Our 21-year-old daughter Lily was upset last week when she heard the news that Cirque du Soleil had filed for bankruptcy protection.
“That means I’ll never get to see the ‘O’ show at Bellagio, which is on my bucket list,” she said.
I assured Lily that the show would return when the earth resumes spinning on its axis. I also told her there were federal regulations prohibiting anyone under 75 years old from having a bucket list. I suggested she come up with a much better label for life experiences she was hoping to have.
“Besides,” I said. “You were already in the audience at ‘O’ on the grand opening night.”
She gave me that “Dad, you’re lying again look,” that I get about once a day.
“It’s true,” I said. “You just didn’t have a great view. You were still in your mommy’s belly.”
She demanded more information.
I explained that in 1998 I had been hired to write the narrative for the Bellagio’s opening-day gift to the resort’s 13,000 employees. It was a huge college-style yearbook featuring the pictures of every single employee, taken from their work cards, and full chapters on the hotel’s special features. These included the dancing waters show, Dale Chihuly’s spectacular glass sculpture in the front entrance, the horticulture garden, the restaurants and art exhibits, and of course the “O” show.
It was a fun assignment and gave me the chance to see all aspects of the hotel months before it opened. Another perk of the job was that I was offered two tickets to the premiere.
“O” debuted on Oct. 17 of that year, which meant Lily was just 10 weeks away from saying Hello World.
That night was magical in many ways and marked a clear evolution in Las Vegas entertainment history. I thought “O” was the most spectacular show I had ever seen.
“O” was not the first Cirque du Soleil show to debut on the Strip. That honor went to Mystere at Treasure Island, which opened on Christmas night 1993. But it was bigger and better in many ways. Set in the Bellagio Theatre, which was designed to resemble a 14th century European opera house, everything about the performance was hypnotic, and the grace and athleticism exhibited by the dancers, divers, and acrobats was a clear level above anything Las Vegas had seen.
I was so entranced by the performance that I arranged to interview several of the stars of the show. Their backgrounds were varied and compelling. Among them were Olympic divers and synchronized swimmers, gymnasts and trapeze artists, and professional Broadway dancers. Their talents included diving from looming towers into narrow openings, and holding their breath under a tank holding 1.5 million gallons of water.
Long-time Las Vegans will recall the outcry 15 to 20 years ago when the Cirque franchise methodically infused its brand of entertainment into one Strip hotel after another. There was considerable blowback from single act Strip headliners, many of whom had been receiving a weekly paycheck for as much as $300,000, as the market for their talent gradually diminished.
But those who evolved, like Celine Dion, benefited greatly. Her show in the 4,000-seat Colosseum at Caesars Palace was a nightly sellout for two reasons: her amazing vocals and the Cirque choreography that complemented her.
The original inspiration for the show occurred when Celine and her husband Rene Angelil attended the “O” show in 2000. Cirque creator Franco Dragone heard about Dion’s enthusiasm for the show and wrote her a letter putting forth a suggestion that they collaborate artistically. The result was the show New Day.
How the restructuring of this iconic company plays out in the coming months is anyone’s guess. But despite the ongoing threat of the pandemic, it’s our bet that Cirque du Soleil will rule the Strip for years to come.