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(Bloomberg) -- Somewhere in the middle of the Mediterranean, a painter seeks to find his muse in an original new show: It involves flying bicycles, a beatbox musician, and acrobats hanging from silks and ladders. If the show sounds Cirque du Soleil-ish, it is. The Montreal-based troupe just launched its first at-sea extravaganza, complete with the option of a preshow dinner, onboard the new 4,500-passenger MSC Meraviglia.
When the 2,908-passenger Celebrity Edge is launched next year, it will feature an interactive spectacle created with producers of off-Broadway's experiential Queen of the Night dinner theater. The restaurant where it will be performed nightly has been designed to evoke the Garden of Eden, and when diners enter, actors called “Edenists” will whisper mysterious, scene-setting phrases into their ears before vocalists, acrobats, and dancers take the stage.
As ever-bigger cruise ships mean that a more diverse crowd is lining up to be entertained, the world of cruise-ship performing arts is evolving. Turns out entertainment can be a key factor when it comes to acquiring and retaining customers among the competitive cruise-line set—and people love to be surprised. In the expanding industry, executives are also betting passengers will even be willing to pay for premium shows, like the Eden event, unlocking a potential new revenue stream.
That’s not to say that the days of bland Broadway revues, cheesy dance numbers, and uninspired magic acts—largely performed by inexperienced actors—are totally over. But serious competition from new creators is recasting the way cruisers think about entertainment at sea.
"We need more venues for more tastes, age groups, and nationalities," said Gary Glading, head of entertainment and guest experiences for MSC Cruises. So in addition to its lineup of 45-minute themed variety shows—which feature singers, dancers, and sword swallowers—MSC has invested $22 million to create a theater for Cirque du Soleil on the high-tech Meraviglia. (It’s the first of four MSC ships to develop such a space.) The 413-seat entertainment and dining lounge is custom-designed with intricate rigging for aerial acts—hallmarks of the two Cirque shows that are now playing on the ship six days a week.
On its new 4,140-passenger MSC Seaside, which will make its debut out of Miami in December, MSC is also testing improvisational comedy shows by Toronto-based troupe BeerProv (as in, "unscripted comedy on tap").
"People are looking for something that's different, that's not the same beige product everyone else is turning out," Glading said.
Richard Ambrose, vice president of entertainment for Norwegian Cruise Line, says "there is nothing wrong with a revue. Broadway has started to do 'juke box' musicals, and that's the same thing.” But some shipboard options are better than others, he added.
Still, on their latest and largest ships, both Norwegian and Royal Caribbean have been replacing revues with more relevant options. Some are slightly shortened versions of Broadway musicals—a little trip to the Great White Way in the middle of the great blue sea. They include such classics as Grease and Saturday Night Fever on Royal Caribbean, or more recent hits such as Rock of Ages and After Midnight on Norwegian. The shows of yesteryear barely even had a storyline; these have dialogue, upgraded costumes, and proper sets, just like their land-based counterparts. Some even feature members of the New York casts and production teams.
That’s just one strategy at play. Celebrity, Royal Caribbean's sister brand, is focusing on original productions, some with aerial acrobatics and high-tech effects—already, it has 18 such shows in its lineup. Elyria is its most daring: It’s a slightly risqué, avant-garde love story with choreography by industry veterans who have worked with Madonna and Kylie Minogue. The show was launched in 2015 on Celebrity Constellation and was an immediate hit.
And then there’s Edge, which hopes to push the boundaries further when it is launched in December 2018. With interactive elements reminiscent of the immersive theater phenomenon Sleep No More, the show will be different each time guests go. That’s an industry first, according to Becky Thomson-Foley, Celebrity's associate vice president of entertainment. People might go several times during a trip.
"The younger generation wants more choices than ever,” said Sarah Beth Reno, vice president of entertainment at Carnival Cruise Line, which has cut its main stage song-and-dance shows down to a bitesize 35 to 45 minutes, so people also have time to pursue such other options as stand-up comedy and live music.
"People want to walk around and experience everything that is available," agreed MSC's Glading. "I call it the buffet syndrome. They don't want to miss out on anything."
Jazz Hands in the Board Room
The recent fact is, shipboard stage experiences are translating to quarterly earnings.
For starters, some of the new entertainment comes with an extra price tag for guests, unlocking a brand-new revenue stream. (Even for cruises that charge for select activities and specialty dining, theater has always been all-inclusive.) MSC's Cirque shows are $42 (€35) with dinner, $18 without. Celebrity’s Eden show will also come with a cost, which has yet to be determined.
At Norwegian, which first introduced a dinner theater circus (created by Florida-based Cirque Productions) in 2010, the profits are obvious. The theater on Norwegian Breakaway, one of three ships with the show, holds 245; with nine shows a week at $39.99 (including dinner), performance revenue on that ship alone can hit $4.5 million a year.
"I remember people, even industry experts, saying, 'Oh my god, that will never work,’" said Celebrity’s Thomson-Foley, referring to optional shipboard specialty restaurants with an admission fee, something that has become an industry norm. "I wouldn't be surprised if that kind of leads that way with entertainment."
"We've definitely seen a shift in our guests telling us entertainment is a deciding factor for them," said Thomson-Foley, citing surveys from last year. And according to MSC’s Glading, "Entertainment isn’t the reason they book—it's the reason they come back."
Ships as Theater Incubators
The better cruise ship entertainment gets, the more seriously the theater industry is taking it. "Back in the day cruise ship entertainment was just below accordion players. There was no respect," said Norwegian's Ambrose. When he started in the business a decade ago, producers wouldn't even return his calls. Now they’re calling him about their Broadway and West End debuts, hoping to collect franchise fees for road productions at sea (where shows are likely to be performed for years).
Some New York City shows may soon get their starts at sea. The original, Cuban-themed musical being developed for Norwegian Bliss by Tony Award-winning director/choreographer Warren Carlyle (After Midnight), for instance, is attracting interest by land-based producers. It's the first time an original production developed by a cruise company is garnering attention from outsiders, Ambrose said. And it’s no wonder: The as-yet-untitled show is being composed by Grammy award winner Albita Rodriguez, with costumes by Tony nominee Isabel Toledo.
So how did cruise shows get so good? The short answer is money. Cruise companies are investing in talent and striking partnerships with award-winning directors, choreographers, costumers, and set makers rather than buying package deals off the shelf from no-name producers. They’re also investing in rehearsal facilities that would make land-based professionals weep: Rather than practicing in conference rooms at motels, as they once did, cruise actors now have state-of-the-art spaces, such as a $32 million studio that Royal Caribbean opened in south Florida in 2015. The contracts that guarantee eight to 10 months of employment? They’re icing on the cake.
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