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Celine Dion’s historic run in Las Vegas redefined artist residency

We’ll call it the “P.C.” era — Post Celine. Celine Dion, the architect of the superstar theater residency in Las Vegas, has closed the second of two resident productions at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace.

How is she being replaced? Volume, volume, volume.

“When you look at who is replacing Celine, it’s everybody,” Caesars Entertainment President of Entertainment Jason Gastwirth says. “The Colosseum is not going to be one size fits all.”

The long-term Vegas residency has been supplanted by a new booking strategy, and hotels are adjusting. Upcoming renovations to Dion’s own venue are being dictated by the sheer number of headliners.

An industry leader since Dion opened in 2003, the Colosseum is being overhauled from July to August to satisfy the volume and variety of resident superstars. These performances come in bursts: Reba and Brooks & Dunn for a stretch, followed by Rod Stewart, then Jerry Seinfeld. Since Dion announced last August that she would end her 16-year run at Caesars, acts planned to fill her dates this year include Journey (nine shows in October), Guns N’ Roses (one weekend), Madonna (three shows) and Sting (a 14-show series beginning in May).

That lineup is just a segment of the wave of superstars inspired by Dion’s success on the Strip. Many of those performers had not considered a Vegas residency production until she proved a Strip show could produce artistic and commercial success.

Following in her footsteps

Consider the path of one of those superstars currently performing at Zappos Theater at Planet Hollywood.

When Dion opened her first headlining residency at the Colosseum in March 2003, Christina Aguilera had just recorded her fourth album, “Stripped.” She was about to co-headline a U.S. concert tour with Justin Timberlake.

Aguilera planned a tour stop at MGM Grand Garden. She hadn’t, however, planned a residency on the Strip. Such a concept wasn’t even discussed.

But today, Aguilera is indeed in residency at Zappos Theater, rocking the venue with her elaborate, autobiographical production show, “XPerience.”

What changed in those 16 years? The entire Las Vegas residency culture, thanks to Dion’s two residencies and 1,141 shows at Caesars Palace, which ended June 8.

“Celine is just the greatest, and I pay tribute to her for creating this epic place called Vegas,” Aguilera said in an interview at Zappos Theater on June 2, the opening weekend of her first Strip residency. “She definitely encouraged so many, including myself, to come here.”

Rise of the ‘mini-residency’

The residency model has been disassembled and restructured over the past 15-plus years. In 2003, Dion shared marquee space on the Strip with such legends as Siegfried & Roy at The Mirage and Wayne Newton at the Stardust. Cirque du Soleil was still building its Strip empire, with “Mystere” at Treasure Island and “O” at Bellagio — “Zumanity” opened at New York-New York the summer after Dion opened, with other Cirque productions to follow.

Gradually, other stars would arrive to share the fabled House that Celine Built, with Elton John and Jerry Seinfeld taking her off dates at the Colosseum to begin an era of “extended engagement” or “mini-residency.” The Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel booked rock legend Carlos Santana, today a mainstay at House of Blues at Mandalay Bay, for multiple weeks per year in 2009.

And in 2013, Britney Spears, who had visited the Colosseum to see Dion in action, moved into Axis Theater (later renamed Zappos) for her party-vibe “Piece of Me” residency. That series in particular sent the message that a recording artist closer to her or his peak could enjoy success on the Strip. It also led to party-vibe residencies by Pitbull and Backstreet Boys, the latter of whom rolled through 80 shows after originally scheduling 16.

Dion, operating in the unique position as a superstar in her commercial peak moving into Las Vegas, opened under the time-honored model of 200 shows per year — five shows per week for 40 weeks.

That schedule is a fantasy in the current Strip marketplace.

“Rene (Angelil, Celine’s late husband and manager, who helped rocket her to stardom) used to say, ‘Nobody can do this.’ I didn’t understand what he meant then, because we had never done this before,” says AEG Senior Vice President John Nelson, who helped broker the groundbreaking deal to bring Dion to Vegas. “When she started, I figured out pretty quickly what he meant. It’s not just showing up Wednesday night, Thursday night, Friday night, Saturday night, Sunday night, taking a weekend on Monday and Tuesday and coming back Wednesday, Thursday, for 40 weeks a year. It’s not just showing up and singing for an hour and a half. It’s two hours before that getting into hair and makeup, an hour of sound check before that.

“Somewhere in between about 30 minutes of meet-and-greets with an unending parade of charity auction winners, fans, record label, press. It’s unending.”

A new model

Sting’s “My Songs” series is more the model of the modern-day residency, with select dates staggered over several months in a single Strip venue.

And if Caesars built the Colosseum for Dion, it’s renovating the theater because of her, too. In her absence, the Colosseum is undergoing an extensive overhaul from July through August, adding a more flexible general-admission seating option near the front of the stage, and VIP bottle-service in the orchestra section.

“What we have seen, and this is even some learning that we’ve had with the Zappos Theater (also owned by Caesars Entertainment) is that artists, especially if they’re resident artists, when they are engaging with their fans, they want to make that venue represent them,” Gastwirth says. “They want it to be a bit different.”

The Colosseum has been the industry leader in adding variety to an existing venue lineup, staging Sir Elton, Seinfeld, Stewart, Reba and Brooks & Dunn, Mariah Carey — even The Who performed an extended engagement in 2017. The residency headliner community has blossomed over the past six-plus years at the half-dozen theaters furnished to handle big-scale productions.

Invariably, that evolution has extended the very definition of a Las Vegas residency. When Ricky Martin referred to his 18-show run at Park Theater as a “residency” in September 2016, it was one example of many that the word’s meaning had stretched.

Motivating fans

MGM Resorts Entertainment and Sports senior vice president of booking and development Chris Baldizan explains it this way: “It’s not necessarily based on the length of, or the number of shows, it’s based on a relationship. George Strait is a resident artist for us at T-Mobile, and he does six shows a year. But he’s selling more tickets than most quote/unquote resident artists around town, 19,000 tickets per show. Bruno Mars comes in at 8-12 shows a year, and he’s a resident. We had Queen (and Adam Lambert) for three weeks, for us that was a resident. Janet Jackson, Lady Gaga, with multi-year schedules, are those residency relationships.”

Gastwirth says a Vegas residency today must have multiple dates in a single venue. He adds, “Often, these artists will have a different type of show in Las Vegas than they might have as their touring show.”

Live Nation’s busy booking schedule and expanded presence in the Las Vegas market has added elasticity to the term.

“A residency is an artist making a commitment to Vegas,” says Live Nation President Kurt Melien, whose company is in an exclusive booking partnership with Caesars Entertainment at the Colosseum and Zappos. “They’re making a commitment to not do other things in some parts of the country, and they are motivating their fans to travel to Las Vegas. If you’re doing that, I call that an artist in residency.”

‘Headlining competition’

Naturally, the woman who started it all remains the focus of speculation. Dion, who is building a new home in Las Vegas, is touring through the end of 2020, and available to perform again in residency in 2021, about 20 years after she first envisioned, “A New Day …”

Deep into the resident headlining conversation, AEG Live Senior Vice President Bobby Reynolds asks his own question:

“Do you think Celine could do 200 shows a year now, with that much more headlining competition?”

We know, certainly, she wouldn’t be asked to. That ship has sailed.

John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. Contact him at jkatsilometes@reviewjournal.com. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.

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