How Lady Gaga Pulled Off Her 'Ambitious' Vegas Residency Amid 'A Star Is Born' Frenzy
Production designer LeRoy Bennett explains how the pop superstar perfected her Sin City concert series despite the chaos of a grueling promo schedule for her award-winning film.
It’s been just days since Lady Gaga wrapped a whirlwind awards season, culminating with her very first Oscars win and an emotional acceptance speech about perfecting one's "discipline for passion" and the importance of hard work.
It's safe to say that Gaga practices what she preaches. More than a decade into her career, the singer-actress has seemingly never worked harder in her life than over the past year. While sweeping up trophies for best song for her chart-topping A Star Is Born hit "Shallow" — and one Critics' Choice Award for her portrayal of pop newcomer Ally in the film — Gaga was finessing another passion project of hers.
Gaga — who, as she often says in interviews, is "just an Italian girl from New York" — finally achieved her dream of becoming a glamorous, award-winning movie star in Hollywood. But, just a jet ride away in Las Vegas, Gaga had accomplished another lifelong goal: headlining her own Sin City residency, Enigma, and an accompanying jazz and piano show.
"I’ve always hated the stigma around Las Vegas — that it’s where you go when you’re on the last leg of your career," she told Vogue in September of her concert series, for which she was reportedly paid $100 million for 74 shows over the course of two years with a possible extension. "Being a Las Vegas girl is an absolute dream for me. It’s really what I’ve always wanted to do."
In the midst of an insanely busy promo tour for A Star Is Born and subsequent awards campaign, the entertainer would sneak away for days at a time to the Strip, where she slipped out of her red-carpet gowns and Tiffany jewels and into the catsuits and wigs the world first came to know her in. For Enigma, which kicked off Dec. 28 at the Park MGM's Park Theater, there is hardly any trace of the ingenuous Ally in Gaga. Aside from her mellow encore performance of "Shallow," she is full-on pop star — costume changes, backup dancers, headset mic and all.
While powerhouse vocals, sharp choreography and a carefully crafted storyline are all part of the magic, what makes Enigma extra special is a mind-blowing set and eye-popping lighting designed by production luminary LeRoy Bennett. The industry vet, who has worked with Gaga since her Monster Ball Tour in 2009, tells The Hollywood Reporter how they pulled off what he considers her "most ambitious show yet" — and how they put it all together in between film festivals, awards shows and countless retellings of how A Star Is Born director Bradley Cooper was that "one person" in a room of 100 who believed in Gaga's talent.
Now, on any given night in Vegas, she attracts more than 5,200 people who not only believe in her but trust her to deliver nothing short of a spectacle. "Even though the Park Theater is a smaller venue, we designed the show to feel like you're at an arena concert," says Bennett, who has also produced shows for the likes of Beyonce, Ariana Grande, Bruno Mars and Kelly Clarkson. "That was always the intention."
Well, mission accomplished. During Gaga's last Enigma concert on Feb. 2, she couldn't help but note that "tonight feels like we're not even in a theater." After glancing around the venue, full of Little Monsters and stars alike — including Christina Aguilera, Pink, Kathy Bates and Billie Lourd, among others — Gaga added with a smile, "It feels like we're in an arena or some shit."
Below, Bennett opens up more to THR about making magic with Gaga, their Vegas venture and how the performer bent over backwards to make it all happen despite the bright — and sometimes distracting — glare of A Star Is Born.
How would you describe the evolution of your working relationship with Gaga?
We've become very close. There's a higher level of trust now. When I first started working with her, she was surrounded by a massive amount of people who were pushing her in one direction or another. It was hard to get a focus from her and I think a lot of it was because some of it was very overwhelming for her. Since then, she's matured a lot. She's come to terms with what's going on in her life and things that she's gone through. Beyond her talent, what I love about her the most is who she is as a human being. She's so hard-working and knows exactly what she wants.
How did you first come into Gaga's world?
It was very last minute. She and Kanye were supposed to go on tour together about 10 years ago — until they basically had a little tiff and he went off his way and she went off her way. At that point, in her mind, because they were going to go out and do a co-headlining arena tour, that's where her head was still at. But once they set her out on her own, she was doing a theater tour. I didn't do that part of it, but she was not happy at all with that. The production, the whole thing was just freaking her out, so that's when I got the call. Because they were going to transition her into arenas. And I literally put the show together I think in eight weeks. That's designing, having it made and then going into rehearsals.
What's your typical timespan for putting a show together?
I prefer a minimum of four months. Normally six months is a good amount of time.
When did the idea of the Vegas shows start and how much time did you have to prep?
Because the promo for A Star Is Born was really taking a lot of her time, we should have started in March 2018. But we had a meeting in June. Then there were huge gaps because they were still drawing her away. We really didn't get into the final stuff until around October.
How did Gaga manage to juggle both projects at the same time?
There is an insane amount of pressure to do what she's pulled off, but that's where her trust in me and my team comes in. That's how we got through it. She always has some input in how she wants to see things, but not to an extreme detail. And it's not until we get into rehearsals that she's full-on focused on what's going on.
Tell me about your first meeting for the Vegas shows.
It was in its infancy at that point during our first meeting — most of the meetings were at her home in Malibu — but there was always the Enigma storyline. We always have storylines or journeys in the shows, but this one is a lot more specific to her and where she's at in her life. And it had to be told in a way that fit the Vegas world, something that incorporated all her hits. It was an interesting approach. It's an organic process with her. She will get to a certain point and it will sit for a while and then it will develop more and more as time gets closer to rehearsals.
So, when you had that first meeting in June, was it already set in stone that you guys were doing both the pop show and the jazz and piano show?
Yes. The jazz and piano show? That's what's in her soul. That is her. And that's what she does best. She does both of them amazing, but the jazz show is her passion. She said after the first show, "I could do this every day, all night." Hopefully, we'll figure out a way for her to do more jazz shows. It may not be in the same venue. It's tough to turn around that show overnight. It's tough on the crew. They try to leave as much as they can, but there is still a large amount that does get pulled out. When they're going between Enigma and the jazz show and then back to Enigma, it's hard. The first jazz show, the guys didn't sleep for 48 hours. It was pretty intense.
How did the creative process for the Vegas shows compare to all the other arena tours and stadium tours you had done with Gaga prior, especially since she had all the commitments for A Star Is Born?
Even though it was a short amount of time and very rushed, it was concentrated and very focused. So, there was even more attention to every detail and she gave it her all. She was really involved with the story of the show and worked a lot harder on it because she knew she had to catch up on things. Normally, in touring mode, sometimes we don't even get through a full rehearsal before the first show. But the thing is she's a real true star. Once you put her on a stage, even though she hasn't gone through an entire run-through, she can do it. She just has that talent. She is organic. She's able to improvise in a way that you don't know she's improvising.
Was there ever a point where you, Gaga and her team thought maybe you should wait to do the Vegas shows until after the hype of A Star Is Born died down?
No. We knew that it just had to happen. I could be speaking out of turn, but I don't think they realized the amount of time the studio was going to demand of Gaga in promoting the film. Unfortunately, it did. It definitely took her focus off more than we had hoped, but we pulled it together.
It is clear that she is equally passionate about both the Vegas shows and A Star Is Born. In your conversations with her, what did she say the Vegas residency means to her?
I think it means the world to her because it's something different than we've ever done before. We've never done a residency. The reviews have been phenomenal. I believe she's really enjoying the environment that she's working in. She loves that room. There's a consistency to it, which I'm sure she loves. There's something, I'm sure, more enjoyable about having a familiar routine. Like I said, it's not that she needs it. A lot of artists do. It’s fun for the audience to come to her instead of her having to always go to them.
What was the main source of inspiration for the Enigma set and what is it meant to represent?
Because it's a journey about Gaga and her Enigma character finding themselves within each other, it takes place in various settings as she's going into her virtual world and her past. But it's also the present and future, so it has to take on multiple personalities. I wanted it to have a life of its own at times so that it could become its own character throughout the course of the show. We have a huge light pod that floats above her onstage, which is very malleable depending on lights and graphics. It could be a spaceship. It could just be energy beaming down on the stage to heal her. It's our main lighting instrument.
How did the genesis of the anime-inspired Enigma character come about?
She created the story and the wrote the script herself. But she had some help from Eli Russell, a young kid who's done some of the photography for her but somehow he got into the creative of the show. The character Enigma was based on a character that we've used in the past for her Artpop tour: Petga. She brought her back and gave her a different name and a bigger role.
How did Gaga's interaction with Enigma on the stage's screens influence your designs?
Whenever Gaga is talking to Enigma, it's about shifting the focus to Gaga and the dancers and whatever space they're supposed to be in at that time when they're interacting with the character. Every second of the show is very theatrical, so we make sure with lighting that Gaga is the star even though Enigma is a big part of the show.
Gaga enters her Enigma show by flying down to the stage from the back of the Park Theater. How did that idea come about and was it at all inspired by the way she flew down to the field during her Super Bowl halftime show in 2017?
Yes, she's fearless. She actually wanted to arrive spinning from over the audience to the stage. So, the idea for that flying gag did exist in multiple forms. The initial thought was not putting her vertically spinning but kind of at an angle, so she's coming diagonally down to the stage. I don't know another way to describe it, but almost like she is on a rotisserie? (Laughs.) It was just a very different approach. Unfortunately, the limitations of the room prevented us from being able to do that particular thing. What she wanted to do was to alternate and make multiple different entrances but working with a smaller venue was a bit challenging.
Gaga arrives onstage sitting atop a giant robot during her performance of "Scheiße" — which fans go crazy for each night. How did that idea come to be?
The robot was basically the character that she's kind of coming out with to destroy the paparazzi — after singing "Paparazzi." The robot itself, which I consider another character in the show, was going to be automated at one point. It was going to be completely different. The company we used is called Jet Sets in Hollywood. They designed it and we loved it. The cool thing is, as far as mechanics go, it's just a lift that she's on. The arms and legs are all automated by the dancers, but you don't notice. You think it's actually moving on its own.
One of the catsuits she wears in the show lights up to the sound of the music. Tell me about the technology behind that.
We had to program that catsuit. Wardrobe gave us the costume and we programmed the LED lights on it. That costume has a wireless system on it in a battery pack. So, what we're doing is sending program signals from the lighting console straight to the costume. It was programmed specifically to her songs.
What was Gaga's vision for the jazz and piano show?
She wanted glamour and elegance — beautiful colors and that curtain of crystal beads. It was an extension of the show we did for her and Tony Bennett's Cheek to Cheek Tour. The jazz show was not as intensive as the Enigma show. The whole venue becomes a jazz lounge. It's so simple, but so beautiful.
Are there any plans to possibly switch things up or rearrange the shows as time goes on?
By the end of this year, we'll see where we're at and where her head's at. Fortunately, there are big breaks between the different runs. So, if you're only doing three and a half weeks of the same show, and then you've got three of four months off, you have gotten enough time when you come back where it seems fresh again. It doesn't become stale. Definitely through the year, I don't think there would be anything she wants to change. Once we get into next year, we'll see.
What's your favorite part from each show?
The entire jazz show is incredible. Her voice! And for Enigma, I do love the robot section. But I think what I love most is the message and its story about healing and finding yourself, that message she is giving to the audience. Normally, at the end of her Enigma show, Gaga will say, "When you leave this show, I don't want you to leave loving the show and me; I want you to leave loving yourself." And that's an awesome message.
Gaga returns to the Park MGM's Park Theater for her Enigma residency on May 30. Her next jazz and piano show is set for June 2.
This article was originally published by The Hollywood Reporter.