Written by Danielle Boise; Photo Courtesy of Jenn Sierra-Grobbelaar
With over two decades of bringing innovating shows from the Cirque Dreams collection, like Cirque Dreams Jungle Fantasy, Cirque Dreams Illumination and Cirque Dreams & Dinner to life, Neil Goldberg takes the best of a Cirque show with the spectacular feel of a Broadway musical, then adds the holiday spirit of abundance and joy to make a true family outing with Cirque Dreams Holidaze. Which will be coming to The Fox Theatre on Wednesday, November 23 and Friday, November 25 for a two nights filled with the wonderment of the holidays. The show is filled with astounding dance numbers set to original music, along with holiday classics for the entire family to enjoy. I was truly an honor to be able to discuss with Neil Goldberg the magical creation of his Cirque Dreams empire, including the festive Cirque Dream Holidaze.
How does it feel to have spent the last twenty plus years in the entertainment industry and seeing your creations come to life on stages across the world?
I don’t think anyone has ever asked me that question. I am so passionate about what I do, that without art in my life it would be like – it’s my breath. It really is my existence. To be able to create, direct and design shows to put out on the stage for audiences to jump to their feet at the end of the performance. There really is not a comprehensible feeling. I cannot imagine myself never doing this. It’s just what I love.
And no one has asked you this question before?
No. No one has asked me what that feeling is like after so many years. I would like eventually be able to slow down, I mean having six shows running simultaneously around the world is a bit exhausting, but it’s been very, rewarding – holidays especially. This is our second year in a row coming back to The Fox Theatre. We were there last year at the same time. The shows were practically sold out and because of the success, we were invited to come back to the same time period. I have a lot of family that lives in Atlanta, so they are all excited.
We added a lot of new scenes, production numbers and costumes so people that want to bring their families and see it again will get to see new, exciting and different things. I do that mostly for me and my creative team. We have 150 employees and everyone has their own unique talents. So when I can let the team use their imagination and I can say at the end of the holiday season say how can we make it better for next year? For example, this year we added a scene for Hanukkah, we added a scene about New Year’s because we truly want to make it an all-encompassing holiday experience, not just a Christmas show.
When you were putting together the show run Cirque Dreams Holidaze, how did you come up with the concept of show and what were the must-have acts that you knew immediately had to be incorporated into the production?
The concept of the show is a really interesting story. When I was a kid, around eight-years old, on the way home from school every day I would stop and pick up pieces of discarded tinsel and ornaments from people’s Christmas trees. That 40 some odd years later has turned into a collection of ornaments that I have been able to get from around the world. You know how some people collect t-shirts and hats and magnets from their travels, my thing was ornaments. So I have an ornament collection that has over 10,000 pieces in it.
The ornaments were actually the inspiration for all of the costumes in the show. I started taking the ornaments and designing costumes that reflected the ornaments and then I decided okay, well, if I put all these performers into these costumes as ornaments and put them on this 25-foot tree, when the curtain comes up there are going to be all these human beings dressed as ornaments dangling from tree and all over the stage. Then my imagination lead me toward, how do I bring every one of these ornaments to life?
So if there was an ornament that was an angel then it would inspire me to go and find an aerialist and put together a scene that was flying. If there was an ornament that was a candy cane, that would inspire me to go find a contortionist, so that the candy can twist and bend. Every one of those elements turned into over 20 different scenes that bring over 300 different ornaments to life in this two-hour show.
This leads perfectly into my next question. Being that this is an extravagant show, with over 300 costumes for 20 acts with 30 performers. What was it like to create such a large scale story?
I love theatre, and I love the presidium stage. My travels when I was in my 20’s and 30’s lead me through the world where I was able to become engaged in the European circus and variety artists, which is a much different style of performance artistry than circuses that we know here in the United States. I’m a New York Broadway theatre guy. So the light bulb went off, that if I take the spectacle of that kind of artistry and I blend it with my theatrical Broadway expertise that I would be creating something that would have this unusual flair to it.
I grew up on the stage, the presidium stage of performing art centers that’s my magical space. I love being on that stage and creating the picture that reaches out to the audience sitting in their sits. So the balance between the audience and what they see on stage is really that fine line of how me and my team use our imaginations to really bring the people in. Sometimes people may think when you see a show with the word Cirque in it and if it’s not in a big arena or if it’s not in a big circus tent then how are they going to do all these amazing things?
I think that’s what our brand, Cirque Dreams, has accomplished so successfully in America over the last 20 some odd years because once the curtain comes up the audience forgets that they are really in a theatre. We use every space of the stage, from ceiling to floor, left to right to bring this to life. There are performers flying out over the audience, off the stage. We have ornaments build up to top of the tree, which is over 25-feet high. The theatrical Broadway aspect of this is really what helps engage the audience for a storybook opening that they are drawn right into the fairy tale.
It sounds magical.
It really is magical, and the other thing that we are so proud of is that we love to share with people, Danielle, is that I’ve been asked the question a lot by people “why should I come see Cirque Dreams Holidaze supposed to all the shows that are out there like Grinch, Elf, Rudolf, Christmas Story or Nutcracker and I always answer that our shows are wonderful as they are beautiful. They are entertaining for families as well.
With Cirque Dreams Holidaze you never know what is going to happen next and that’s what keeps audiences on the edge of their seat and that is what also creates this opportunity for mom and dad to bring the kids and to bring the grandparents. From the ages 3 to 103, there’s something of quality for every one of those demographics.
We get letters from parents all the time that say that we cannot believe that our children sat still for two hours mesmerized. It’s because the stage for two hours is like a kaleidoscope of colors and costumes. For the adults and more seasoned theatre-goers there are big elaborate production numbers with live singing. All the singers in the show are New York Broadway singers.
We combine original music with holiday classics, like Jingle Bell Rock, Winter Wonderland, Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree. Anything you could expect to see in a holiday show, happens in this show. It gets cold, it snows, angels are flying, there’s wobbling, slipping and sliding, balancing, twisting, singing and waltzing. The value, I’m biased, obviously, but there’s no comprehensible value for a holiday family show anywhere that compares to Cirque Dreams Holidaze.
You have me literally smiling ear to ear hearing your description. I can see it all in my head.
Thanks for saying that, but you can tell because I know lots of other producers, I’m sure you do lots of interviews. You can sense the passion in our discussion. I love creating this. I love doing this around the country. This is our 8th season. We have three companies touring, the exact same production simultaneously because of the demand and popularity for what the show is. Once someone see it, they want to come back and see it again. We will hit over 50 cities in this 6-week period through New Year’s between three tours. For the 300 costumes, we actually added almost a 100 costumes to each production this year. So if you multiple that by three, we spend most of the year just working on these shows.
How long did it take, from the thought of inception of the story to it appearing on stage take?
Two years from when I first had the idea to bringing it to the stage to putting in in front of a live audience. We have a studio in Fort Lauderdale, Florida called Dream Studios where we have over 100 designers who work year round on all of our shows. These tours will come back January 2. They don’t get packed and put away, they go right into the sewing machines, back into the workshops – everything starts being refreshed, refurbished, elevated and we already know our knew concept for the next season.
From a creative perspective, what is your favorite part of Cirque Dreams Holidaze, and does it change when you are viewing it from the audience’s point of view verses a producer/director’s point of view?
I’m always designing and creating for the audience, it’s never about me. It’s about the audience and the world we live in. That’s really my inspiration. I’m very sensitive to the fact people could spend their dollars to see a lot of different things, I want to make sure that the value is there. But my favorite moment of the show is when the curtain comes up, because we take our shows to beautiful theatres, like The Fox Theatre and audiences have no idea what’s on the other side of the curtain. There is usually an expectation when you go to see a theatre piece of what you are going to see and when the curtain comes up. This catches audiences so off guard, because they have no idea that this Swarovski crystalled landscape of costumes and gift boxes and magic is on the other side of the curtain. So there is an audible gasp in the theatre. If I don’t hear that gasp I sort of go back to the drawing board because I don’t think I did my job.
How hard is it for you to adapt this show to each theatre you go to because you go to several different kinds of theatres?
That comes into who aspect of logistics where the show is designed to expand and contract so we fit into all these spaces, because once we put a tour together it’s always my goal that every audience in every city gets to see every costume and every act, and has the exact same experience. There are some theatres that we will unfortunately not be able to perform in because they are too small, but we have our minimum requirements and they are pretty reasonable. So the show fits into the spaces that we go. Some places we spread it out. Some places we make it smaller, but everyone sees everything regardless of where they live.
Finally, what do you want the audience to walk away from after viewing Cirque Dreams Holidaze?
Especially in Atlanta, because it’s Thanksgiving it’s always my goal to put people into a holiday spirit. I think we all in our country have gone through a very interesting time of stress and uncertainty and if I can transport people for two hours into a place where they are not thinking about what they have to do tomorrow or the next bill that they have to pay or all the things that may go on in the daily grind of their life and for two hours that they can be swept into this world of fantasy and imagination I would be happy. A lot of people have commented after the show that they just want to go out and do all their holiday shopping.