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Backstage with ‘Cirque du Soleil Paramour’ Producer Scott Zeiger

Category Broadway

|by Jeryl Brunner |


Our new feature series, The Producers, profiles the top theater and film producers in New York City. First up: Scott Zeiger, the producer of the dazzling 'Cirque du Soleil Paramour'

Scott Zeiger always knew he would work in entertainment — especially in live entertainment. Barely out of his teen years, he was already booking rock concerts and other successful live shows while at the University of Florida. Although he modestly hesitates to admit it, he was a natural at spotting talent. In 1980, when one record company mailed him the debut vinyl album from an unknown band, Zeiger, a sophomore, thought they sounded great and booked them.

That debut album was Boy. The band was U2.

“They showed up in a van and my roommates unloaded their equipment,” says Zeiger, who has won five Tony Awards as a producer. “We put the concert on stage at the Rathskeller at the University of Florida beer hall back in the days when beer halls on campuses were legal. I think we paid them $2,500.”

The cast of 'Cirque du Soleil Paramour'; Scott Zieger (Photo: Richard Termine, Kathy Zieger)

The cast of 'Cirque du Soleil Paramour'; Scott Zieger (Photo: Richard Termine, Kathy Zieger)

While he insists he had “no crystal ball,” Zeiger has had many moments of great discoveries. Early in his career, he produced shows for a little-known band called The Police. While still in college, he produced a humongous pep rally the night before the school’s homecoming football game — selling out their 90,000 seat stadium. Zeiger booked a rising star named Robin Williams to host. “He was just on Mork & MindyThe World According to Garp was about to come out,” recalls Zeiger, whose production credits includes The Who’s TommyThe Producers, Billy Crystal’s 700 SundaysThe Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber and many more. “I’m still in business with Robin’s manager. Robin and I maintained a friendship. When you’re around long enough in this business, you get exposed to a lot of very interesting, talented people.”

After graduate school, Zeiger’s first job was in the marketing department of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Then he was brought on as a marketing director for Pace, which promoted Broadway subscription series in cities across the country. Over time, Pace, which was owned by the Becker family, grew and grew, becoming enormous. “It was the precursor to what is called Broadway Across America today,” says Zeiger. “The company went through a number of iterations. When we sold the company, to [media giant] Bob Sillerman, it became part of SFX.”

Zeiger took on the role of President of SFX Theatrical Group, which he helped develop into one of the largest theatrical companies in the world. Zeiger ultimately left and formed his own company Base. Coming full circle, Zeiger co-founded Base with Brian Becker whose family owned Pace.

Through Base, Zeiger got to know Cirque du Soleil very well, and he fell in love with its masterful visual spectacle, acrobatics, beauty and elegance. He and Becker produced several of their shows, including Wintuk. Zeiger had also become close personal friends with Cirque du Soleil CEO Daniel Lamarre. The duo formed a partnership, and Zeiger launched the Theater Division for Cirque du Soleil.

These days, Zeiger is producing a groundbreaking project — something Cirque du Soleil has never done before. His new show Paramour, which just began previews, is the first Cirque du Soleil show specifically created for Broadway. Paramour brings together the classic how-do-they-do-that?, awe-inspiring magic of Cirque du Soleil acrobatics with Broadway singing, dancing and storytelling. “It transports you to a magical world where musical theater and Cirque du Soleil make a miraculous love child,” says Ruby Lewis, who makes her Broadway debut as Paramour’s leading lady, Indigo James. “We’re taking this signature of Cirque: extraordinary feats of human virtuosity, really exciting music, costumes, make-up, theatricality and visuals — and adding an overlay of story. It’s the first time we have ever done a show that is a complete linear narrative with characters speaking and singing in English and it’s a love story,” says Zeiger. “We want people to see Paramour and say, ‘It wasn’t a Broadway show, it was much more. It wasn’t a Cirque du Soleil show, it was much more.'”

Zeiger, in the midst of rehearsals for Cirque du Soleil Paramour, sat down with us and shared the inside story on bringing this epic show to life. Cirque du Soleil Paramour is currently in previews, and opens on May 25, 2016.

What is the most thrilling part about what you’re doing now?
It’s a rare thing when you work for a company and at its heart and soul is pure, creative live production. Cirque du Soleil is the largest producer of live theatrical attractions in the world, from Big Top shows to arena shows to shows in Las Vegas, Disney World, Japan and elsewhere. But never Broadway. It was really exciting to get the invitation to join the company and launch a theater division where I was able to tap the extraordinary creative and production resources of this incredible, groundbreaking brand. I was able to merge that with my knowledge of the theatrical world.

How will Paramour be different from other Cirque du Soleil shows?
Cirque du Soleil primarily is about visual spectacle, beauty and elegance. You take away an incredible feeling — something almost spiritual. It’s whimsical. It’s elegant. It’s artistic. It’s also a little ethereal. My forte is story-driven theater. Broadway show patrons expect a great set, great singing, dancing, acting and a potent story: one that is emotional, cathartic and uplifting. You want to care about the characters. And we have a very unique way of being able to tell our story.

Normally you see Cirque du Soleil and someone asks, “How was O?” and you say “It was awesome. It was beautiful. It was incredible. I couldn’t figure out how they did it. What amazing athletes.” Those are descriptors of a Cirque show. However, after you see Kinky Boots, you might say, “It was a STORY about a guy whose family is losing their factory. Cyndi Lauper’s music was great. Jerry Mitchell’s choreography was incredible.” The first thing you would talk about is the story.

So at its heart, what is the story of Paramour?
Paramour is a love triangle between a world-renowned movie director, a young starlet that he discovers and the composer of the movie scores who is also interested in the young starlet. Their relationships are played out under the backdrop of the Golden Age of Hollywood. The director is a bit of a Svengali. The young starlet has incredible talent. Is she going to fall for “real” love, the love of the boy? Or “reel” love, the love of movies and millions?

When did you get involved with Paramour?
From day one. Guy Laliberté, the founder of our company, was in New York about two years ago. I met him at the Mandarin Oriental with our Chief Creative Officer and our Chief Production Officer. We sat down and had a discussion. They said, “OK, Scott, you’ve been here a few months. Let’s plan on doing a Cirque du Soleil signature show on Broadway. We’re going to set you up with Jean-Francois Bouchard, our Chief Creative Officer. He’s going to help you pull together directors and designers and people from the Cirque world who can deliver the whimsy, spectacle and acrobatics. You bring to the table whoever you need to help deliver the story.”

What did you do?
I brought in a pop composer who could write songs with lyrics. I brought in a scenic director who could help design and plan character-driven scenes. We had story meetings. I have been part of the creative process from the beginning, shepherding it. I’m not the writer. I’m not the director. I’m the producer. On behalf of Cirque du Soleil, I’m steering the ocean liner. It’s a big ship. So it takes a lot to turn it. We have experts in all disciplines. With acrobats, there is training and safety involved. Our scenic technology is over the top. We have amazing projections. We have drones that are choreographed. We have aerial acts with strap acts that are bolted into the steel and the roof of the building.

So what’s the great challenge putting together Paramour?
Marrying the two worlds is the biggest opportunity and the biggest challenge. We’ve created a show from whole cloth. We haven’t adapted it from a popular movie or book. We’ve had the whole world at our fingertips to create what we wish.

There is a moment in the show where our three principals sing about their love triangle. As they are singing this full-on pop song downstage, we have an aerial act with two men and one woman dressed similarly who represent acrobatically exactly what they’re singing about. We have to make that click and work. In our big opening production number called “The Hollywood Wiz,” where we introduce our director, we can’t just do a normal big Broadway opening number with singing and dancing. We must have acrobatic flourish. That requires extra layers of rehearsal and a cast of 38 instead of 25.

What might surprise people about what you’re doing?
Many of the people who are creating what is arguably one of the most expensive Broadway musicals have never worked on Broadway before. Half have. Half of the cast. Half of the crew. Half of the creative team. But the other half, never. We have people from 16 different countries. Our Director [Philippe Decouflé] is from Paris. He’s never worked on Broadway.

We have a beautiful, incredible industry. But there are 50 people who make shows — great directors, great writers, great designers. It’s a cottage, boutique industry. It’s not like the film industry. There are only 45 Broadway theaters. Of the 45 Broadway theaters, 20 of them have open-ended shows that are never going to close or not anytime soon. There are about 25 new shows a year. There’s 10 new movies a week, 500 movies a year. So what’s exciting and unique is that I’m working with artists who are new to this. And when you see our set, you’re going to be blown away.

What else are you doing with Cirque du Soleil?
Cirque will also do some traditional stuff, like The Wiz. We did The Wiz on NBC. Collectively with Bob Greenblatt [Chairman of NBC Entertainment] and NBC, we selected the creative team.  And they’re all Broadway veterans, from Harvey Fierstein to Kenny Leon to Paul Tazewell who did costumes for Hamilton. We did the TV show together. I’m going to do the Broadway version of the TV show next season. There will be acrobats in the choreography, but it won’t be a Cirque signature show. The flying monkeys and crows will be our apparatus.

Now that you are opening Paramour soon, what’s your typical day?
I get to work around 9:30, go through emails and shepherd our new projects all day. If there’s a particular film that I want to adapt, we have to pursue the underlying rights with the film studio. I might have to secure the contract for the book writer for a show. If we haven’t found a composer, we’re vetting composers. If we found one, it’s contracting the composer. It may be finding a director, interviewing directors, organizing meetings between the directors and the writers. Finding a theater for The Wiz. Meeting with theater owners.

Then mid-afternoon, I go to the theater until 10 at night because we’re in production. Executive Producer, Jayna Neagle, is there. I check in with her on budget or problems. I speak to the director,  choreographer, acrobatic coordinator. I watch rehearsals. I offer opinions. I sit on the production meeting. Generally, I’m available because decisions have to be made. Things get cut and added every day. Lighting designs and projection ideas are tried. I want to be supportive of the team. I don’t usurp their authority. I bolster them.

What do you do when you’re not not working?
I’m an empty nester. I used to say, “my kids are the weekends,” with sports or events. But now they’re grown. So my weekends are back for my wife and I. We like to travel and consume art. My wife is an art curator so we go to galleries and museums together. We also see lots of shows that I’m not producing.

How do you know when a show or work is good?
It’s a combination of luck, good taste and certainly being passionate. There are no producers who pursue theatrical attractions who don’t think that their show is fantastic, even those that fail. You have to believe in it to your core. Any Broadway producer will tell you it’s inside. We don’t do focus groups in advance. We don’t do marketing profiles. We find a piece of content, and we develop it. And by the time we pull the trigger, we’re passionate about it.

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