge, Guy Laliberte, who relishes total power, only recently sold 20% interest in the show to some government owned firms in Dubai; (2) From a comment by Joe Brown posted on Sawdust Nights, of three new shows Laliberte opened this year around the world, only one, Zed in Japan, has drawn positive reviews (I read a rave by a Canadian critic calling it a masterpiece). Zaia is filling up only 30 percent of the seats — hard to believe — and, talking about hard to believe, the new Criss Angel magic show called Believe in Vegas IS hard to believe. In fact, it has turned critics back to critics and doting Cirque fans into critics; (3) Laliberte is under contract with yet other venues in the future years to deliver more multi-million dollar productions, the funding for which — and I’m only speculating here — might not yet even exist.
Now, in the world of Cirque, image perhaps is more important than anything else — even, hard to admit, maybe more important than the act. After all, they made a high-end art of stunning visuals from their masterful marketing strategies to every little light that twinkles under their dreamy designer tents, which themselves take weeks to erect. And so, a few bum shows could fast infect the public’s idyllic perception of Cirque du Soleil and cause a reverse run away from the box office. In other words, all other Cirque du Soliel shows stand to suffer from defeat by association. Especially in Vegas, is it doubly dangerous for Laliberte to be setting up a cheap third rate imitation of what he offered the public in superior seasons past. Ironically, Believe may not have been cheap at all if it actually cost $100 million to produce as reported. Which only goes to show, once again, that money can't buy everything.
A gambler at heart with a reported penchant (I have it on good inside sources) for thirsting after more power, more money, and more global conquests, high stakes poker player Guy Laliberte risks a huge global blowout. When the public stops believing that the magic will be there, it could well turn its limited amusement dollars onto other less costly diversions.
When Laliberte sold to Dubai, I felt, sadly, the beginning of his exit from the empire he had so masterfully built. I do not forget standing up and joining a five-minute ovation at the end of the first Cirque du Soleil tent show to hit the states, in Los Angels in 1987. An unforgettable moment. Perhaps it is now time for Cirque to reach back and restore, and put this mad franchising-out chase on hold -- before it’s too late. Before more unbelievably bad Cirque water-downs and hand-me-downs, self-cloned rip offs and on-the-fly make-dos drive the public elsewhere. Already, Cirque’s fan base is noting a certain flattening out of the product.
Lalibert is under contract with the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood to open a show there in 2010. Although he may deliver the perfect answer to a venue that has struggled to find an audience, somehow, I can’t quite imagine tourists who are drawn to the Hollywood Boulevard walk-of-fame scene wanting to coup themselves up in a theatre to watch Montreal’s version of Hollywood, when the real thing is right there outside in all its seedy and tattered glory. This could be another unbelievable misfire from the man who can’t stop his assembly line addiction. In the end, Laliberte’s dazzling risk-taking nature could produce his own downfall.
Hope I’m wrong. For when Cirque delivers another Varakei or Kooza, I’ll be the first in line to buy a ticket. In those two forms, I very much believe.
Original posted November 4, 2008