Friday, Feb. 13, 2004 | 8:39 a.m.
Before striking his first note in "The Red Piano," Elton John is already an unqualified success as he begins a contract at Caesars Palace to substitute for Celine Dion while she is on hiatus from her production, "A New Day ..."
All of his performances through Feb. 22 have been sold out, prompting Caesars executives to add 16 more shows to the 25 already scheduled for 2004, bringing the total to 41.
The original contract was for 75 shows spread out over approximately three years.
"Just as Celine fans have never seen anything like 'A New Day ...,' fans of Elton have never seen anything like 'The Red Piano,'" Caesars Palace President Mark Juliano said. "And they are only going to be able to see it at Caesars Palace.
"The sets, the design, the production are going to be exclusive to this show, and exclusive to this stage."
In October, Juliano said in a joint press conference held with John and show director David LaChappelle that if each of John's 75 performances are sold out, the production will gross $61 million.
That equates to more than $810,000 per show. Based on that math, 16 new shows means an additional gross of almost $13 million.
For almost any entertainer, it is a daunting task to nightly fill a showroom the size of The Colosseum, which boasts 4,100 seats.
But apparently for the artist responsible for such hits as "Candle in the Wind," "Daniel," "Crocodile Rock," "Saturday Night's Alright (For Fighting)" and "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" (John has sold more than 200 million records), the task was not so daunting.
Ticket sales are hot despite high prices, which range from $100 to $250 (not including taxes and handling fees).
Juliano says based on the willingness of Dion fans to pay anywhere from $87.50 to $225 to attend one of her performances, he was not surprised at the brisk sales for John's shows.
"We have a model out there based upon Celine," Juliano said. "She was more successful than we thought she would be. We're kind of using the same model for Elton. The ticket price is very similar, and there was no price resistance to Celine."
Juliano said when Caesars executives saw the success of Dion, they decided to look for another international star to fill in for her when she was away.
"We started to develop an entertainment strategy with Celine," he explained. "It was the first time something like that had been done in Las Vegas with a huge mega-star.
"But she was only performing 200 dates a year here so we started trying to determine what we would use to fill in the empty spaces. The Celine concept worked brilliantly, so now we're thinking about what other stars out there had the same broad appeal, and who would agree to commit to a three-year contract."
John and four or five other names quickly surfaced, Juliano said. He declined to say which other entertainers were under consideration.
Though Dion and John account for most of the show dates at The Colosseum, there are still enough open days on the entertainment calendar for other performers, such as comedian Jerry Seinfeld.
In arriving at their decision for a permanent guest performer, Juliano said Caesars officials weighed the demographics of the artists' fans -- their ages, income and other factors.
"The demographics were important," he said, "but the artists themselves were also important. They had to have reached the level of being an icon, not just a trend. We had to know the person would have to have solid staying and selling power."
Juliano said the decision to offer John the contract was not that difficult.
"Elton is the kind of star, similar to Celine, with a demographic base that spans multiple generations," he said. "Some of the fans remember him as they were youngsters growing up, others, the newer Elton fans, have grown up with 'The Lion King.' "
John's collaboration with lyricist Tim Rice on Disney's 1994 smash-hit "King" (which until last year's "Finding Nemo" had been the highest-grossing animated feature of all time) won him an Academy Award for Best Original Song ("Can You Feel the Love Tonight?") as well as a Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance.
During last year's news conference, John said, "When I was initially asked to do the 75 shows, I didn't really take too long to say yes because I haven't really done a production show since the '70s.
"I've been trying to scale back, visually, my shows since those wild and lucky days and there are so many things that I do on tour -- I can either tour with my band, which I do; I can tour on my own; I can tour with Billy Joel. But I don't have the chance to really do a specialized show ... and I thought, you know, I could maybe do a show in Vegas that would only be seen in Vegas."
If his past is an indication of what to expect in the future, John will be as big a hit as Dion, if not bigger.
Success has come easily for the 56-year-old pop star, born Reginald Dwight in Pinner, England.
He won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music at the age of 11 and while at school performed in several small-time rock bands, including the Corvettes and the more successful R&B group Bluesology.
In 1967 John met lyricist Bernie Taupin through a newspaper ad and the duo became a professional songwriting team that, between 1972 and 1976, created 16 Top 20 hits -- among them "Rocket Man," "Honky Cat" "Levon," "Tiny Dancer," "Bennie and the Jets," "Philadelphia Freedom" and "Don't Go Breaking My Heart."
In 1974 John co-wrote his and John Lennon's No. 1 single, "Whatever Gets You Through the Night."
Juliano said fans who have seen John many times before will come to The Colosseum to see him again.
Backing John will be his usual band: guitarist Davey Johnstone, keyboardist Guy Babylon, bassist Bob Birch, percussionist John Mahon and drummer Nigel Olsson.
Juliano says he has seen a video of the production, but he declined to discuss it. However, it has been reported there will be a liberal use of video, including Pamela Anderson on a stripper pole.
Among the songs expected to be performed are "Believe," "Daniel," "Rocket Man," "I Guess That's Why They Call it the Blues," "I Want Love," "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me," "Candle in the Wind," "Pinball Wizard" and "The Bitch is Back."
John and director LaChappelle talked about "The Red Piano" in general terms during the October press conference announcing the agreement between the pop artist and Caesars. However, they have not responded to requests for interviews since then.
At that time John said the show will not be a "greatest hits" performance, in which he just sings his most popular songs.
"It's going to be fun, packed with music and it's going to be full of poignancy," he said.
LaChappelle, who directed John's biographical video, "This Train Don't Stop Here Anymore," described the hour-and-45-minute production as a blend of concert and production show with some elaborate costuming and other surprises.
"The big challenge was how do you do this show and keep it coherent and consistent," LaChappelle said. "I've taken my inspiration from Elton as an artist, but also as an appreciator of art and a collector of art, particularly pop art."
He said the most difficult task was which songs not to include in the show.
"You can't cut 'Daniel,' " La Chappelle said. "You can't cut 'Yellow Brick Road.'
"The hardest part has been trying to narrow it down."
John said the production will be "a Las Vegas experience."
"What I have set out to do is make people across America, and hopefully around the world, say, 'We have to go to Elton John's thing in Las Vegas.' "