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The Franco files: As Cirque expansion hits high gear, a word with the guy who abstained

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Dragone’s tale: The man who dared say non, merci to Cirque
Photo: Laura Rauch/AP

That thick, thick Belgian accent was so overwhelming that I passed the audio around to three friends to make sure I had heard Franco Dragone correctly.

Dragone, you ought to know, created Mystère, O, Celine Dion’s … A New Day and Le Rêve. The first two represented the most significant reinvention in Las Vegas entertainment since Siegfried & Roy and are now among the top ticket-selling live productions in world history. Back when Dragone made those shows, he was the guiding creative force of Cirque du Soleil. He was responsible for six of their shows, including Nouvelle Experience, the one that enchanted Steve Wynn at the Santa Monica Pier in 1990 and then wowed Vegas-goers in the Mirage parking lot in 1991. That’s how the empire was launched.

But O was also Dragone’s final Cirque contribution, along with La Nouba at Disney World, which also opened in late 1998. After O, Cirque founder and owner Guy Laliberte brought in TV executive Daniel Lamarre as chief operating officer, with the aim of accelerating Cirque’s production schedule and expanding the brand. Dragone, fearful of losing creative control and uncomfortable with this direction, departed.

When I got Dragone on the line to discuss the exponential growth of Cirque, he was quite clear right at the start that he would not criticize his “former family.” Like a divorcee trying to keep it civil for the sake of the kids—Dragone still consults on the shows he created for Cirque—he warned me not to go there.

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That’s why I was so unsure that I was hearing him correctly that I had others listen to the recording to be sure. And there’s no doubt in any of our minds: Dragone interrupted me as I was moving on to another question to return to an earlier conversation we had been having about last decade’s Cirque explosion. “Excuse me,” he suddenly interjected, “if you ask me if I would have done the same thing, I would have told you, non. Voila!”

Voila, of course, is French for “there it is.” And there it is indeed, the path not taken for Cirque du Soleil. Las Vegas would, over the 11 years, get Zumanity, Ka, Love, Criss Angel Believe and, making its official bow next week at Aria, Viva Elvis. That pivot away from Dragone, en route to a $1 billion multinational operation of 20 concurrent shows, is a turning point explained this way by GoldPlatedDoor.com blogger Richard Abowitz: “With O and Mystère, you feel like you have an artist with something to say. With Ka and Zumanity, you have a company trying to grow. But there’s nothing wrong with a company trying to grow.”

That artist actually agrees. He departed not because he dislikes commerce and profit. Heck, he’s the guy who is presently working on both the most expensive show ever—a $280 million spectacle called The House of Dancing Water for a Macau resort—and a live-action version of—wait for it—the film Kung Fu Panda. He hopes to create the latter, which will be a tour for DreamWorks, here in Vegas next year and launch it at, probably, the Thomas & Mack Center.

No, Dragone flew the Cirque coop because he didn’t want to be a factory hand; he wanted to own his own factory. And, like many top lieutenants, he runs his very differently.

“When I had to work with Celine, one thing was sure, I had to be not be a strong brand over Celine, I had to be behind and serve Celine,” he recalled. “With Celine, at the beginning with Renee”—Angelil, her husband and manager—“we really wanted to change Celine. Then we had to respect Celine. Then I realized instead of reinventing the wheel, we must be there, watch, respect, don’t fight against. Try to enhance and support, instead of wishing to absolutely put your brand in front.”

The example is especially relevant because this is precisely where Cirque may have gone wrong with Criss Angel Believe, the company’s first star vehicle. The need to Cirque it up, to have the brand present with outlandish costumes and set pieces that didn’t serve their star’s purpose could very much explain why Cirque fans find it not Cirqueish enough and Angel’s Mindfreak base think it’s not Angelic enough.

Dragone, it may surprise many, “will be maybe the only defender of Believe,” which he called “a beautiful production.” There are two reasons for this. First, the creator of rough-starting Le Rêve for Wynn Las Vegas has a soft spot for anyone being relentlessly and unanimously pounded by critics. And, secondly, he’s friends with Angel and the two of them once—and I didn’t know this—shopped a show together to a wisely unsold Steve Wynn.

So, having had a vision of what Angel could have done under his tutelage, Dragone seems to be saying the show, not the star, is the downfall: “It’s just a writing problem. It’s a staging problem.” And that seems to circle back to Dragone’s not-so-unspoken critique of Cirque’s dramatic expansion, the notion that if you try to do too much all at once you end up relying on a formula.

“The danger when you do too many shows is that you think that with the costumes, light, money, and tricks and performers, you do a show,” he said. “I think it’s more subtle than this.”

The Cirque gang, of course, see it differently. To talk to them and MGM Mirage, everything’s rosy, all they need to do is continue to create unique productions and people will keep filling up the seats. Yet Dragone, who is in a position to know, thinks the Cirque cannibalization within Vegas has already begun.

“I’m not sure if not now Cirque is not having a difficult time,” he said in his mangled syntax. “One time, I talked to Guy, and I say to Guy, ‘We have already so many shows.’ And he say, ‘Oh, Franco, don’t worry. There are so many places to do a show.’”

With that remark, Dragone seemed to realize he was straying into criticism again and, unbidden, muted himself with: “As I told you at the beginning, I will not criticize. I will not reprimand. … It is absolutely vital to develop. One day you reach the summit of the mountain. I don’t know where is the summit is yet of the Cirque shows.”

Will Cirque and Dragone ever reunite for something new? I had asked Lamarre while in Montreal last month if he’d ever have Dragone do one again; he gave me a flat, succinct “no” followed by this softening a moment later, when I looked surprised by the finality of it: “… because I think he has many other things to do.”

Dragone, however, is willing to consider such a date. Yet even as he does, he provides a final backhanded compliment of sorts.

“I cannot answer the question like this, but if you ask me, ‘Would you like to do a show with Cirque du Soleil again?’ I would say yes. Why not? It’s a operational corporation now.

“It’s a great production machine.”

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Steve Friess

Steve Friess is a freelance journalist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His work has appeared in the New York Times, ...

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