For instance, the team creating the new Las Vegas show, a high-tech extravaganza exploring themes of time and space using a dimension-stretching set, was led by Robert Lepage, a well-regarded theatrical director and filmmaker, and Mark Fisher, a stage designer best known for creating the Rolling Stones' sets. They're asked to ruminate for a few months, meeting occasionally to share ideas, then start submitting designs. "We don't impose a theme on them from the beginning," says Heward.

Costume designers next create the characters. Set designers firm up plans for the stage. "It's a series of brainstorming and a lot of R&D," says Heward. Story lines are loose, which helps keep shows relevant to different cultures. After a year of planning and a similar period for design and casting and training performers, the show rehearses for nine months, far longer than most Broadway shows. After those three years, it performs for the first time in Montreal. It spends an additional four months or so after that performing in Canada only, fine-­tuning the show there. Then the show is more or less locked up, although modifications do occur during a lengthy tour, inspired by changing performers and other considerations.

It's an expensive launching period. By the time a show hits the road in Canada, Cirque has spent $15 million to $20 million on developing it. "It's a price worth paying," says Heward, "because these people are not going to be out for just six months."

Indeed, each touring show is designed to last somewhere between 12 and 15 years. Permanent shows typically have decade-long contracts with their venues. The development budget will be paid back many times in that period, if the show lasts. So far, each one has. Oddly, Cirque has achieved this record without a scrap of conventional market research. "We don't do shows on what people want," says Mario D'Amico, vice president of marketing. "We will never research a show, or the ending of a show."