I had the opportunity recently to visit New York City and attend Paramour, the new Cirque du Soleil Broadway musical at the Lyric Theater. The show closed shortly after, and I had a number of people ask me to share my thoughts on this unusual fusion of circus and theater. We like circus, and we like theater, but would they work as well together like some sort of fusion cuisine?
I do love circus acts. (Human circus acts, anyway. While animal circus acts can be respectful and humane, I’ve seen too many that weren’t, both small and large, and it’s left a bad taste in my mouth*.) But amazing feats of human strength and skill will nearly always have me staring upward, mouth agape, grinning like a giddy kid. Someday I may do a story around this idea.
I’m also a theater nerd. I was a kid when I saw Hamlet onstage and was literally shaking during the climax even though I already had read the play and totally knew what was coming, and I’ve pretty much been hooked since, from local productions to major Broadway and West End shows.
But would I like my chocolate mixed with my peanut butter?
The question would be how they were put together. While as musical audiences we happily suspend disbelief as characters burst into song, even musicals can sometimes struggle to fit a plausible frame around goal material. Rock of Ages nailed it, but not all jukebox musicals succeed, and music flows better in a musical than, say, unicycle or contortionist acts. Would there be awkward moments where the narrative struggled to justify a tightrope act or pushed a juggling metaphor too far? I remember being disappointed with Cirque du Soleil’s film Alegría.
It worked. Really well.
It helps that the story is set in Hollywood, so many of the flash acts are explained as, well, flash acts. The epic Western dance-acrobat sequence takes place during the shooting of a Western musical, so it’s like being backstage to the filming of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and getting to see the classic dance-fight from that angle. Those parts which aren’t part of the shows-with-a-show are handled artistically, with one of the more creative emulating individual frames of film flashing past the audience’s eyes.
This Hollywood, by the way, is related to actual Hollywood in the way that the Arabian Nights are related to Arabia and the middle east — which is to say, it is composed of myth and glamour and fable and very little fixed history. Paramour takes place in a few months during all the years between 1925 and 1975, blending fashion and film style and aesthetics nearly seamlessly.
Only once did the circus act step completely out of the narrative and into metaphor, and it was one of the audience’s favorite scenes, as three performers in representative costumes interpreted the primary actors’ song “Love Triangle” — a three-way conflict song not quite to the level of “The Riddle” in The Scarlet Pimpernel, but definitely good. Overall the music was better than I expected, actually. I hummed the show for a solid week after the curtain dropped, and I actually loaded it onto my playlist during intermission, even before I’d heard it all. That turned out to be a good thing, because I was having so much fun with the technical performance and classic film references during “The Honeymoon Days of Fame” that I pretty much missed the song altogether and had to listen to it later.
The story in Paramour is not groundbreaking, but we’ve long proved Broadway audiences don’t need complex or tightly-written stories in their musicals (Newsies, your choreography was fantastic, really fantastic, and we’ll stop there), or even coherent stories with a consistent tone (Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark runs from an early mournful song about the trauma of life with an abusive parent to a slapstick ending — not comic book, but comical — of [spoiler] literally dropping a piano on the villain). So a story which runs in a solid plot arc already has a leg up, and Paramour does, as a Hollywood director attempts to seduce a small town actress into a leading lady and his lover, as her songwriting devotee trails along in hopes of selling a film song and declaring his love.
The only times I really detached from the show was during a dream sequence (because, you know, dream sequence) and then actually during the climatic sequence, a joyous jumble of trampoline acrobatics as a rooftop chase. This was in some part because my really stellar seat in the front row — the advantage of traveling alone! — had put me close to all the action thus far, but the “rooftop” trampolines were (for safety and set reasons) at the rear of the stage, and that was a much bigger change in intimacy for me than for the balcony viewers. But also this limited the chase sequence to just a couple of buildings, and while the trampoline work was fantastic, it hurt the imperative of the story a little.
But then, who goes to a Cirque du Soleil show for the story? Nope, we’re here for the incredible skills of the performers and the flying drone-dancing during the love song. Let’s do this.
Much more so than other shows, the stars of the show are not just the stars. Our named cast is central to the story, but it’s the circus acts and frequently the background cast who are doing too much to risk missing. I counted three separate visual layers of unrelated action during the bar scene, for example, so it really was like tracking all three rings of a circus.
The show’s closed for now, so take a look at this collection of short promos to see what it offered:
Will Paramour be back? Will Cirque du Soleil return to Broadway with another concept? I kind of hope so. I like peanut butter in my chocolate.
Did you catch Paramour? Do you know another show I should definitely put on my list? Tell me!
*There has been considerable debate on the ethical merit of some types of human acts, as well, particularly where children are unwillingly involved, and on the nature of some acts in particular. Even over 80 years later, critics can’t agree whether Freaks (1932) was exploitative or empowering. (If the final climatic shot in Logan was not an intentional homage to Freaks, it was a lucky accidental reference. Brr. Good.) But let’s specifically focus here on circus acts of skill rather than sensation or appearance