LAS VEGAS — When it comes to live entertainment, two trends now dominate this famous city in the desert. First is the rise of mid-career musical stars like Adele and Katy Perry, who command eye-popping ticket prices. The second is projections. With the late September opening of the $2.3 billion—no typo—Sphere at the Venetian Hotel, Vegas gained an 18,000-seat auditorium where the entire structure (inside and out) is an LED screen. With an area of 160,000 square meters and a 16K resolution that can visibly reproduce real daylight, the Sphere has the largest such display in the world. It now shines like a dislodged sphere when viewed from the airport.
But on Sunday, a seemingly ragtag group of actors, dancers, divers and circus men paraded through the Bellagio Hotel and Casino; He looked like time-traveling visitors from the 1690s or 1990s; the last one was when Cirque du Soleil’s “O” was the first. opened. Vendors looked up from their cards, tourists pulled out their phones, and cocktail waitresses shouted “Happy Birthday!” they shouted.
He had good reason. Played to 3,600 people a day, “It” is the highest-grossing live entertainment work in history. The show, which uses a 1.5 million-gallon pool, obviously can’t go on tour, so franchises like Disney’s “The Lion King” have eclipsed box office returns on a multi-company scale. But if you want to know which is the most successful show in the world, “It” is the obvious candidate. By my count it must have played to over 20 million people, most of whom had never seen the like before and haven’t seen it since.
For those of us present on opening night, the 25th anniversary of “O” (pronounced “eau,” the French word for water) was a reminder both of how quickly the years had passed and of the incomparable genius of Franco Dragone. , writer and director. Dragone died of a heart attack in Egypt last year, but his artistic overseer (or “creation director”) Gilles Ste-Croix was in Vegas, as was Guy Laliberté. These two men, both former street performers, were the founders of Cirque du Soleil, although they sold the company.
Despite all the initial hype surrounding its technology, “It” is an analog show built from materials such as platforms, pulleys, boats, cable systems and curtains. The pool is real (divers assisting the artists are said to play craps underwater when not needed). The music is live. The cast still numbers 85 (the show is said to be the largest employer of former Olympic divers). The stage building is as wide as the auditorium. There is not a single video projection in the entire event.
Dragone was a true artist: his exhibition was inspired by Indian and African forms as well as Italy’s commedia dell’arte. There is no such plot; “It” is like a painting, but it moves before your eyes. This was a show about the importance of water to life (a fact that’s in the news a lot these days), but Dragone had a unique sense of aesthetics and surrealist. Like a Magritte or a Rothko, the show’s pool is constantly changing shape, tricking you with its depth or sudden absence of it. Characters, many funny, some sad, come in and out as if you’ve somehow managed to get into someone else’s big dream. There are incredible feats, such as the highest dive you’ve ever seen in a show, as well as versions of rituals in everyday life; times when we drink to nourish ourselves or to survive.
A few years after “It,” Dragone was persuaded by the Wynn Hotel across the street to create a second water show, “La Reve.” This time he was referring to the deadly tsunami of 2004; The program included women who appeared to be pregnant bathing on the shore; That’s not what Steve Wynn had in mind when it came to entertaining gamblers. I remember being in Las Vegas, where the controversy arose when Wynn yelled through my phone about Dragone, and the spectacular but controversial show was re-edited. And it’s never quite the same.
However, “He” also took big risks. Neither Elvis nor the Rat Pack included a funeral procession in their festivities. Dragone had such balls: He knew that popular audiences could embrace beauty if he combined it with spectacle, and he was right.
“Oh,” you think as you watch “It” now, “they built a literal little village inside the casino.” I had much the same reaction a few weeks ago when I watched the final performance of “The Phantom of the Opera,” another great theatrical presentation with tremendous physicality and no screen anywhere. At the time, some people mocked this show. In 2023, when you can project anything onto anything, these shows feel like precious relics of a purer time.
No one could produce “O” from scratch anymore. Even in Las Vegas it would be prohibitively expensive. Many of us spend our lives staring at small screens, and when we recreate, most of us choose to spend that time in the company of a larger screen with more pixels.
If you look closely at what’s happening on Broadway and elsewhere, you can see that audience phones are slowly but surely being integrated into shows. Of course, some ask you to turn them off, but others now suggest turning down the brightness or waiting until the final count. Artists need to be marketed, and phone-filmed audience videos are now the most effective tool. The consequences of this, in my opinion, are both ubiquitous and mostly invisible.
But you close your screen on “O” and are greeted with a jarring reminder of how much has changed since the beginning of the 20th century. I watched ordinary people ascend to the casino floor of the Bellagio, exhilarated and renewed by “It”; where slot machines were now just video screens and could be easily reprogrammed as trends and tastes changed.
“It” is the greatest theatrical anachronism in the world and is still performed twice every night. We will never see the like again.
open run at Bellagio Hotel & Casino, 3600 S. Las Vegas Blvd., Las Vegas; tickets start at $79 www.cirquedusoleil.com
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.