Over the past four months, award-winning touring director Baz Halpin has been working tirelessly on designing the production, visuals and lighting for Britney Spears’ upcoming nightclub-esque residency at Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino in Las Vegas.
“The level of detail in this show is ridiculous,” says Halpin, whose full-service production company Silent House has designed mega-tours by such superstar pop acts as Katy Perry, P!nk and Taylor Swift. “I get into the office at 7 a.m. and probably put down the phone at 11 p.m. It’s non-stop every day.”
It’s a sunny late-September morning at CenterStaging in Burbank, Calif., and Halpin is sipping a cappuccino while on break from auditioning hundreds of dancers for the two-year show, titled “Britney Spears: Piece of Me.” The residency’s Dec. 27 launch date is quickly approaching and Halpin has been speaking directly with Spears about every 10 days on new ideas for the show.
“It’s sort of like a visual variety show in that we’re touching on all the things that excite her,” Halpin explains to Billboard in an exclusive interview about “Piece of Me.” “It’s pieces of her imagination, pieces of her dreams and pieces of her life.”
For the residency, Spears will perform 50 shows per year through 2015 inside a 4,600-capacity planetarium-like theater that boasts a stage twice the size of any you’d see in a large-sized arena, Halpin says. The reconstructed facility also features state-of-the art video technology, an elevated anchor-shaped stage with a surrounding dance floor beneath, private tables and couches with bottle service, and traditional tiered seating with enough room for dancing.
“Visually, the show is going to be extraordinary, especially in such a small environment where you’re not used to seeing her,” Spears’ manager Larry Rudolph tells Billboard outside of CenterStaging’s Studio 10, where dance auditions are taking place. “She’ll be able to see everybody’s face in the entire theater.”
Backed by 14 dancers and a four-piece band, Spears will perform 21 of her greatest hits and some music from her as-yet-untitled eighth studio album, due Dec. 3 on RCA Records. Halpin says the approximately 100-minute, fan-centric show will take on the feel of a contemporary Las Vegas nightclub. Many of Spears’ older hits will be rearranged and modernized to complement the show’s club-like ambiance.
“It’s very difficult to take all those songs in the context on a 100-minute show and make them all work musically together, because you have ‘Work Bitch’ on one hand and ‘…Baby One More Time’ on the other,” says Halpin, who also worked on Cher’s three-year residency at Las Vegas’ Colosseum at Caesars Palace in 2008. “They’re incredibly different sonically. So we’ve taken every piece of music in the show and — if it’s an older hit — given it a modern, new and interesting take on it. Some of the newer hits we’ve worked into medleys.”
Spears’ residency performances will be divided into eight parts that span the 31-year-old singer’s career, and incorporate truckloads of stage props and costumes designed by Marco Marco. The Squared Division’s Antony Ginandjar and Ashley Evans are choreographing “Piece of Me,” with Natural serving as the show’s musical director. Halpin’s team at Silent House also includes assistant director Melissa Garcia and director of design Chris Nyfield.
Although Halpin declined to give away too many thematic details about the residency, he did divulge that there will be an elaborate homage to Spears’ 2008 album, “Circus.” Another section, he says, is heavily influenced by Japanese cinema in the vein of the Ang Lee-directed film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Additionally, Spears’ manager Rudolph hints that the performances could feature such production elements as rain, fire and snow.
“In this visual variety show, we’re trying to make each act the most vivid representation of her dreams as possible — what she thinks, what her imagination is and what’s inside her head,” Halpin explains. “We’ve utilized the most state-of-the-art technology. A lot of it is groundbreaking stuff that we haven’t done before.”
Montreal-based multimedia company Geodezik is overseeing video for the show, which includes a 300-foot projection screen that wraps around the inside custom-built walls of the theater. Halpin says fans won’t know what hit them once they step into the facility.
“The lobby will have all sorts of cool and interesting memorabilia, bars and some secret things I can’t tell you about that will involve the audience in the show,” he says. “When they walk into the theater, they’re not walking in with house lights on with an usher showing them to their seats; they’re walking into a massive club. When the show starts, it becomes an extension of the club. Britney becomes the main event of this club.”
The format of the show could change over the next two years, the director says.
“If you go see Britney in December and then go see her six months after that, there’s no guarantee it’s going to be the same show,” he says. “It’s structured so that over the next two years, as she continues to create new music, the show will swap in and out.”
Halpin declined to discuss specifics about the cost of producing the show, but says he hasn’t yet run into any budgetary roadblocks.
“You get nervous about budgets, because you usually have creatives on one side and accountants on the other. They don’t like to meet in the middle,” he says. “Everybody gets the importance of this show and everybody is 100% onboard with trying to make sure they deliver [Spears’] vision.”
There has also been some talk in the press lately about whether Spears will lip-sync her way through the two-year show. But Halpin says the artist has been taking vocal lessons for the past three months and is ready for the challenge.
“She’s more focused on singing than she is on dance. But it’s still a 100% dance show,” he says. “She’s known for her iconic dance routines. The choreography she’s done is iconic. So she’s got to bring that. That means sometimes there are background vocals in the chorus. That’s the nature. But it’s not 100% lip-syncing, either. She fully intends on singing the show.”