From the outside, the 25,000-square-foot Dream Studios warehouse looks like all the others inside the nondescript Pompano Beach plaza. Inside, though, is Broadway director Neil Goldberg’s workshop, which, like Santa’s, has been preparing year-round for the upcoming holiday season. There are more than 250,000 yards of sumptuous fabric from as far away as China, hundreds of pounds of glitter, sequins and rhinestones, and even a human-sized gingerbread house. There aren’t any elves; Goldberg instead employs a talented team of costume designers, animators, sound engineers, choreographers and more, all fastidiously working to make a gift so ambitious it could never fit under a Christmas tree: an immersive and live theatrical stage spectacle and production of POMP, SNOW & CIRQUEumstance, an adaptation of the eponymous children’s book Goldberg published in 2021 and a concept more than five years in the making.
“The book was a passion project and I had no illusions of publishing it — just something in my head that I wanted to get down on paper,” Goldberg says. “But while I was outlining illustrations, thinking of stories and creating the words for the book, in my mind, I was also writing the lyrics to the songs and thinking what the costumes were going to look like.”
Some people can anticipate a few steps ahead, but Goldberg envisions the next block altogether. “My mind is my greatest asset and my greatest detriment,” he admits. “It never lets me sleep but it affords me this incredible, imaginative landscape.” The Broadway director and theater producer spent his illustrious, decades-long career designing and producing shows for two Super Bowls, the NBA, Disney, Busch Gardens, Six Flags and Miss Universe. So amid the COVID-19 lockdowns, when Goldberg finally had the time to create the children’s book that had long been circulating in his thoughts, his imagination couldn’t help but simultaneously direct and choreograph the plot, too.
“I always envisioned it as a show,” Goldberg says, which makes the December 22 debut of POMP, SNOW & CIRQUEumstance at the Great Hall Theatre at the Diplomat Beach Resort in Hollywood the realization of Goldberg’s years-long vision. Nineteen 65-minute performances running until December 30 will transport the audience to the storybook’s pages via state-of-the-art video mapping and projections while a cast of 30 acrobats, magicians, singers and dancers bring the characters to life.
“For 65 minutes, people can forget about stresses of life and politics and all this other stuff and walk out happy and smiling,” Goldberg says. “Being able to transport people to this imaginary space for that amount of time is the greatest feeling in the world.”
Goldberg grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in New York. “My options for artistic outlets and creativity were very limited,” he recalls. But when he was 8, his mother took him to the Broadway production of The Miracle Worker, and the three-act play based on Helen Keller’s autobiography left an indelible impression. When they returned home that evening, Goldberg emptied shoeboxes from his mother’s closet and attempted to re-create the gyrating set. “I was just so fascinated by what I saw on the stage,” he recalls. “My mom just knew and from then on I took dance, singing and music classes.”
His fascination with theater and creative productions soon expanded to include the whimsy and spectacle of the holiday season. Every year, Goldberg’s mother would take him to various department stores just to peek at the winter decorations and festive window displays. When households would discard their Christmas trees come January, Goldberg would pluck the tinsel and ornaments left behind on each of the branches on his way home from school. (Today, his ornament collection includes 40,000 pieces from around the world — even if he doesn’t put up a tree.) “Christmas was always a favorite time of the year for me,” Goldberg says. “It had nothing to do with religion; it was just colorful.”
When Goldberg attended Long Island University, he minored in theater arts but his major in business made some do a double take. He credits that entrepreneurial acumen with allowing him to organize, manage and ultimately pursue his creative and artistic passions. In 1993, after relocating to South Florida, he founded Variety Arts Management, Dream Studios and the entertainment brand Cirque Dreams, and went on to produce shows and productions for more than 50 million people across five continents and at renowned venues including the Kennedy Center, the Grand Ole Opry House, Alte Oper House and Ziegfield Theatre.
“I have a unique skill set in that I am an entrepreneur and businessman as well as a creative,” Goldberg says. “In my 40-year journey, it was my goal — once I accomplished the level of success that I did — to let someone else run the business so that I could be creative, but that just never worked out for me.”
In 2019, Goldberg sold his Cirque Dreams company to Cirque du Soleil Entertainment Group with the intention of retiring. But he didn’t take up chair yoga or bingo; instead, Goldberg tackled what some considered a curious new hobby for a theater director: creating a holiday-themed children’s book.
For years, Goldberg had been ruminating about the ceremonial “Pomp and Circumstance” graduation march, but as an allusion to his Cirque Dreams legacy, Goldberg always imagined it spelled “Pomp and Cirqueumstance.” With co-author Niko Nickolaou and illustrator John Kelley, Goldberg published POMP, SNOW & CIRQUEumstance with Brown Books Kids publishers in November 2021.
“I just wanted to afford myself the opportunity to take everything that I absorbed, learned and accomplished in 30 years and see what it felt like to just be able to do it without care or even purpose,” Goldberg says. “I wasn’t doing it for anyone but me.”
The story follows three elvish sprites named Pomp, Snow and Cirqueumstance as they receive their university diplomas from Santa. They learn another lesson in humility and service to others as they share their respective music, magic and circus skills with the world.
Goldberg dedicated the book to his daughter, Ali Senser, who passed away shortly after giving birth in 2016, and his three granddaughters, who are all under the age of 13.
“Because [Ali] has three little girls, I just wanted to keep them engaged with everything I was doing for other children,” says Goldberg, who donated scores of copies to the Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital, the Make-A-Wish Foundation and the children of service members stationed outside the country. “This fits into my wheelhouse of mentoring and enriching kids’ lives.”
There was no way Goldberg could anticipate the success of POMP, SNOW & CIRQUEumstance: It was featured on Good Morning America and Fox & Friends, received nine book awards and inspired a television special, which received seven Telly Awards.
Quickly, the children’s book evolved into a brand. The second book in the POMP, SNOW & CIRQUEumstance universe is slated for release in 2024. It will include the same three characters and feature various holidays celebrated across different cultures throughout the year.
“Pomp, Snow and Cirqueumstance come back to their secret university and they meet a new character who tells them they can use their music, magic and circus skills not just for Christmas, and that there [are] holidays all year round,” Goldberg teases of the plot. “In my imaginary world, she is the daughter of Mother Nature and Father Time and has the ability to take them through all four seasons to experience Chinese New Year, Ramadan, Passover, Easter, Diwali, Halloween and more.”
It would’ve been easy for Goldberg to rest on his laurels following the first book’s publication and dedicate his time solely to the upcoming releases of the series’ second and third books. But that’s not his style. With his theater and production background, Goldberg had been preparing for the eventual show long before POMP, SNOW & CIRQUEumstance was even published.
“I knew there was an opening for something new,” Goldberg says. “There’s Rudolph and there’s the Grinch and there’s Elf and there’s the Nutcracker and there’s all these things that everyone has seen over and over and over again.”
Goldberg wasn’t just sketching costumes and choreographing acts while writing the children’s book but diligently crafting the 75 carnivalesque wigs that the cast would wear when the show was inevitably secured in the coming years. Each wig, Goldberg explains, takes roughly 160 hours to construct using an imported lightweight foam from the Netherlands that is heated, molded and shaped to each hairstyle. The combined wig collection is coated in more than 125 pounds of glitter.
“I’m almost embarrassed to say that I made every one of those wigs during the pandemic,” Goldberg says as he reveals shelves and shelves of mannequin heads, each one topped with a sparkling and wild foam wig in an array of vibrant colors, in his Dream Studios warehouse. “There’s so much to be thought about in terms of flexibility and heaviness because the cast has to dance and sing and do all sorts of crazy things in them [the wigs].”
Each of the more than 200 costumes that will be worn during the show was tailor-made inside the Dream Studios warehouse. They’ve been adorned with playful details including scarves made entirely of teddy bears and neckties made out of bird toys, and glint and shimmer with more than 150,000 rhinestones and sequins. The “Snow Flurry” costume — technically the largest one in the show — is an engineering feat, standing eight feet high and 10 feet across, weighing 40 pounds, and capable of gliding across the stage thanks to its wheeled aluminum frame.
Cast rehearsals began in January, long before a location for POMP, SNOW & CIRQUEumstance was even secured. The 30 onstage performers hail from 12 different countries, including Japan, South Korea, China, Belarus, Poland and Bulgaria. An additional crew of 60 will work behind the scenes, helping performers into their costumes, coordinating lighting and projections, orchestrating special effects and more.
“Everything’s coming together,” said Goldberg in the weeks before the cast arrived to begin group rehearsals. “Everyone’s got their visas and all their proper paperwork. It’s going to be a bigger spectacle than I even anticipated!”
The score for POMP, SNOW & CIRQUEumstance features 15 original songs that musical composer Jill Winters and a team of Broadway composers have been developing for two years.
“I play the piano. So I can outline a sound or the melody of something that I want,” Goldberg explains, “and then Jill just takes it and runs with it. She’s super, super talented.”
At the Diplomat’s Great Hall Theatre, the stage is perched in the center of the 2,700-person-capacity venue and a runway allows performers to enter and exit the stage. The layout, which accommodates optimal viewing from every seat, allows the audience to be surrounded by animated video-mapping projections inspired from the children’s book.
Though Goldberg is an experienced director and producer, he sought to push his own abilities with his take on the Santa Claus allegory of the flying reindeers and sleigh.
“I was racking my brain,” Goldberg says. “I got to do something with Santa that brings him to where we are in 2023 and 2024.”
Goldberg’s modern-day solution? Drones. Thirty of them that will transport Santa and which he will later direct into contorting shapes, including snowflakes, stars, the Nativity scene and a 20-foot-tall Christmas tree.
“So I’m now choreographing drones, amongst everything,” Goldberg says. “The show will be as much of a technical spectacle as it will be a visual spectacle.”
This December, Goldberg’s granddaughters arrive in town to watch the show alongside their grandfather, whom they loving refer to as “Neily.” He’s most excited about seeing POMP, SNOW & CIRQUEumstance through their eyes and the eyes of other children in the audience.
“To see them sitting in that theater and watching that experience is an energy unlike anything I can express,” he explains. “It’s a bit tiring but it’s also what fuels me. I’ll probably pass out January 1st and then a week later, I’ll start asking, ‘OK, what’s next?’” For tickets, visit CirqueAtTheDiplomat.com