The Merchant Of Happiness

From his hotel suite, you can see a public bench at the corner of Hyde Park. That's where Guy Laliberte spent his first night in London at 18. By his side were a backpack, two accordions, a mouth organ, spoons and a jew's-harp. He'd left his home in Montreal with less than $1,000 to be a street performer across Europe. A year later he arrived back in Canada--$10 ahead. Nearly 25 years on, Laliberte is one of the biggest theatrical impresarios in the world. He is sole proprietor of Cirque du Soleil, and more than 30 million people have seen his shows. Now, at 42, he wants to make the Cirque an integral part of our daily lives. Laliberte is planning to set up permanent entertainment complexes around the world--which will include a big top--infused with the Cirque magic. The first location will be London, where he spoke with NEWSWEEK's Michelle Chan. Excerpts:

CHAN: Why London?
London is the entertainment capital of the world, so that is why we want a home here for Cirque du Soleil. We want [to build] an entertainment complex using traditional businesses--restaurants, hotels, spas--and challenging them with new creative content. Like we did with the Cirque--taking the traditional and twisting it.

Is that what draws people to the Cirque? The timeless quality of circus, repackaged for a modern audience?
Mostly it's the recognition that inside every adult there's still a child that lingers. We say, "Take your time to live your childhood again for a couple hours." I think we tend to forget we were children before. We're happiness merchants--giving people the opportunity to dream like children.

As a child, did you dream of running away and joining the circus?
I had no interest in the circus. The only circus in Canada was the Ringling Brothers type, and I didn't find it funny. My road was more toward street performance, arts, theater. I started a street-performing festival, which was very original for its time. It was just an adventure, and I was planning to go back to school and have a regular life.

Why didn't you go back to a regular job?
The dream was traveling and entertaining people. For me, my accordion was the easiest way to achieve the dream. If I didn't want to work on the corner of the street, I didn't, and I stayed on the beach. But I had good business sense, and I was clever enough to see opportunity. I'm not saying it was easy, but I loved it.

Have the priorities changed much?
My life is about recognizing that I like to spend time with my family, my parents, my friends. I have a responsibility with my company. I like traveling. I need to sleep. I like to have fun and try to organize my work to protect that. I have a nice star shining for me... and I try not to forget that.

Do you still enjoy being on the road?
I've been traveling all my life, and I still love discovering other people's cultures. I'm on the road seven or eight months a year, and that was always part of the dream. But if you want to see your family--with me now are my girlfriend, my three kids, two cousins who act as nannies--it makes me think, "What did I get myself into?" But when there's passion and pleasure in what you're doing, [you overcome that]. I have a great life. I like to think I have three months for myself, and my goal is to make that six months. A lot of businessmen are pretty jealous of my lifestyle.

You're not a typical businessman, but have you ever thought about taking the company public?
I've always [been the one who says] yes or no, and that power is fantastic. To give that up for money? You dance with your devil a couple days. After that you say, "Hang on, I have a great life, I have a lot of spending money, I don't miss anything." Down the line, my security is in my insecurity. I am still an adventurous person.

Have you thought about packing it in and selling?
I will probably die with the circus, but I try sometimes to be rational. I commit myself to the next 10 years: to put in place a good foundation for the company to grow and think about who will run the company, who will be the creative force. I want to make sure that's not one thing I do when I'm 75 years old. Hopefully I will be more and more a guide than a director.

What else is there for you with the Cirque?
After 17 years we are in a position of financial and social power, and we could be agents of change in our society. Without pretension, I believe we could be a nice little gardener who takes care of the garden, and hopefully our neighbor will do the same. Then maybe we'll achieve a better world.