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December 22, 2014

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Immortal’ tour takes Cirque brand to wider audience

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Cirque du Soleil

Cirque du Soleil’s Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour. The world premiere of Immortal was in Montreal, the location of Cirque headquarters, on Oct. 2, 2011.

At a cost of about $55 million, “Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour” is neither Cirque du Soleil’s most expensive nor most elaborate production. But it’s introducing the circus troupe’s unique craft to new audiences worldwide and expanding how the French-Canadian company does business.

“Immortal,” which brings the music and life of Michael Jackson to the stage, makes its American debut tonight at the Mandalay Bay Events Center. It’s more a rock concert than an acrobatic display, and unlike most of Cirque’s shows, it will tour the world in arenas rather than play in big-top tents or house custom showrooms.

“With ‘Ka,’ we came into an existing theater and refurbished and remodeled it,” said Stephane Mongeau, executive producer of “Immortal.” “ ‘Viva Elvis’ was completely different because it was in a new hotel, a new complex, and the show was built from scratch with zero parameters. With ‘Immortal,’ it’s a very different model. The Michael Jackson tour is an arena tour. It’s built like a concert tour, and we had to design the show around the existing footprint of each venue. So we built a show that could fit everywhere.”

The production will spend the next two years crisscrossing the nation, playing 195 shows in more than 80 North American markets. Then, it heads to Europe and Asia. The traveling tour is a precursor to a permanent version of “Immortal” that will take residence in the Mandalay Bay Theatre beginning in early 2013.

In Las Vegas, each of Cirque’s productions plays 10 times a week to crowds of about 2,000. The “Immortal” tour will fill 8,000- to 15,000-capacity arenas four or five times weekly, changing locations every four or so days. Its 65 technicians, who travel in 35-truck caravans, will become adept at setting up stages in their allotted 10-hour time frame and breaking them down in four.

To adapt to life on the road and a show constantly on the move, show designers created different versions of “Immortal” to fit any venue encountered.

“We have the AA version, the A version, the B version,” Mongeau said. “At the end of the day, it’s the same show, it’s just different technically.”

Stage set-ups change to accommodate arenas’ varying weight capacities. Scaffolding trims that hook into acrobats’ harnesses move up and down to allow for higher or lower ceilings. The show features 64 performers and 12 band members, many who worked with Jackson while he was alive.

Production of “Immortal” cost about $40 million, Mongeau said. Cirque paid another $15 million to rent sound, lighting and video equipment at venues. Tickets sell for an average of $100.

The show’s price tag is considerably less than Cirque spent on other productions. “The Beatles: Love” at the Mirage, Criss Angel’s “Believe” at the Luxor and “Viva Elvis” at Aria each cost about $100 million to produce. “Ka” at MGM Grand is Cirque du Soleil’s most technologically elaborate and expensive show. It cost $165 million to develop and is considered to be the theater world’s most expensive production to date.

Booking venues for “Immortal” proved relatively easy, Mongeau said. So was securing licensing rights to Jackson’s music.

“When we announced the show, many venues called us,” Mongeau said. “There’s a lot of attention because it’s Michael. When we were trying to sell (Cirque show) “Saltimbanco” and move basketball games, that was tougher. When you come in with Michael Jackson and say we want to be there on a certain date, venues say, ‘OK, we’ll talk to the NHL’ (and clear room on the calendar).”

Jackson’s estate also was on board with the project from the beginning, part of an effort to breathe new life into the musician’s brand since his death. Jackson was a regular to Cirque’s Las Vegas shows and would have approved of “Immortal,” those who knew him said.

The rights to most of Jackson’s songs belong to Sony Music Entertainment and the Universal Motown Records Group, and Cirque easily struck licensing deals with both, Mongeau said. Tracking down the more than 40 people who wrote or co-wrote songs with Jackson was harder. Much of the show’s 20-month pre-production schedule was spent securing those rights, Mongeau said.

“We pay royalties to all of these people from the box office revenue,” he said. “It’s important that they get their fair share right from the top. It’s true with our show designers, too (who also receive royalties). They create the shows, so they get paid first.”

In addition to attracting fans who might not have interest or access to more-traditional Cirque shows, “Immortal” could mark the beginning of a new type of production for the circus troupe. While the company has always included traveling shows in its lineup, Cirque appears to have found a new stride with arena business. The company recently announced a new arena-only show for 2013.

“Arena 2013,” as it is aptly titled, will center on extreme sports and is expected to debut in Montreal in December 2013.

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