Cirque Du Beatles
The Guardian, Jul 2006
Love Is All You Need: It took a Las Vegas spectacular to persuade the Beatles to allow their songs to be used for the first time – but just look what they’ve done with them.
(Also read at The Guardian)
Sitting in the audience waiting for Love to begin, I have little idea what to expect. Only that it’s going to be ‘a big deal’. I’ve heard the drum roll – the first-ever release of the Beatles catalogue for a theatrical production (it’s never been licensed for film either). Two years and $150 million in the making. A partnership between the Beatles, Cirque du Soleil and the Mirage hotel in Las Vegas. That’s three entertainment giants rolled into one show. When they announced the project in 2004, each giant issued a statement about how happy they were to work with fellow giants. It was like a corporate merger.
Certainly, the show seems extravagant from the off, in that overblown Cirque style – acrobats swinging about on ropes, outlandish sets and a ‘wow’ stage of movable platforms. The old Siegfried and Roy stage was razed after their tiger went for Roy’s throat, and the new Love stage was built from scratch, in the round. No expense has been spared (this is Cirque’s fifth Vegas show – they hope it will run for years). Projections fill the back walls and the gauze screens that drop down from the ceiling. The cast is vast, the costumes are wacky.
But the real revelation is the music. The Beatles have never sounded quite like this. After the idea for a show germinated through the friendship of George Harrison and the founder of Cirque du Soleil, Guy Laliberté, in 2000, the band’s creative company, Apple Corps, underwent a cultural shift. It relaxed its zealous protection of the catalogue and gave the original producer Sir George Martin, and his son Giles, who has worked with INXS and Elvis Costello, more or less free rein to mix the show’s soundtrack. Surviving Beatles and surviving partners wanted certain songs included, as did the show director, Dominic Champagne (his real name), but George and son were the chief architects. It took them three years to complete.
The sound quality strikes you right away. So close and sharp, the band might be in the room. Rather than use LP or CD versions of Beatles tracks, most of which are several times removed from the masters – and substantially compromised by the limits of 1960s technology – the Martins used only session masters. Furthermore, each of the 2,000 seats in the auditorium is fitted with six speakers, including a pair in the headrest, all of which have been individually equalised by Giles Martin: ‘I literally sat in every seat with my laptop, balancing it all out.’
The actual mix, too, is unprecedented. The songs have been combined like a modern mash-up, overlaying loops and breaks from different songs. So the strings from ‘Glass Onion’ can be heard behind ‘Hello Goodbye’. Phrases from ‘Penny Lane’, and ‘Piggies’ weave in and out of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’. There are hundreds of others. Anoraks will spend hours trying to spot the most obscure (the soundtrack album is due in autumn).
Around this wonderfully innovative soundtrack, then, Champagne has built a ‘Beatles experience’ – a mishmash of chapters of the band’s story and recreations of scenes and characters from their songs, like Sgt Pepper, Mr Kite and Dr Robert. We see Eleanor Rigby digging through the rubble of the Second World War and a heavily pregnant Lady Madonna dancing up a storm. Beatlemania is a signalled by a medley of ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ and ‘Drive My Car’ as footage of shrieking girls is projected on the back screen and a VW Beetle is rolled across the stage.
But it’s a doomed enterprise, searching for a coherent narrative in Love. Cirque des Beatles wafts blithely between the bizarre and the literal. While ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ is bluntly rendered as a girl on a trapeze on a starry night, ‘Help!’ is something to do with high speed roller-skating stunts. Similarly ‘Come Together’ finds people running across stage and hugging, but ‘Revolution’ somehow requires a red telephone box, surrounded by trampolines, on which a bunch of hippies merrily bounce about.
The telephone box is a revealing touch. Love loves to fetishise England for middle American appetites as a toy-town park of bowler hats, plummy accents, the Queen and funny-looking bobbies. The show’s ushers are policewomen with pop socks and silly hats. Why double decker buses missed out I’ve no idea. But then Las Vegas reduces the entire world to caricature and kitsch – it’s the city’s foremost talent. Given its rendering of Venice – a gondola ride through a mall while a failed actor sings you ‘O Sole Mio’ – England doesn’t fare too badly.
As Love wraps up with ‘All You Need is Love’, an extraordinary thing happens. Whole rows rise to their feet, singing their hearts out and swaying from side to side. I get a lump in my throat. It’s something to do with the footage of the Four on the screens, chatting and goofing around, and the fact that two of them are dead. Maybe it’s because I haven’t had any lunch. Whatever it is, it’s odd – I’m not usually one to choke up at shows. I’m still feeling sensitive by the time the crowd has swept me down to the gift shop in a scrum lunging for Yellow Submarine lunchboxes and Love cookies. But I don’t mind. This nostalgia circus has pushed my buttons. Roll on Cirque d’Elvis in 2008.