If you've watched Michael Flatley in "Lord of the Dance" - laser beams bouncing off his glitter-dusted bolero, skintight leather pants and sweaty bare chest - you know from the outset that he is the star.
Yet, Flatley won't be in the European tour as it rolls through Austria and Belgium. And the new Las Vegas troupe, approaching its 70th performance, has a total unknown in the lead.Two years after its Dublin, Ireland, opening, the production employs more than 300 people world-wide - and has spawned five Flatley clones. The quintessential star vehicle has turned into "Lord of the Dance Inc."
"I created a cottage industry, which, I knew way back, would go on long after I retired," Flatley said by phone from Monaco, where he was vacationing and house-hunting. "Each of these troupes is less a `franchise' than the birth of another child giving something back to the world. People are crying out for entertainment."
The numbers bear him out. The U.S. troupe, set up last October, filled the 6,200-seat Radio City Music Hall in New York for two weeks and is, mostly, selling out on the road. Like the European "Lord" - which Flatley left in June - it's expected to tour until at least 2000. The Vegas project may have even longer legs. It opened on July 4 and is booked at the New York-New York Hotel & Ca-si-no indefinitely.
"In June, our first (month) without Flatley, we sold every ticket available," said Brad Wavra, vice president of Cleveland-based Magic Works Concerts - promoter of "Lord" in Europe. "And we're 90 percent sold out through November. We intend to take it to every country in the world."
Such post-Flatley expansion grows out of the mega-success of the initial run. "Lord of the Dance" has taken in more than $200 million in ticket sales since opening in July 1996.
Flatley's colleagues say his spirit - if not his presence - still infuses what is billed as "Michael Flatley's Lord of the Dance." He not only created, choreographed and produced the piece, but, as executive producer, now monitors the offspring for quality contro
The franchising strategies emanated from Flatley as well. "People underestimate Michael - he's a shrewd businessman as well as a performer," said his London-based business manager, Martin Slitton.
"Lord of the Dance" was a do-or-die proposition for Flatley, who was fired from "Riverdance" in 1995, reportedly over conflicts about money and copyright credit. The new production was financed solely through the dancer's personal savings and an advance on the video rights.
"I had no choice but to bite the bullet, go for it," Flatley said. "I couldn't walk into a dance studio and say I was looking for a job as an Irish dancer."
Two performers, half the age of the 40-year-old Flatley, replaced him on the U.S. tour, alternating in the physically demanding role. John Carey will be dancing the entire Los Angeles run, however, because Damien O'Kane is sidelined with a knee injury.
In early 1997, a casino approached Flatley about bringing the act to Vegas. Though those talks fell through, the show played the MGM Grand last summer with Flatley in the spotlight. After five sell-out performances, New York-New York booked the production into its 1,000-seat Broadway Theater for nine shows a week.
These days, Flatley himself is becoming a cottage industry. The French government invited him to perform under the Eiffel Tower. Boxing promoter Barry Hearn asked the dancer - an amateur super-middleweight - to engage in a series of fights. And the star has just signed a deal for his own brand of cologne.