The Million Dollar Piano

Elton John’s The Million Dollar Piano show made its debut performance at The Colosseum, Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, on September 28, 2011.

Elton onstage in The Million Dollar Piano show, Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, 2011Elton onstage in The Million Dollar Piano show, Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, 2011

Elton was no stranger to this amazing auditorium; he had already performed his hit show, The Red Piano, 243 times in this arena. This is by a mile the most shows he has performed in one venue. Created and designed by David LaChapelle, The Red Piano debuted at The Colosseum on February 14, 2004. It was originally booked for 75 shows over three years, but the agreement was soon extended, and the final Red Piano show took place five years later on April 22, 2009.

On September 23, 2011, Elton celebrated his ruby Las Vegas anniversary — 40 years since he first played there — with the debut of the astonishing new show, The Million Dollar Piano. Aside from his band, Davey Johnstone (guitars and vocals), Nigel Olsson (drums and vocals), the late Bob Birch (bass), John Mahon (percussion and vocals) and Kim Bullard (keyboards) plus 2CELLOS (Stjepan Hauser and Luka Sulic), backing vocalists Rose Stone, Tata Vega, Jean Witherspoon and Lisa Stone, and percussionist Ray Cooper, Elton shared the stage with another shining star — The Million Dollar Piano. This unique instrument, created especially for Elton by Yamaha, is an engineering marvel. It features more than 68 LED video screens, and took nearly four years to construct. The piano is the perfect accompaniment to Elton’s music, displaying imagery to complement his greatest hits, such as Bennie And The Jets, Rocket Man, Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting) and Circle of Life. This onstage line-up, never before seen at an Elton John concert, heralded Elton’s three-year residency at The Colosseum, with Creative Direction by Mark Fisher and Patrick Woodroffe.

At the time Elton declared, “Caesars Palace is just a perfect idyllic place to play, and the show will be a gargantuan feast of music and imagery. I’m going to have a fabulous piano that Yamaha have been working on for four years, and that’s the reason why the show is called The Million Dollar Piano.”

Reviews from the first night of The Million Dollar Piano were a delight to read. The Las Vegas Sun writer Robin Leach reviewed The Million Dollar Piano in glowing terms, concluding that the show left him, “…deliriously happy and thrilled”, and making this prediction: “Don’t be at all surprised if it’s a total sellout with the three-year term quickly expanding to five. Don’t run to the box office — race there. You’ll be talking about The Million Dollar Piano for years to come. Simply put, it’s one epic masterpiece of musical entertainment.”

The LA Times reviewer noticed that, “To fully appreciate the spectacle that is Elton John’s new show The Million Dollar Piano at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, you have to pay attention to the details, such as the jumbo piano-roll swirls that flank the piano player and change colors throughout the night, shifting from gold to ruby to emerald to sapphire. Not that you can miss them. They’re the size of stretch SUVs. Or the pair of cocker spaniel bas-reliefs tucked at the base of another set piece, representing John’s two canine companions, which sit beneath a handful of cupids leaning on a ledge and peering down amid bountiful grapevines. Or the tennis-court-sized screen behind John and his five-piece core band, which displays dozens of animated backdrops to accompany the songs, moving from glowing sunsets and spinning candelabras to carnival scenes to live-action clips of John throughout the years in many ridiculous outfits.”

Creating The Million Dollar Piano

The band equipment and The Million Dollar Piano set, 2011 The band equipment and The Million Dollar Piano set, 2011

The Million Dollar Piano was conceived and is directed by Patrick Woodroffe and Mark Fisher, who have collaborated on presenting the world’s greatest live events for the past 25 years. Mark Fisher conceived the basic concept and designed the production while Patrick Woodroffe is the Show Director and Lighting Designer.

Mark Fisher designed Elton’s 1999 Medusa Tour as well as shows, events and portable architecture for some of the most famous names in popular entertainment and sports. These include The Wall for Pink Floyd in 1980, Steel Wheels for the Rolling Stones in 1989 and 360° for U2 in 2009. His theatre shows include the West End hit We Will Rock You, and two shows –and Viva Elvis — for Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas.

Mark came up with the basic concept presenting Elton as the Sun King, which is a reference to Louis XIV of France, the builder of Versailles and thus a great patron of European Baroque architecture. He remembers that, “at the first meeting with Elton I offered that he was now the King of Rock and that he should present himself as the Sun King of Las Vegas. The coincidence of this image with the Roman fantasy of Caesars Palace was no accident, and it provided the springboard for my hyper-Baroque stage set.”

There were only five months from the genesis of Mark’s concept to the launch of the show. He said, “Patrick and I met with Elton in late April 2011. I described my vision of the stage set, there were no sketches or drawings. Elton got the idea immediately; I talked about the golden sun-rays of Bernini’s Ecstasy of St Teresa in Rome, of the extravagant exaggeration of form found in the architecture of northern Italy and south Germany, of the gilded, mirrored halls of Versailles. What I was imagining was the creation of an over-the-top world that presented Elton as I saw him, dancing on the knife-edge that separates high art from low camp.”

“I guess Elton was happy with my description,” says Mark, “because he announced that he didn’t want to see any illustrations of the idea or the design. Instead, he wanted to ‘be surprised’ — to arrive at The Colosseum two days before opening night, walk into the theatre and see everything for the first time. Over the following weeks I produced numerous sketches and detailed visualisations, but Elton saw none of them. He really did walk into the theatre, as promised, 48 hours before the first show. And I’m delighted to say that — as a result of the hard work of many people who supported my original concept with their own creative contributions — he wept tears of joy.”

Sculptor Jacqui Pyle enabled the transformation of Mark’s sketches into the physical objects on the stage. She created beautiful maquettes, detailed hand-sculpted models that are then scaled up to build the full-size pieces of scenery. As soon as the production elements were assembled in Las Vegas, Elton’s crew gave a most apposite nickname to the pieces of swirling scenery on either side of the stage — they were named, and remain entitled, “the Danish pastries.” Mark explains that, “in various changing forms, the pastries were in my sketches almost from the beginning. I was working to balance the huge size of The Colosseum stage with the human scale of one man at the piano. The pastries were part of the scenic frame that I created to do that job.”

Million Dollar Set

“Then there are some dead areas each side of the stage that I filled with burgundy velour drapes swagged over poles finished with rocket finials, and I thought we needed some nice regal dogs to finish off the composition. They are distracted guard dogs — they are facing out into the audience but they have their heads turned back towards the stage so that they are looking at Elton.”

Mark Fisher too has been looking at Elton for many years. He bought Elton’s first albums, Elton John and Tumbleweed Connection, in 1970, and has enjoyed his music ever since. He says, “it has been a privilege to work with Elton on this show — I have tried to create an on-stage world that represents my image of him as an artist. I think one of the most successful moments where the song, the stage design, the lighting and the video come together is Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me — the whole composition and emotion of the number is very strong.”

Lighting Designer Patrick Woodroffe has lit and directed shows for many of the world’s greatest artists including ABBA, Bob Dylan, Genesis, Michael Jackson, Paul McCartney, Take That and The Rolling Stones. A recent project is the lighting of the opening and closing ceremonies for the 2012 Olympic Games.

Patrick also remembers that first meeting with Elton. “The day we went to meet Elton at his home in Windsor, England, Mark suggested that our approach should be to present Elton as a 17th Century Sun King in a 21st Century Las Vegas! Elton loved the concept, and Mark started very quickly to produce sketches that illustrated the idea. They were all wonderfully extravagant and expressive, and immediately excited me with the possibility of changing the appearance of the stage with the way in which it might be lit. In a two-hour show one is constantly looking to take the static set-up of the artist, the musicians and the scenery, and transform it with colour and movement to create a different atmosphere for each of the songs that is performed. Mark gave us the opportunity to do this in spades.”

Patrick was also impressed that Elton was willing to give them autonomy over the show’s production and design. He knew that “whatever we did had to be something that reflected where Elton was right now,” and with support from Tony King, Elton’s in-house Creative Director, Patrick felt that he and Mark were “on the right track.” In fact he and Mark now feel that The Million Dollar Piano “is some of the best work we’ve done in over 20 years of working together.”

Patrick remembers the excitement when he finally encountered Blossom, the actual million dollar piano, on The Colosseum stage. “I always thought that the piano would be an extraordinary thing, but I had only seen it in isolation in the workshop, and although it was clearly impressive I wasn’t sure how we would integrate it into the show. It wasn’t until she was unveiled in all her glory on the stage in Las Vegas and was then plugged in, turned on and tuned up, that it suddenly felt that she had come home. As we created and then honed the colours and images for each of the stage pictures, Elton’s piano took on the character of that song, either mimicking a colour from the lighting or taking part of an image from the video screen. As soon as the stage and the piano worked in concert with each other some sort of magic appeared, and Elton and the piano suddenly became the focus from which everything else appeared to emanate.”

Patrick explains the technicalities of lighting The Million Dollar Piano show. “The lighting is programmed into a control board over many long days and nights. A particular song is played over and over again while we analyse the rhythm, the mood, the lyrics and the musical changes and then, by instinct as much as anything, we paint a picture that accentuates all those elements. It’s a very special way to earn a living – interpreting wonderful music with an electronic paintbox and a canvas like the one that Mark has provided for us in his extraordinary stage set.”

He adds, “the challenge of putting a shape to Elton’s show is that the material has such enormous breadth. At times it is extravagant and over-the-top and demands a visual treatment to match, but at others there are numbers that have such simplicity and poignancy that a white spotlight and a dark stage is all that is needed. Add to this the fact that Elton plays not only with his full band, but also at times alone and at others with Ray Cooper, and so the focus of the performance is constantly shifting. But these challenges also offer a huge advantage. Over the hour and half that Elton is on stage the audience gets a hit of just about everything.”

Patrick is unequivocal when asked to name his favourite songs from The Million Dollar Piano: “I love Philadelphia Freedom for the cartoon exuberance of Sam Pattinson’s video treatment, and Your Song for its elegant simplicity. And nothing beats the beautiful moving elegy to New York in Mona Lisa and Mad Hatters, where the lighting consists of three single white spotlights that offset that amazing piece of film.”

Enhancing the Music

Million Dollar Piano SetElton, the late Bob Birch, Nigel Olsson, Davey Johnstone and John Mahon onstage in The Million Dollar Piano show, 2011

For a project as huge as The Million Dollar Piano, Elton likes to surround himself with creative people and just allow them to create. He leaves them to it, he does not interfere and, as his Creative Director Tony King says, “He didn’t want to know about anything we were doing until he arrived in Las Vegas.” This unusually free rein placed huge responsibility on Screen Content Producer Sam Pattinson, who was selected for the role simply because, as Tony King says, “He’s part of the best team of people that put lighting and staging and video together. Sam Pattinson, Patrick Woodroffe and Mark Fisher have worked on some of the greatest live shows ever — Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, U2, Take That…”

A former student of sculpture at Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design, Sam entered the world of video production via involvement in independent film-making. His entrance into creating visuals for the world’s ultimate live shows came via a colleague who enlisted him to work on the 2002 Rolling Stones Forty Licks tour. For Sam, working with Elton has its origin in his childhood. His family home resonated with Elton’s music; both his brother and his designer father were huge fans. From The Royal College of Art Sam’s father knew fellow designer Alan Aldridge, creator of the famous artwork for Elton’s 1975 album Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy. Sam remembers singing along to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road; a memory that would be rekindled spectacularly in years to come.

“The brief,” says Sam, “was to enhance the music. We wanted to make the show more intimate, bringing the focus back to Elton’s performance. We would do this by following the architecture and style of Mark Fisher’s stage set and extending that set on to the screen. So we wouldn’t have full-on full-frame video playing throughout the show, just at certain points. At other times we would be creating environments that were less distracting than the full-frame films.”

Alan Aldridge’s style inspired the video for Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, a fantastical landscape which uses a massive montage of archival elements such as music videos, photos, interviews, costumes and pastiches of song lyrics to tell the story of the milestones and achievements of Elton’s life. Towards the end a flower bud opens to reveal a smiling baby, Elton’s son, Zachary. This is a moment that always elicits warm applause from the audience. And this was the only film that Elton wanted to change when he finally saw the finished version — he wanted Zachary’s image to be bigger!

Trunk Animation, under Creative Director Luke Halls, was impressive in their depth of research and attention to detail. “There are many Elton nuances in these films that the real fans will spot and enjoy,” says Tony, “for example we used Elton’s original Donald Duck costume from his 1980 Central Park concert. And Yoko Ono gave me permission to use the likeness of John Lennon — she said John would have loved it.”

The 19 films and videos used in The Million Dollar Piano were completed in less than four months, achieving a scarily tight deadline: 10 computers at a time working 24 hours a day only create a few seconds’ worth of film in any one day. Sam worked with a core team of eleven animators and two production crew based in London — “the biggest in-house team we’ve ever had on one job” — and overall it took 175 people to create those 19 films.

Even after overseeing these 19 films, Sam Pattinson cheerfully acknowledges that, “all Elton needs is a piano and a microphone and you’ve got a fantastic show.” All through this project the Screen Content has been created to enhance the songs, to help them have even more of an emotional impact on the audience. “With Elton our work doesn’t need to prop up the performance, we enhance it, and we can be quite subtle in what we do. His performance is so impressive, so energising and so sincere; you can’t help but enjoy it. The show is two hours long and it just flies by — it is a truly great show.”