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April 24, 2014

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‘Zarkana’ music director Nick Littlemore’s biggest fan: Sir Elton John


Tom Donoghue/

An up-close look at Cirque du Soleil’s “Zarkana” in Aria on Friday, Nov. 9, 2012.

An Up-Close Look at 'Zarkana' at Aria

An up-close look at Cirque du Soleil's Launch slideshow »

Sir Elton John was in the midst of tackling five projects when Cirque du Soleil approached him to create the music for its new Strip spectacular “Zarkana” at Aria. The British-born superstar thought the only man capable of the task was Australian musician Nick Littlemore.

“It took 3 years, 100 and something songs and a hell of a lot of gray hairs,” Nick told me opening night last Friday. “He said I could do it, which I thought was the biggest compliment. He knew how much work it would be, but I had no idea. Fortunately, music keeps you young. It might change the way you look, but it keeps you young.

“Elton has heard all my music, but he hasn’t been able to come to the show because he is always in the wrong bloody town. He will be coming back to Las Vegas in February, and now we are a resident here; he will see it and hear it for the first time.

“Elton has been such a huge supporter of mine, and he has really changed my life. We made an album together. We continue to work together, and he hears everything that I do. I felt like I never could do anything like this, but to have the belief of someone like him, it empowers you beyond your wildest dreams.

“He told me ‘Congratulations’ and gave me a big hug. He said just keep going, you’ve got a long life, and you are going to do a lot of amazing things.”

I asked Nick how loud he’d made the loudest of all the Cirque shows.

'Zarkana': Red Carpet and Show at Aria

Cirque du Soleil's Launch slideshow »

“It’s a rock show. It definitely packs a bigger punch,” he said. “I don’t know in terms of decibel how much louder it is, but it is still palatable to the ears and the seated audience. It is definitely more aggressive. We were channeling some pretty cool stuff from hip-hop to bebop to early [David} Bowie and Elvis [Presley] and everything in between. We are really going into rock’s history.

“Some Cirque people call it popera. To me, it is more like an acid opera. I see it as a very psychedelic experience. To be totally honest, I think this is a show about women, the inner complexities of women. We meet all these various ladies along this journey that the ringleader, Zark, takes. We see the extremes, and that allows us to create these characters musically. We have our snake lady, we have the woman of the Earth who is kind of a white witch and everything in between.”

Since I first saw “Zarkana” back in August at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, I have written about the fact that the story is told without English. The actors created their own Cirquelish (also called Cirquish and Cirquespeak) language so that the audience can focus on the amazing acrobatics and create their own story to go along with the extraordinary performances. I wanted to know how the eight musicians and four singers who work under Nick understood it so they were always on cue.

He told me: “It is actually easier than you think because I wrote the whole show in English to begin with, so it all meant a lot to me. It was all coming from a real place. I was reading an interview with David Byrne the other day, and he was talking about how lyrics aren’t that important, but it is the sounds that we make with our mouths that we connect with as listeners.

I retained the sound after I’d written these songs and rewritten them and crafted them and crafted them until the point that they were in the show. Then rewriting the libretto in Cirquelish, their own language, it still retained a meaning for me and for the players, and our lead singers Paul Bisson as Zark, and Cassiopeia. You can see it in their performances.

'Zarkana': Parties at Gold Lounge and Haze

Siegfried Fischbacher, Dot Jones and Roy Horn attend the premiere of Cirque du Solei's Launch slideshow »

”We picked our musicians because they are dreamers and great musicians able to play multiple instruments. What I like to do when I work with anyone is I like to create a good environment in terms of the sound in the studio. A studio is a very magical place, and so is a band; they create an aura around them. We were lucky enough to find very different people from all walks of life, and they play like a family.

“They understand the language that is being spoken because it is in their fingers, it is on their tongues, and it is in their feet the way that they shuffle; it is the way that they dance. They have a second skin now that they’re part of Cirque. I am part of it, too. I look at my hand now, and it has music scales on it.

“I’ll let you in on a little secret: My four singers sing operatic at times in the show, and then at other times, you have the Cirquelish language. But there are little bits of English here and there you might discover.”

Nick so far in his three years with “Zarkana” has seen every Cirque show but one: Criss Angel’s “Believe” at the Luxor. He plans to see it soon. I asked him as a musician what sets “Zarkana” apart.

“This is a young show. I am 20 years younger than any other composer who has ever done this, and thank you, Elton, for giving me this opportunity, and thank you, Cirque, for believing in me long enough that I was able to pull it over the line. There is something interesting about music. As musicians get older, they no longer, for whatever reason, they don’t write songs that 14-year-olds listen to. There is something inherent about the length of note, the chord you choose, or the words you say, or just the phrase that you make, but it has culture to it.

Cirque du Soleil's 'Zarkana'

Cirque du Soleil's Launch slideshow »

“There is something about youth, I don’t know how to explain why 12 notes can be continually put out and reinterpreted and for a new generation we all have our heroes. In the same way that we had Kurt Cobain in the ’90s, he owned that generation. Every generation has their star, like Elton was in 1973 and still is today, incredibly. He is a whole other thing.

“The secret of the music is to celebrate the emotions of what is there. That is all I have ever tried to do in music, to make something that is greater than the sum of its parts. The thing that fascinates me about music is that inexplicable element, that fifth element that is out there, but you can’t explain it.”

Nick told me his favorite act in the show is the last one, the Banquine with the Russian troupe. “I love it for the music and I love it for the fact that they aren’t using props. There is nothing mechanical; it is just humans doing something onstage totally nonhuman. Every time I see it, I am in disbelief.

“Banquine blows my mind every time. I don’t know why it does it every time because I am a skeptic with so many things, but Cirque has a way, continually, even in training, it just blows my mind. When you see it all come together with the costume and the lighting and the set, it is too much.

“I’m happiest because the cast of kids loves my music. It is cool. It is pretty special. They are always walking around the halls singing them, and it’s all in Cirquelish. Explain that -- it’s all in the music!”

Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

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