When it comes to the world-renowned Cirque du Soleil, “If you wanna see O, you gotta go to the Belagio [in Las Vegas]. If you wanna see La Nouba, you have got to go to Disney World.” And soon, if you want to see Paramour, you have got to go to Broadway.
The 30-year-old company that revolutionized the world’s concept of “circus” launches its new theatrical division with Paramour when it opens at the Lyric Theatre May 25. As the division’s name implies, Cirque Theatrical marries the art forms of Cirque spectacle and musical theatre storytelling; Paramour is not the typical Cirque show on a Broadway stage. “Every one of [our] shows is singular,” says Scott Zeiger, president and managing director of Cirque du Soleil Theatrical.
“It’s been a very interesting intermingling of creative techniques,” says ensemble member Bret Shuford, who comes from a theatre background. “They call it ‘Paramour way’ because it’s never been done before,” says longtime Cirque performer WeLu Tomasz Wilkosz.
Combining the acrobatics and largess of Cirque and the storytelling and emotional intimacy of musical theatre without compromising either form is, indeed, Paramour’s challenge. Zeiger wants to “make sure that we seamlessly weave the two art forms and that one doesn’t overshadow the other and that nobody comes into our theatre and says, ‘Gosh, they’re neither fish nor fowl.’”
Zeiger recruited a team who was up to this task. “We brought in not only the traditional Cirque du Soleil spectacle team, but we paired them with a composer who writes pop songs with lyrics that propel story, and a director that does scene work, and designers that mirrored the Cirque du Soleil designers to create a story-driven narrative that can deliver not [to] just the Cirque du Soleil audience, but the Cirque du Soleil audience plus the Broadway audience,” he says.
It’s a fusion that’s never been done before, and the process has been a learning curve for everyone, including the performers. “Some of the dancers who are in the ensemble come from Cirque, and some come from musical theatre,” says Shuford. “We’re kind of teaching them storytelling, and they’re teaching us the craft of abstract movement.”
“Cirque has done [their craft] for [over] 25 years, and this is the way Broadway has done it for [over] 100,” says Shuford. “So trying to help educate people and then also test things out… it takes a lot more time, which is why we’ve been in rehearsal since January.”
He envisions the final product as a showcase of the strengths of each discipline—and a show in which the combination elevates each. “These performers can do Russian bar, they can do aerial, they can do banquine, they can do these incredible feats of human virtuosity that other people simply can’t,” says Zeiger. “Our true challenge was to weave them together and deliver the story and deliver the kind of emotional result that a Broadway audience requires.”
Newly minted star and Broadway ingénue, Ruby Lewis, brings that emotion. As the story goes, her character, Indigo James, is a rising star in the Golden Era of Hollywood—an actress so captivating that both her film studio director, A.J. Golden, and the studio’s music man, Joey Green, fall for her. How does Lewis prioritize her character’s story with all of the high-flying acrobatics around her? “It certainly does feel like you have to be bigger than life, and with all the amazing feats going on around me I sometimes think, ‘Surely what I’m doing is not interesting compared to that,’” she admits. “But people latch on to love stories. They latch on to the emotion. I’m just doing everything I can to reach out and grab people and bring them into the story with me.”
Meanwhile, the smaller-than-usual space allows for a newfound intimacy for the Cirque performers. “On stages like this, we have really good contact with the audience and the audience can almost touch us,” says Rafal Kaszubowski, Wilkosz’s partner in the show. “The closer relationship with the audience will be the cool part,” adds Wilkosz, who is used to performing in the big top and arena spaces. “You can actually feel it when you’re onstage that the audience is there.”
Still, audiences who are looking for the trademark wow-factor of Cirque won’t be disappointed—by the tricks or the spectacle. “Cirque du Soleil invests a lot into futuristic technology,” says Shuford. “I think the blend of film and live theatrical and projections and all that stuff is going to create this interesting element of storytelling.” In an ideal world, the flash, the story, the tricks, the dance, will all combine to form a super-musical.
Zeiger is confident the juggling (of disciplines) will pay off. “We want people to say, ‘Oh my gosh it was awesome, it was great,’ but [also], ‘Oh, it was so much more than we thought it was going to be.”
“Our hope is that it is so well-received that it could potentially be replicated in other places,” says Zeiger. “But I don’t want to get ahead of myself. We want to get it right here.”
Zeiger knows the stakes are high for the ultra-musical. In fact, when asked what Cirque skill he would most want to learn, Zeiger answers, “I have one. I walk the tightrope every day.”
Ruthie Fierberg is the Features Editor at Playbill.com. She has also written for Backstage, Parents and American Baby, including dozens of interviews with celeb moms and dads for parents.com. See more at ruthiefierberg.com and follow her on Twitter at @RuthiesATrain.