Like a shiny bald guy devouring Cap’n Crunch, Cirque du Soleil, the global entertainment company credited with reinventing the art of circus, on Thursday gobbled up the company behind Blue Man Group, the performance art show with mass appeal.
In the process, Cirque considerably expanded its ability to help both enterprises thrive and diversify.
“Our primary goal is diversification,” said Daniel Lamarre, chief executive officer of Cirque, which has a network of 450 cities its shows visit. “We are acquiring the Blue Man brand because it is a type of show that is very different from us, and at the same time has great complementarity. We both began decades ago, and grew out of street performances. And now, with a whole new set of resources, we can expand geographically. And we can introduce both our brands to new markets without changing the character of either brand, yet when possible sharing creative talent.”
Lamarre is particularly intent on developing the Chinese market for both shows, and plans are already underway to create a huge, Las Vegas-scale permanent Cirque operation in Hangzhou, the fabled city renowned for its gardens and waterways and sometimes dubbed “the Venice of the East.” He also has his eye on Europe, because Cirque has yet to have a permanent show there.
“With ‘Blue Man’ we now have a smaller, less labor-intensive show [three actors and three musicians] that can open up audiences for us in many places,” said Lamarre. “It currently has permanent productions in New York, Chicago, Boston, Orlando, Las Vegas and Berlin, but we hope to be able to take it to many of the countries where we currently perform and they have never been.”
“Our strategy for the future is very, very clear,” Lamarre said, noting that both brands have an extremely loyal fan base, but also have been around long enough so that there is a whole new audience to tap for each. “We want to become a leader, a global leader of live entertainment.”
It’s a complex transaction, and a global one as well. The Montreal-based Cirque is now owned by a consortium that includes: TPG, the San Francisco and Fort Worth-based private equity firm with Internet and digital media and marketing prowess (the major shareholder, it controls 60 percent of the company); the Chinese conglomerate Fosun International Ltd, which has a 20 percent stake; Canada’s second-largest pension fund, Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, which holds a 10 percent stake, and Cirque founder Guy Laliberte’s family trust, which controls the remaining 10 percent.
When TPG acquired Cirque in 2015, Moody’s Investors Service valued the deal at $1.5 billion. According to Lamarre, the acquisition of New York-based Blue Man Productions is in the tens of millions of dollars, though he would not be more specific.
“We want to broaden our horizons, develop new forms of entertainment, reach out to new audiences and expand our own creative capabilities,” said Lammare. “And our goal of experimenting with new forms of immersive entertainment is already taking shape.”
In November, through a partnership with the National Football League, Cirque will open “The NFL Experience” in Times Square. As Lamarre describes it: “It will be a whole new world of live and virtual sports entertainment — an experience that will last about an hour, with audiences starting out as fans, becoming players and finally celebrating as Super Bowl winners.”
And next fall, the company famous for its acrobats, contortionists, quirky clowns, surreal visual landscapes and experimental music also plans to enter the world of ice shows with a production created in Canada and then sent out on tour.
Well before the current deal, Chris Wink, one of the three founders of Blue Man, also had been thinking about China as a possible “new audience” for its mostly non-verbal show, and had even spoken to representatives of Fosun.
“We knew we didn’t have the expertise to break into the Chinese market, and when we spoke to them they said, ‘You should meet with Cirque because you two are similar but different.’ And when we did finally meet, in Montreal, we hit it off immediately. After all, we at Blue Man sort of re-imagined vaudeville while Cirque re-imagined the circus. And we both achieved a lot given our humble street origins. We also are now both restless and wondering: What’s next?
“We had tried get something started in Brazil, but could never quite make it work,” said Wink. “But TPG has incredible digital sales and ticketing skills, and it owns CAA [the Hollywood-based talent and sports agency]. And Cirque has a phenomenal touring network and creative team, and is able to get to search for talent in places in the world we just can’t get to. We realized that being autonomous was sort of limiting us at this point, but that we could do great things together.”
Wink said he plans to keep running the Chicago edition of Blue Man — a staple at the Briar Street Theatre since 1997 — but will continue to update it with new elements of technology and pop culture references, “keeping it fresh, but not changing its essential nature.” He’s also thinking about Blue Man shows becoming part of the entertainment at resorts or theme parks.
Meanwhile, “Luzia,” a Cirque show inspired by Mexican themes, is set for a Chicago engagement July 21-Sept. 3, performed, as usual, under the big top it regularly erects alongside the United Center.
Contributing: Darel Jevens