Inside the 'Today' Show's Summer Concert Series
It's 6:30am on a Friday morning and as bleary-eyed viewers across America are waking up to get ready for work, the Today show is prepping for a rollicking concert. "The easiest time for me to wake up is for soundcheck on a Friday during the summer," says Brittany Bosner, the Today show's resident music booker. "Everyone always says, 'Oh, you have to get up so early!' But it doesn't matter. Seeing fans get access to these huge artists and looking around at being in the middle of New York City in Rockefeller Center is never lost on me."
For the past two-plus decades, the Today show's Summer Concert Series has been a staple of the 67-year-old NBC morning program and a crown jewel of the television music landscape in general. Utilizing their iconic surroundings, the plaza at Rockefeller Center in Midtown Manhattan (home during the winter to its famous Christmas tree and skating rink), the Friday concert series has turned into a rite of passage for a genre-spanning list of superstars. On this particular morning, the Jonas Brothers take their turn with Nick, Joe and Kevin performing for a crowd that begins at NBC's Studio 1A on 49th street and stretches to 51st. (While they don't keep official crowd estimates, Bosner calls it one of the biggest gatherings they've had in memory.) It's an important morning for the Brothers Jonas, with the act performing on the day of the release of their comeback album Happiness Begins as well as the premiere of their Amazon documentary, Chasing Happiness. The timing, like much of Today's summer schedule, was nailed down months in advance.
"Every January and February we like to go around and catch up with labels and publicists to see what's coming from them during the year and what's a priority," says Bosner of a packed 2019 calendar that previously hosted performances by Jennifer Lopez and Thomas Rhett and includes future names ranging from Kacey Musgraves to Lizzo. "With the Jonas Brothers, we knew something was coming but also knew they wanted to keep it hush-hush, so we put together a big proposal about what we could do on the plaza and fill it up with their fans. It got booked in March or April." Concocting the concert calendar is a Hail Mary pass in some ways for Bosner and her team, finessing a delicate balance of both wanting to nail down artists in advance of the busy summer season while also attempting to guess who will be driving the music conversation months in advance. "We knew the Jonas Brothers were going to be big, but we didn't know how big," says Bosner, referring to the song they're performing, "Sucker," hitting No. 1 on the Hot 100 after they were booked. "With them, it was worth the risk. We knew the album was going to be good and that they'd bring a great crowd. When it comes to booking, a lot of it is based on relationships with the industry."
While the idea of a summer concert series is currently a common one in morning television (Good Morning America takes over Central Park while Fox and Friends utilizes their own plaza a couple blocks away), it was the Today show who helped pioneer the concept. In 1994, they departed the confines of a stuffy studio inside 30 Rock and moved to the street-level Studio 1A. The original home of the show during its 50s-era launch, the space offered expansive windows looking out to Rockefeller Plaza, the perfect location to expand the scope of their production and provide the bright, natural lighting for "America's First Family" in the '90s with anchors Katie Couric, Matt Lauer, Ann Curry and Al Roker. And while only Roker famously remains alongside current anchors Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb, the Summer Concert Series is a tradition that has continued throughout the much-reported ebbs and flows of the show's success and creative direction since.
For Today executive producer Libby Leist, throwing the concerts are a no-brainer. "We have a unique position in the city," she explains from the show's newsroom in between segments. "We have such an advantage with Rockefeller Center right outside our studio to create these moments. Putting it together -- the music, location and tide of the show, it all makes it very special."
In the preceding years, Today has churned out a host of memorable performances, many with artists at the apex of their careers, from Lady Gaga crooning in the rain in 2010 for a record crowd of 20,000 and thrashing around on the white, wet stage to Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jennifer Lopez teaming up for a 2016 tribute to the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. "One of my personal favorites was when we did a Bad Boy reunion and had Diddy and Busta Rhymes," says Leist of the 2016 season opener. "Our staff was going crazy because a lot of us grew up with that music. Also, whenever you have a pure singer, someone like Miley Cyrus or Adele, you get to feel that soul and I love those kinds of performances."
Of course, when the whims of Mother Nature are at play, not everything goes exactly according to plan. Leist remembers a recent concert which took place on the road at the Indianapolis 500, a rare musical foray outside of Rockefeller Center. "We were really excited and we got ambitious," she remembers of inviting Sheryl Crow to perform in honor of the military charity Hidden Heroes. "But at 5:30 in the morning, it started biblically raining and it was one of those situations where we were saying, 'What are going to do?'" As a result, the team moved Crow's piano into a garage off the racetrack, but the weather miraculously cleared by the time her performance was set to kick off at 7:45. "You never want to say that it's definitely not going to happen. So you just adapt as you can, and work with the technical crews to try to figure out what is physically possible. Whenever you want to do something outside, you take the risk."
For Bosner, NBC has been her professional home for the entirety of her career which, in fact, was inspired by a Today visit. "I came to the plaza from Cleveland, Ohio when I was 10 and spoke to Al Roker," she remembers during some downtime in a nearby greenroom as the Jonas Brothers wrap up their morning with an in-studio interview. "I told my mom that day we visited that I wanted to work at the Today show." Starting out as a page, she joined Today in 2010 and later took over the booking reigns from longtime staffer Julie Gurovitsch in 2015 when she made the switch to The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. "Julie gave me some pointers and I was handed a half-booked summer concert series," says Bosner of the baptism by fire.
Quickly acclimating herself to the show, these days she wakes up around 5am on concert mornings and sleeps with her phone on ring just in case. "Load-in starts around midnight and the stage is set up overnight," she says. "There are always those weeks in April and May where I'm like, 'Are we going to pull it off again?' But, of course, the lineup always comes through," she explains. "Every Friday isn't about us, it's about our viewers at home and those people who traveled across the country to see the show in person. Maybe this is the only trip to New York they'll ever have, and this is something they'll always remember. By 9am, the stage outside is gone and we're already thinking about the next one."