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Cirque du Soleil's latest contortion: Bending to fit Broadway's model

Broadway has a new tenant, a $25 million spectacle called "Cirque du Soleil: Paramour."

The show, a mash-up of a full-fledged Cirque du Soleil performance and a traditional Broadway musical, opened last month at the Lyric Theatre in downtown New York City. After 32 years, Cirque is hoping it will be able to expand its brand beyond its famed acrobatic pageants.

"We've conquered the Las Vegas spectacle, we have incredibly successful arena tours that play in basketball and hockey arenas, we've done the Super Bowl halftime show, we have these Big Top tents that are extraordinary, beautiful, custom tents that crisscross the world," Scott Zeiger, head of Cirque du Soleil's theatrical division, told CNBC. "We have a permanent installation at Disney World. Never on Broadway."

While the production has been praised for its visually stunning sets and the athleticism of twin aerialists Andrew and Kevin Atherton, it leaves much to be desired in the way of music and story, according to some critics. "Paramour" was widely panned following its opening in May, due in part to the lack of cohesion between the show's Broadway ambitions and its roots in the circus.

"The resulting show, I'm sorry to say, achieves the singular feat of being simultaneously frenetic and tedious," wrote The New York Times critic, Charles Isherwood, of the production.

"Paramour" is not Cirque du Soleil's first attempt at a no-holds-barred Broadway debut. "Banana Shpeel," flopped in 2010 at the Beacon Theatre and "Zarkana" failed to launch after taking over Radio City Music Hall in 2011 and 2012.

Cirque du Soleil at the Lyric Theatre in downtown New York City
Source: Cirque du Soleil
Cirque du Soleil at the Lyric Theatre in downtown New York City

To survive on the Great White Way, "Paramour" had to fit in certain expectations held by Broadway audiences, but in doing so, it dissolved elements of its iconic brand. There are high-flying acrobatics and awe-inspiring stunts, but they are often shoehorned into musical numbers.

"The difficult part was taking the extraordinary skill of these amazing performers and adapting it to a linear story," Zeiger said of "Paramour."

Unlike typical Broadway shows, "Paramour" was developed and written over the course of 15 weeks of rehearsal and five weeks of previews. The script, musical numbers and acrobatic choreography remained in a state of flux until opening night.

"It was pretty stressful," Jeremy Kushnier, who portrays director A.J. Golden in the show, told CNBC. "There were lots of changes."

Despite lackluster critical reviews, the show has been well received by social media users.

"Paramour" has consistently grossed more than $1 million per week in revenue since it opened in late May at the Lyric Theatre, one of the largest theaters on Broadway.

With almost 1,900 seats, the Lyric is a blessing and a curse for Broadway shows. While it has the potential to garner $1.6 million to $1.8 million weekly if it packs the house, it can be hard to sell out such a large space.

So far, "Paramour" has garnered almost $8 million since opening for previews in April, the result of 53 performances.

Revenue could continue to rise for the production as the summer months mark a large tourist boom for the city of New York. Some 65 percent of theater-goers are from outside New York's tristate area, according to Charlotte St. Martin, president of The Broadway League.

Not to mention, audience attendance rates on Broadway grew 15 percent during the 2015 to 2016 season.

Regardless of how "Paramour" fares on the Great White Way, Zeiger and his theatrical division are already working on several other Broadway projects. At least four to five other musicals, both branded and sub-branded, are in the works, including "The Wiz," which is slated to hit Broadway next season.

"We didn't build this whole division just to do 'Paramour,'" he said.