Idol Worship

Lionel Richie & 'American Idol' Showrunners Hope the Finale Performances Inspire Fans 'To Help and Support Each Other'

Lionel Richie, Katy Perry and Luke Bryan
ABC/Scott Patrick Green

Lionel Richie, Katy Perry and Luke Bryan on American Idol.

Katy's TV debut of "Daisies" will be very special.

It's been a heavy lift for the contestants on American Idol to figure out how to put on a professional production from their homes during this most unusual season 18 of the OG reality singing competition. But how do you whip together a glitzy, full-glam scenario for the show's judges to perform on the series finale when they're also stuck at home?

That was the challenge facing show executive producer/showrunner Trish Kinane and her team when they began dreaming of what Sunday night's (May 17) season 18 capper might look like. (ABC also announced on Friday, May 15, that the show has been renewed for a fourth season.)

Pile on the pressure of the TV performance debut of Katy Perry's brand-new single, "Daisies," not to mention the first TV performance of Lionel Richie's legendary 1985 charity anthem (co-written with Michael Jackson) "We Are The World" in 35 years, as well as an appearance by Luke Bryan singing his new single, "One Margarita."

It's a lot, but Kinane says the show got plenty of help from their veteran judges, who were eager to solve the puzzle using some very creative workarounds. "Katy’s going to do her new single for the show and the discussions we’ve had with her team are, 'Okay, so we’re not going to be on the big stage for the finale, but on the other hand we don’t just want you to tape something for us that’s so remote that it feels like it hasn’t been made for Idol,'" Kinane says.

"You might as well put your pop video out if that’s what you’re going to do. So her team have come up with a rather interesting concept which involves the Idol set, but she’s not on it," Kinane adds. "It’s trying to relate something so that it just doesn’t feel not part of what Idol is, because doing these things remotely can feel very disconnected and we wanted to just bring it back to what the Idol finale is...the Katy thing will be interesting, it will be a hybrid."

Just as exciting is Richie reinventing the song he co-wrote with late pop legend Michael Jackson for African famine relief in 1985. Kinane says she recently got a call from Richie with an offer to sing the song -- whose original featured Jackson, Richie, Ray Charles, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Tina Turner, Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, Kenny Rogers, Willie Nelson, Paul Simon, Cyndi Lauper, Huey Lewis, Steve Perry and many more --  with the caveat that he didn't want to do the expected celeb-packed version.

"I don’t think Lionel would have suggested doing that song and it was him that suggested it because he’s been asked endlessly during this pandemic to do 'We Are The World' by loads of others and he’s said no," Kinane says, adding that Richie's idea was to do the song with his Idol family instead.

So, during the two-hour finale (8-10:00 p.m. ET), the reboot will feature the Idol judges, this year's top 11 and a large group of Idol alums: Alejandro Aranda aka Scarypoolparty, Fantasia, Gabby Barrett, Jordin Sparks, Katharine McPhee, Kellie Pickler, Laine Hardy, Lauren Alaina, Phillip Phillips, Ruben Studdard and Scotty McCreery.

In an email, Richie tells Billboard that he's asked to rework "WATW" just about "every day and for every cause." This time felt right, though, because "we have a very unique situation for the whole world. What better time to remind people to help and support each other," he says, pointing to the most poignant, "greatest" line in the song as proof: "There's a choice we're making, we're saving our own lives."

Because the novel coronavirus has spread to nearly every corner of the world, infecting nearly 4.5 million and killing more than 304,000, the song's universal message are as relevant today as they were more than three decades ago: "If we all stand together as one, we can beat this," he says.

As for why Richie wanted to ditch the A-list pop and rock singers in favor of keeping it all in the Idol family, he says the answer is simple. "We've done the all-star cast and it was historic. These kids inspire me with their talent and they reflect the diversity of the world."

In addition to the judge's performances, the finale will feature Oscar nominee Cynthia Erivo and the top 11 singing a medley of Aretha Franklin songs, two-time Idol auditioner Lauren Daigle and the top 5 singing her hit "You Say" and Rascal Flatts and Doug Kiker performing “Bless The Broken Road."

The top seven -- Arthur Gunn, Dillon James, Francisco Martin, Jonny West, Julia Gargano, Just Sam and Louis Knight -- will be cut down to five at the top of the show on the East Coast broadcast, at which point the voting will open. Though the results will air live only on the East Coast, all time zones can vote for their favorite -- up to 10 times per contestant, per method -- here, as well as on the Idol app and by texting the contestant number to 21523; voting closes at approximately 9:15 ET. The season 18 winner will be crowned live on the East Coast at the end of the night.