As a youth Neil Goldberg says he never wanted to run away and join the circus, but because of him dozens of talented artists have. Goldberg, now a successful impresario, promoter and theatrical producer is the creator of Cirque Dreams, a production company he founded in 1993 to showcase unique talent in a modern theatrical circus setting.
Over 15 million patrons have attended Cirque Dreams shows since then and hundreds of talented performers from around the globe owe their success to Goldberg, whose “Cirque Dreams Illuminations” opens September 28 at the Mahalia Jackson Theatre for the Performing Arts and is the opener for Broadway Across America’s new season in New Orleans.
Goldberg admits he is amazed at the level of his success. “My life has been a roller coaster,” he boasts. “Cirque Dreams Illuminations” is his 14th production to carry the trademarked “Cirque Dreams” brand and follows the success of his “Cirque Dreams Jungle Fantasy,” the first cirque show to ever play on Broadway (nominated for a Tony for best costume design) and “Cirque Dreams and Dinner,” the first such production of its kind staged at sea (aboard the Norwegian Epic cruise liner).
No matter the theme, the cornerstone of every Cirque Dreams show is an international cast of talented aerialists, contortionists, jugglers and musicians whom Goldberg has discovered and showcased. Television shows like “American Idol” and “America’s Got Talent” reflect much of what Goldberg has done in securing his casts of previous unknowns over much of the last two decades, he says.
“That’s really what I started out to do – just package it and format it differently – by taking ralent from all over the world and integrating it with Broadway talent across the stage,” he continues. “There’s a tremendous appreciation for our talent.”
Through the years his shows have also played at special event shows, casinos, theme parks and theatres of every size.
Goldberg traces his roots back to Long Island and to Oceanside, New York in Nassau County, a small township located between J.F.K. Airport and Jones Beach. Born the second child of four to an observant Jewish family, he claims he got the acting bug when his mother brought him to see a production of “The Miracle Worker” when he was six.
Through the next several years he immersed himself in his studies at yeshiva, but his outside interests also pushed him to study music and become a budding costume designer, taking advantage of his work at his father’s Manhattan retail fabrics store Mendel Goldberg, founded in 1892 and named for his paternal great-great grandfather.
He convinced his parents to allow him to enroll at Oceanside High School in ninth grade and begin to pursue outside work planning parties and working on his designs. “It was traumatic,” he admits.
He volunteered to act, choreograph and direct synagogue productions near Long Island until it became apparent he was not interested in pursuing further Jewish studies.
“I’m very proud of the fact I was raised an Orthodox Jew,” he exclaims. “It gave me a great foundation as a human being and for ethics in business and how to deal with people. It’s not just people in America, but people all over the world.”
His focus in high school became more fixed on theatre and planning parties. After graduating from nearby C. W. Post College, he was hired as a textile designer in the Garment District of New York, but continued his party planning sideline business.
When he moved to Florida as part of his new position, he had every intention of staying within the textile industry, but his various party planning businesses had taken up so much of his energies that he quit his job and got into theatrical party planning on a full time basis.
Through the next few years Goldberg produced several spectacular private events like those at Superbowls and included several Fortune 500 companies as clients such as American Express and IBM.
In 1991 IBM contracted with Goldberg’s company to book an international cavalcade of stars to bow at an worldwide conference they were hosting. This led to his renewed interest in creating a cirque show.
“It was in the late 1980s that I first went to Europe and did a lot of research, particularly on this cirque genre,” he recalls. “My inspiration goes back to Jules Verne and Cirque Municipal. He built this 1892 version of ‘America’s Got Talent’ and really that’s how it all got started.”
Today over 250 artists are employed by Cirque Dreams productions. Some are self-trained, while others have pursued more traditional theatrical experiences. All of them are looking for a break in show business, some the products of state-sponsored schools in Russia and gymnastics programs from Mongolia.
Goldberg auditions them and, if he feels they have what it takes, he sends them to train in his private studios with a team of designers as they hone their acts.
“There’so much talent out there today as is evidenced by these reality shows today,” Goldberg acknowledges. “The genre is not just about a circus. It’s about unusual talent and interesting artistry and really blending them with Broadway theatrics. We engage people in our presentations in a way that they don’t feel there’s a ceiling or a floor.”
Cirque Dreams Illuminations began its first tour last year, took a break over the summer and will begin its second tour in New Orleans. “We’re going to do the tech for the entire season run with this show, which starts September and goes through May,” he explains. “New Orleans has always been the city where we always do well and been extremely well for the guests and the patrons. It’s very family friendly and affordable.”
Cirque Dreams runs at the Mahalia Jackson Theatre for the Performing Arts with evening performances at 8:00 p.m from September 28 through October 2. Matinees on October 2 and 3 are at 2:00 p.m. with the final performance on October 3 at 7:30 p.m.