“We’re always trying to do the unexpected,” says Lady Gaga’s manager, Bobby Campbell, weeks out from launching the most hotly-anticipated show on the Las Vegas strip. It’s early December, a decade since the New York native was rocketing to success with her debut album, The Fame, and while the holiday buzz is all about her award nominations for A Star Is Born, behind-the-scenes it’s the “unexpected” next chapter of her musical endeavors which the 32-year-old singer is focused on.
It’s a chapter that entails a new challenge for the megastar — whittling all the awe-inspiring creativity, energy and production value of the arena-style shows she has become accustomed to and renown for into an intimate, 5,200-seat theater.
“The past eight years of her life has been touring the world in stadiums and arenas,” Campbell says. “Scaling down to a theater and living with the production limitations of a smaller space isn’t easy. I think fans will be really excited by what we’ve come up with, but it certainly hasn’t come without its challenges.”
For an artist who has conquered music, film, philanthropy and fashion, and now has the world at her fingertips, it was exactly that kind of challenge which lured Gaga into Sin City, where she will launch a groundbreaking two-part residency tomorrow night (Dec. 28) – the hit-fueled Lady Gaga Enigma show and accompanying Lady Gaga Jazz & Piano concerts, featuring stripped down versions of her songs and music from The Great American Songbook.
But while she may not have intended it, in her shadow comes a new dawn for Las Vegas’ ever-evolving musical residency scene, with Gaga and fellow icon Britney Spears arrival into Park Theater at the newly-rebranded Park MGM hotel cementing the venue as the hottest new spot on the Strip, igniting residency interest from other A-listers and breathing new life into the booming business of attracting pop royalty to town.
“That wasn’t the case for years,” says Live Nation Las Vegas president Kurt Melien. “Residencies are now the dominant form of entertainment – the idea that the biggest artist on the planet is doing Vegas sends a message to the world that this is the thing to do.”
While the city’s residencies date back to the likes of Elvis Presley, Liberace and Frank Sinatra, acts like Celine Dion, Cher and Elton John re-birthed the scene with stints at The Colosseum at Caesar’s Palace over the last decade. But it was Spears who ignited a wave of nostalgia-led productions serving younger fans with her Piece of Me launch at Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino’s Zappos Theater in 2014. The “Slumber Party” singer’s arrival came at a time when the average age of visitors was dropping rapidly, from 50 to 45 in the four years leading up to her show. The shift was largely fueled by the thriving electronic dance music scene, led by DJs like Calvin Harris who continue to enjoy lucrative club residencies, but there was also a notable rise in visitors aged 30 and 49 – people who were in their teens and twenties during the peak reign of Spears and other nineties pop powerhouses.
Spears’ longtime manager and frequent Las Vegas visitor, Larry Rudolph, noticed the shift and eyed a gap in the residency offerings for such younger visitors, particularly with contemporary pop artists. While initially looking at launching Spears’ at The Palms Casino Resort’s 2,500-seat Pearl Concert Theater, the numbers weren’t viable and she went to Planet Hollywood’s Zappos Theater, which has 4,600 seats, and a rarely-used balcony which can push capacity to 7,000.
She was soon followed by Jennifer Lopez with her All I Have show in 2016, and by the time Spears’ pop peers, the Backstreet Boys, floated into the same theater in giant, illuminated boxes in early 2017, the changing tourist profile was accompanied by a societal fixation on nostalgia. Since then, Gwen Stefani has launched her Just a Girl residency, and offerings from other genres have continued to increase, with Blink 182 taking fans on a trip down memory lane with their Kings of the Weekend show at Pearl Concert Theater and Aerosmith soon to rock Park Theater with Deuces of Wild.
Melien says the snowballing slew of chart-toppers flocking to the Strip signals, “word’s gotten out now,” that Vegas is the place to be.
George Kliavkoff, MGM’s president of sports and entertainment says the popularity of residencies is changing how hotels are being designed and constructed
“We certainly had that in mind when we built Park Theater,” says Kliavkoff of the venue that’s part of a $550 million rebranding and refurbishment of Monte Carlo Resort & Casino, which officially debuted as Park MGM in May. The revamped property features new luxury hotel NoMad Las Vegas, reimagined rooms and pools and expanded dining options, like Italian marketplace, Eataly.
“A couple of artists got in there quickly and proved it was a great place to see a show. Bruno Mars is the best example,” Melien says. “He was in there right away, and people were like, ‘This is incredible,’ and the domino started to fall from there.”
In December 2017 Gaga announced her two-part residency – the first of its kind, which will allow fans to see the musician in two productions over one weekend. Campbell and Gaga had been entertaining the idea for years before entering negotiations with MGM in mid-2017, with Gaga having previously watched Spears, Cher and Lionel Richie in action.
“We end up Vegas every time she’s on tour and you see the signs for different shows and Cirque productions and the possibilities start to bubble in your mind,” Campbell says. “We’ve casually talked about it for years and had various companies saying, ‘When you guys are ready, we’d love to have a conversation.’”
“For her, right now, it’s not necessarily what everyone expected she would do, but it’s what we wanted to do,” Campbell adds. “It’s not super-calculated or strategic as much as it’s the perfect storm of right time.”
Part of that challenge was creating a point of difference from other residencies, which is how Gaga’s game-changing two-part engagement was born, a format set to challenge other artists to push the boundaries with their shows.
“The one thing that was important for me was, how do we differentiate?” Campbell says. “How do we do something no one else has done and remind people that whenever Gaga does a project, she tries to bring something fresh, new and innovative to the table? I challenged her with that and she said, ‘Well, let’s do two shows. I love singing jazz, I love singing pop and there’s no reason I can’t do both.’”
While getting Gaga marked a musical coup for Park MGM, the resort clinched their position as a trendy new pop residency hot spot by also signing Spears, who will commence Britney: Domination at Park Theater in February. Spears had touring and other options at her disposal following Piece of Me, but she was clear with Rudolph early on that she wished to stay in Las Vegas. And, although her move was only announced in October – 10 months after Gaga confirmed her shows – the Park Theater was on the radar as far back as 2016, when Rudolph did a walk-through of the yet-to-be opened venue while considering it for both Spears and Aerosmith.
“We were supposed to do 96 shows over two years at Planet Hollywood and ended up doing 250 shows over four years and it was incredibly successful, but it got to the point where Britney wanted a change of scenery,” says Rudolph, who also signed Aerosmith at Park Theater for their upcoming stint, which he describes as an “elevated” Aerosmith concert experience. “She wanted to come out with a new show at a new place and do it differently.”
“When Park Theater was opening, we took a look and it felt like the perfect next step in the evolution of Britney in Vegas,” continues Rudolph, who confirms Spears will continue working on new music once the show launches. “It’s brand new, it’s bigger and the hotel was being renovated, so the idea of being in a newly-branded, newly-renovated property in a new theater with higher capacity made it very appealing.”
Of course, the money on offer for A-listers helps, with Gaga reportedly cutting a deal worth $100 million and set to pocket just over $1 million-per-show (plus her cut of VIP experiences and merchandise sales,) a new high for the city’s residencies. In comparison, Dion and Carey reportedly took home $475k per show, while Spears and Lopez supposedly earned in the $300,000 range per show for their first runs at Planet Hollywood (with Spears reportedly making $500,000 per show for her upcoming stint.)
Jason Gastwirth, president of entertainment for Caesars Entertainment (who own Zappos Theater and The Colosseum,) reiterates there’s more to the deals than money, with his team taking pride in building long-term relationships with artists in order to keep them coming back. While losing Spears isn’t ideal, Gastwirth believes those who attend Park Theater shows, will also have interest in Zappos Theater acts, and he’s thrilled the venue now has availability for new artists.
“If you can refer to them by one name, you probably know who it is,” he adds about who might be coming up. With competition heightened, Caesars is also making efforts to ensure their venues remain at the top of their game, with major refurbishments at The Colosseum, including new technology and VIP amenities.
For now, all eyes await the new residents who Gaga may help attract to Sin City as she breathes new life into the competition for top artists.
“I don’t think there’s a bigger star in the world right now,” Melien says. “Not only thanks to her music and live performances, but her acting career. There are also no female icons in the last couple of years who are producing the kind of live shows that she does. We expect something as big, if not bigger, and completely over-the-top on the pop side … and that’s Vegas in a nut shell.”