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Cara Joy David

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Will Cirque's Irresistably Odd Escape Frighten Broadway?

Posted: 07/06/11 11:42 AM ET

The appeal of Cirque du Soleil is pretty much beyond me. I like my shows with a comprehensible story. But there is no denying the unquestionable impressiveness of some of the famous Cirque stunts. And there is also no doubting that tons of people love Cirque du Soleil. The brand is an empire, an unparalleled one; one that just may be shaking up Broadway.

Traditionally Cirque shows have played outside Manhattan proper under the touring Grand Chapiteau. However this year, the circus arts have landed at Radio City. The most dramatic, immediate impact of Cirque's residency there was the banishment of the Tony Awards to the smaller Beacon Theatre. But there is something more subtle that may be happening -- Cirque just may be taking money away from Broadway shows.

I attended a preview performance of Zarkana, Cirque's over-stuffed and slightly scary Radio City spectacle, last weekend. Surrounding me were happy families, some American, many not. And it got me to thinking: are these people who would have attended The Lion King last year? So, of course, I started asking people. The family in front of me -- from France -- decided on Cirque over Mary Poppins. Another couple said they chose to see Zarkana over Wonderland, which, as Wonderland is closed now, was a very wise choice. (Wonderland primarily closed because of lack of advance ticket sales. I am not going to get close to blaming/crediting Zarkana for that, though it may have diverted a few family groups.)

A simple look at last week's Broadway grosses will not tell us if Zarkana is having any impact. I'll spare you some attenuated analysis that would mean little, if anything. But I'm talking about 5800 seats that have been, on some days, completely full. Some of those seats have to be filled by people who are opting for Cirque du Soleil over Spider-Man. There is no question about it.

There are those of you who are reading this and thinking: "Well, yeah, duh, the more shows there are, the more the audience is spread out." Of course that is the basic policy at play here. But there are a few unique factors in this particular equation. First, we're talking almost 4000 seats more than the largest Broadway house possesses. Second, it is a show that is outside The Broadway League's oversight. Third, even though the songs are in English, knowledge of the language is optional. Fourth, the amount of money spent on the promotion of this show, and the reach of that promotion, is simply without compare. For months, everywhere I went on the Internet was sponsored by Zarkana. (Which I suppose says something about me, but, moving on.) Zarkana is almost inescapable. Not everyone who knows about it is going to want to see it, but you'd sort of have to live under the proverbial rock not to know about it.

It is too early to be able to fully analyze if Zarkana is having any discernible affect on the Great White Way. I'm not sure we'll ever truly know. Who is to tell if Sister Act would have done better had Zarkana not existed? It is mostly going to be conjecture even at summer's end. Yet this is the type of thing Broadway producers who are trying to bring in family-friendly shows must think about. If Cirque intends to make Zarkana an annual event -- or even if it intends to bring in a new show to Madison Square Garden next year -- it's likely going to have some impact on the traditional Broadway musical. Broadway producers are going to have to consider the visitors from Quebec and how to counteract their particular brand of showbiz razzmatazz. I'm not saying people going to see Follies are going to choose instead to watch Zark try to find his magic (yes, that is apparently the plot). I'm also not saying that I agree with choosing Cirque du Soleil over any traditional Broadway musical -- I personally think each offer a completely different experience. But there have to be people out there making that choice. End of story.