The reigning queen and king of the Strip, Celine Dion and Elton John, reinvented Las Vegas entertainment as a marquee destination for superstars rather than a dumping ground for has-beens.
The Colosseum at Caesars Palace, home of their respective productions, turned a decade old in March, and the venue remains the chief draw in Las Vegas, with a lineup that now includes hit list veterans Rod Stewart and Shania Twain.
Prior to the arrival of the classic rock stud and the pop-country darling, a double dose of divadom in the blissfully flamboyant forms of Cher and Bette Midler shared Colosseum space as well, solidifying the venue’s stature among acts with intense drawing power.
“We touched a nerve of what Vegas once was, but in a modern fashion,” said Jason Gastwirth, senior vice president of marketing and entertainment at Caesars Entertainment Corp. “When the Colosseum rolled out, it changed the paradigm of headliners coming to Vegas at the height of their careers.”
When Dion opened the $95 million venue in March 2003 with her “A New Day” production, it was a gamble, so to speak. Even with her international fan base, would enough tourists pour into the 4,300-capacity venue several nights a week during her four-year residency to justify her reported $100 million paycheck?
Considering that the show sold out 723 times and grossed more than $400 million, it turned out to be a good bet. Dion is back for a renewed residency through next year with her revamped “Celine” show, which features almost as many covers as originals and spotlights the Canadian songbird’s love of music.
John, meanwhile, also kept the Caesars Entertainment coffers stuffed with revenue from his 243 shows between 2004 and 2009. That “Red Piano” spectacle, designed by David LaChapelle, was a garish overload of colorful inflatables that often swiped the focus from the singer’s stellar pop gems. But John and ostentatious are frequently synonymous, so that hardly deterred fans from flocking.
For his re-imagined “Million Dollar Piano” showcase, which opened in September 2011 and will keep the sometime-Atlanta resident there on select dates through 2014, John, like Dion, is concentrating on the music. (John’s recent bout with appendicitis won’t affect his upcoming Colosseum shows, according to Caesars.)
Casual fans can gape at the elegant gold hounds wearing John Lennon-style shades that flank the stage as John belts out “Bennie & the Jets,” “Rocket Man” and “Tiny Dancer.” But serious Elton-philes will raise an eyebrow in happy surprise when he dovetails into his homage to New York City, “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters,” and breaks out “Better Off Dead” backed only by mesmerizing percussionist Ray Cooper.
Dion’s show also presents plenty of familiar dramatic balladry (“Where Does My Heart Beat Now,” “Because You Loved Me,” “Beauty and the Beast”). But far more interesting are her frequent forays into unexpected covers such as Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen,” Billy Joel’s “Lullaby (Goodnight My Angel)” and an exhilarating tribute to James Bond themes.
“Both us and (concert promoter) AEG will choose an artist with a certain vision in mind, but ultimately it’s the artist and creative director who refine that vision,” Gastwirth said. “I’ve never seen a scenario where there hasn’t been perfect alignment. These are some of the biggest names in the industry. Each of these shows has a distinctive nature to them; there is no formula.”
Those artistic visions range from a pair of horses joining Twain onstage to John’s new toy, a $1 million piano (nicknamed “Blossom” in honor of jazz pianist Blossom Dearie), which literally lights up with scenes of him singing with KiKi Dee. And then there’s Dion’s show-closing “My Heart Will Go On,” performed under a rising platform and cascading water in a nod to the song’s “Titanic” roots. Most shows run a Vegas-friendly 90 to 120 minutes.
If there is a commonality among the renowned acts sharing the Colosseum stage, it’s career longevity. Along with the four core performers, the grandiose venue features Luis Miguel every fall for Mexican Independence Day and is always ready to welcome a return from comedic heavyweights Jerry Seinfeld or Jeff Dunham.
Not yet seen at the acoustically pristine Colosseum are contemporary Top 40 stars. While Gastwirth noted that there are “a number” of newer artists worthy of discussion for a Caesars residency, the process of courting them, finding room in a competitive schedule, and developing a show could take years.
Besides, not many visitors are complaining about the current choices — beloved musical icons with lots of hits.
“I don’t think we’ve purposely focused on artists who are slightly older-skewing,” Gastwirth said. “It’s more a matter of, do they have a wide enough appeal? Celine, Elton, they really have fans of all ages. I’m reluctant to call them ‘heritage’ acts because that means we’re just honoring their pasts, but they continue to create quality music.”
As the Colosseum heads into its second decade, expect to see some newcomers to its stage. Your speculative Spidey sense might be on to something “if you think about artists who are having some of the most successful arena tours right now, not so much age, but have tremendous class and honor the history of music,” Gastwirth hinted.
Technical aspects of the Colosseum will continue to be tweaked to maintain its status among the top venues in the world — it’s consistently ranked favorably by music industry publications Pollstar and Billboard — as will features that ensure the comfort of attendees.
But one thing that isn’t likely to change anytime soon? The popularity of the Colosseum’s musical royalty.
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