Steve Friess: Thirty Years of Mystère And The Deluxing Of Las Vegas

Written By Steve Friess on December 22, 2023
Cirque's Mystère 30 Years Later

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State of Play is a column that focuses on the trending stories in the casino and gambling space with sharp and clever insight from senior staff writer Steve Friess. Over his 25-year career, Friess has contributed to publications such as Newsweek, Time, New York Times and more.

Anniversaries are catnip in journalism. Any number with a five or a zero at the end is an excuse — we call them “news pegs” to return focus to all sorts of topics that otherwise would rarely receive much attention.

I’m as guilty as the next hack, though. I’ve certainly done my share of this sort of remembrance this year, commemorating 20 years since the launch of the What Happens Here Stays Here ad campaign and tiger attack on Siegfried & Roy and 25 years since the debut of the cult classic “Rounders.”

All of those were important. Each of those essays provided valuable historical context and perspective.

But none of them are as significant, really, as this week’s 30th anniversary of Cirque du Soleil’s Mystère at the Treasure Island.

It was not just the original, unadulterated Hershey bar of Cirque. It was the very first genuine upscale offering Las Vegas presented. There was no schlock factor. No nostalgia factor.

This was — and still is — fine art.  And it has aged accordingly.

Vegas in 1993 was still a campy joke

Thirty years ago, Vegas was a much different, much more downscale place. Yes, Steve Wynn’s Mirage opened in 1989 at the top of the market, but it sat there alone for quite a while. The next wave of megaresorts to follow included the Excalibur in 1990 and then the Luxor and Treasure Island in 1993. You’ll notice nobody made a big deal about any of those on their 30th birthdays.

Back then, Cirque wasn’t even 10 years old. It was the product of street performers in Quebec who graduated to touring productions. They took inspiration for music and acts from opera, ballet, Olympic performances, from Shakespeare, from ancient Greece.

Wynn hadn’t yet realized just how highbrow he could push Las Vegas or the casino industry in general. He had Siegfried & Roy as the Mirage’s signature production, an amped-up magic show with animals that had plenty of forebears in Vegas performing history.

Then he hosted Cirque’s touring “Nouvelle Experience” in a tent in the Mirage parking lot and something clicked.

“This was a missing link,” Wynn told me in an interview in 2007. “The entertainment could be elevated, too. People would pay to see astonishing things and they would pay to be emotionally moved.”

It doesn’t mean he wasn’t nervous. The week before Mystère opened at Treasure Island on Christmas Eve 1993, Wynn tore into the creator, Franco Dragone. “This is sh*t,” a red-faced Wynn shouted. “It’s a f**king German opera.”

Dragone calmed Wynn down, stayed true to the vision and redefined Las Vegas.

Mystère is a juggernaut of epic proportions

Mystère also did something important for Treasure Island — it brought wealthy, cultured people into a hastily built resort casino that Elaine Wynn once referred to as “an abortion.” Neither she nor Steve Wynn liked the campiness of it, but they felt they needed to get something up to compete with Excalibur for the family-friendly market while they toiled on what became their true landmark passion project, Bellagio.

The rest of upscale Vegas is, of course, well-known history. Bellagio and Venetian came along with their fleets of fine dining and high-end shopping plus lavish but tasteful hotel rooms and even fine art exhibits. The Palms and Hard Rock added youth and style. Eventually, we got the Wynn, too.

But it was the hunger for Mystère that served as a tantalizing introduction to what was possible. The soaring acrobatics, the bright hand-sewn costumes, the wry humor, the homoerotic sequences, the irresistible live score with its jibberish lyrics.

Plenty of people have other Cirque favorites. Certainly, “O” at the Bellagio elevated the form even higher with its daring and beautiful stunts involving water. That might’ve been the extent of Cirque in Vegas if MGM’s Kirk Kerkorian had not bought out Wynn’s Mirage Resorts in 2000 and inherited the exclusive deal with Cirque.

Mystère’s undeniable legacy in Las Vegas

The next decade saw four more Cirque productions, each of them with their own personality and draw. And that doesn’t even include the work Mystère and O creator Franco Dragone did on his own with “Le Reve” at Wynn Las Vegas and on Celine Dion’s blockbuster “… A New Day” at Caesars Palace.

The influence is undeniable. It was yet another key element in the reinvention of Vegas. You could go to your local casino wherever you were to gamble, sure, but you could only see “Mystère” or “O” on the Vegas Strip. When Cirque and Wynn tried it elsewhere — the show “Allegria” had a residency at Wynn’s Beau Rivage resort in Biloxi, Mississippi — it didn’t quite work.

At 13,000+ performances under its belt, Mystère is a juggernaut of epic proportions in the entertainment industry. The longest-running show on Broadway history was “Phantom of the Opera,” which closed in April after 13,981 shows over 35 years.

Think about that. What a legacy.

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Photo by Eric Jamison/AP photo
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Steve Friess

Steve Friess writes the State of Play column for PlayUSA twice a week. He's a veteran gambling-industry reporter who began covering Las Vegas in 1996 and covered the openings of resorts in Asia, Europe, and across the U.S. His bylines have appeared in The New York Times, Playboy, New Republic, Time, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, New York magazine, and many others. He, his husband, their children and three Poms live in Ann Arbor.

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