A tale of two epics and two brands, linked by a city and a phone call.
According to a 2011 New York Times piece, Cirque du Soleil head Guy Laliberte once fielded a call from his friend Bono of U2, asking him to invest in the “Spider-Man” musical he and The Edge were writing songs for.
Laliberte looked at a budget that ended up being $75 million and decided that not enough of it would be reflected in what the audience would see onstage. Too much money for creator fees and royalties to comic-book publishers, big rock stars and the like.
And so he took $50 million of Cirque money and opened “Zarkana” at Radio City Music Hall, a few blocks from where “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” eventually opened at the Foxwoods Theatre.
“Zarkana” moved to Las Vegas about this time last year to replace the struggling “Viva Elvis.” I asked Laliberte at a Cirque press event if “Viva Elvis” could have a future in a city such as Memphis, Tenn. He was quick to answer, “It’s not our intellectual property.”
The answer suggested the company might have been more patient with the Elvis show were it not for licensing fees and royalties for the gatekeepers of the Elvis estate. And it explains why, even though a lot of things made economic sense in moving “Zarkana” to Las Vegas, one part really didn’t.
Yes, “Zarkana” had already paid down its investment as a hit in New York, Moscow and Madrid, Spain. Yes, it was designed for traditional stages and did not require the Aria theater to be retrofitted. But Cirque already had five shows on the Strip (along with producing “Criss Angel: Believe” without involvement in the content). It sure seemed as though all future ventures would need name brands such as the Beatles and Michael Jackson to distinguish one title from another.
They still do. At least it seems that way, judging from the reaction to “Michael Jackson One” compared with “Zarkana.” Cirque will take the latter off line in January to spruce up the content. A fine idea if you ask most locals, who will tell you “Zarkana” would be great if “Mystere” wasn’t already better.
Spider-Man, on the other hand, is a strong but very expensive brand. The musical’s producers dug themselves in deep with the famously troubled production. It will close on Broadway on Jan. 4, because it needs to make $1.2 million every week just to break even, but has been discounting tickets just to get to about $742,600.
When you must tell the world you are closing a show, it’s better to pair it with the good news of “but we’re reopening in Las Vegas!”
That’s just what Spidey’s producers did last week, only without the pesky details of where it would land on the Strip and whether the new venture was fully financed. You can read the news two ways.
The rosier scenario is that producer Michael Cohl’s S2BN Entertainment is close to a deal — but just not close enough to announce — with The Venetian. The casino has the perfect former “Phantom” venue needing little modification and an S2BN show, “Rock of Ages,” already running elsewhere on the property.
Still, The Venetian has a reputation for driving a hard bargain with show tenants, and the producers could be open to other offers. The press release about the Las Vegas move could be what reporter types call “a fishing expedition,” or the Captain Picard “Make it so” theory: You tell the world you’re going to build a casino shaped like the Titanic on the Strip, or plan to open a show based on “The Love Boat,” and hope some investor gets excited enough to get onboard.
“Spider-Man” investors could be skeptical of pumping more money into a show that hasn’t recouped on Broadway, needs another rewrite and would still owe royalties to original director Julie Taymor after she was famously fired, then sued, then settled.
With all that baggage, you wonder where we would be if that phone call from Bono had turned out differently. Is there still time? Here’s a fun idea: Cirque puts “Zarkana” back on the road and partners with Cohl on an Aria “Spider-Man,” serving as show manager — the way it now does with Angel — and technical supervisors of the stunt work.
Cirque folks say no way. And you can understand why. There are intangibles after all, such as ego. And while Laliberte may have learned that Cirque’s original content may be more valuable in some cities than others, Elvis, Michael Jackson and Spider-Man also tell us that some brands are better bargains than others.
Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0288.