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Bruno or Bieber? Oh the decisions when you run ‘Legends in Concert’

Vegas Voices is a weekly question-and-answer series featuring notable Las Vegans.

As a boy, Brian Brigner had a dream. Surprisingly, that dream was to race Indy cars, not oversee a small army of Elvis impersonators.

Before he was chief operating officer for the company that produces “Legends in Concert,” Brigner lived and breathed race cars. Growing up in Dublin, Ohio, he listened to the open-wheel races “on a big Zenith radio that got really hot the longer it was turned on. I would sit on the floor and write down the order (of the cars).”

After studying sports marketing, the Ohio State University business grad went on to work promotions for a team that won the Indianapolis 500. “To be standing on those bricks as part of an organization that won that race was quite a dream come true for me,” he says.

That itch scratched, Brigner promoted country artists and touring Broadway productions and then, 15 years ago, joined Onstage Entertainment: first as a regional vice president for “Legends” productions in Branson, Mo., and Myrtle Beach, S.C., before taking over the whole operation eight years ago (when Jeff Victor, until very recently the head of the Fremont Street Experience, left to take that job).

“Legends” opened in 1983 and is now the second-oldest show in Las Vegas. Depending on the time of year and number of cruise ships on the open seas, it can have as many as 10 productions running at once. We caught up to Brigner as the Flamingo edition was decorating for its annual holiday edition, in which each celebrity impersonator adds a Chrismas song. The holiday show starts Monday and runs through Christmas Eve.

Review-Journal: They always say the best jobs are the ones you didn’t know existed. So I doubt you went to college saying you would some day be in charge of Elvis and Madonna tribute acts?

Brigner: Never in a hundred years. Though when I was born, Elvis was becoming pretty prominent and I was born with very dark hair and prominent sideburns. Ironically, they were calling me Elvis in the hospital when I was born. Little did they know, all these years later, I would be working with Elvis every day of my life.

R-J: You joined Onstage when “Legends” was kind of at a transitional low point, after some moves that resulted in the ouster of its original Las Vegas producer, John Stuart, a guy who was more from a performing background.

Brigner: They had gone public and things didn’t play out the way they hoped. The company was in real trouble for a while. I think the three guys that came in, none of us were theater guys or performers. I think at the end of the day, you need to have the creative types and the folks who have been on the deck, as I call it, and have that passion and drive. …

But I joke all the time, “The creative team can’t have the checkbook.” That’s been one of my lines since day one and it’s the truth.

R-J: The company seems to be thriving now in the face of having created a monster. How does “Legends” retain its brand dominance in the face of tributes in every locals casino, and the long-form tributes, where if you like the Stones you can see a whole tribute to just them without sitting through ones you don’t.

Brigner: I think we’ve done a couple of things. We’ve branched into into other areas where we think we have some expertise, like the “Elvis Lives” tour in conjunction with Graceland. We really feel like we do Elvis as well as anybody, and Graceland is trusting us to carry on with the legacy of Elvis Presley. We’re doing an Olivia Newton-John look-alike search with her participation. If you get the right star they’re very flattered by what we do and how well we do it and how well we portray them. …

And our repeat business with “Legends in Concert” is the highest of any show I’ve ever worked with. … We change the lineup four times a year. People always ask, “Who’s coming into the show next?” In January we’re bringing in Prince and Adele. I think that’s why it’s been able to stand the test of time for 32 years here.

R-J: Since you mentioned Adele, is it all intuitive, or is there a formula to figure out when to add a new tribute to “Legends”? You don’t want older audiences going, “Who’s that?” But if you wait too long, it’s like you’re not keeping up with pop music.

Brigner: We really focus every lineup on having something that appeals to lots of different age groups in the same room … . The Flamingo likes to have a current, relevent pop act in our lineup. They also like classic, legendary folks in the lineup, like right now, Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley.

As far as, “When do we build it?” and “When do we decide?” I think part of it is if we think they’re going to have long-term staying power and legs. The one thing we don’t want to do is spend a lot of money producing an act we think is going to be a one-album wonder. We have a lot of meetings about it, and everybody has to have a buy-in and think this is the right thing to do.

R-J: So, break down (Justin) Bieber versus Bruno (Mars). Which would you go with? When someone like Justin Bieber becomes more known as a celebrity joke than for his music, does that make you back off?

Brigner: It would definitely be Bruno. In fact, we’ve auditioned a couple. Because we’re in a lot of family destinations, not just in Vegas … we can’t put a controversial figure in those markets. If we can’t utilize people system-wide we’re just not going to build them. We do take into account what’s going on in their public life? Is it someone who’s in the media for the right reasons as opposed to the wrong?

The one thing we’ve also got to do is make sure we can deliver a quality act. Same thing with Beyonce. We’ve auditioned a bunch, but that character is kind of like Michael — you’ve got to not only be able to look it and sing it, you’ve got to be able to dance. Those triple-threat characters are hard to come by. We’ve had a lot of people come in with two out of three, but we’re not Meat Loaf.

You can’t have a Bruno who doesn’t play drums. You can’t have a Springsteen who doesn’t play guitar.

— Read more from Mike Weatherford at reviewjournal.com. Contact him at mweatherford@reviewjournal.com anf follow @MikeWeatherford on Twitter.

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