And that’s just the fireworks. There were celebrities to be transported to the red zone. Photographic equipment to be installed at the Lincoln Memorial for these live shots. About a million flags to place on the National Mall, and a slightly smaller amount of lights to surround the reflective pool. There were three past presidents to gather at Arlington National Cemetery for a recorded tribute. And there was the need to show the new president celebrating with his family in the White House.
The concert was a triumph: a vibrant call for American unity through booming pop songs and tributes to those who care for their community.
The production? An unprecedented logistical headache that had to be solved in less than six weeks. The team were faced with a deeper challenge beyond the intimidating details: how to reinvent the look and feel of a long-standing national tradition – making sense of absence, incorporating both pain and optimism; to dazzle the 10.5 million viewers who watched the concert while it was broadcast.
“There was a sense of determination, but also of uncertainty,” says Stephanie Cutter, one of the show’s executive producers. “The same feeling that most Americans had, like you just didn’t know what was going to happen next. But the determination to get there, because we felt the country really needed it, helped us overcome that. And that all-can-happen vibe made for great television.
When the pandemic ruled out the possibility of hosting an in-person parade and inaugural balls for President Biden, the team behind the Democratic National Convention’s virtual production set to work to design suitable replacements.
“It was part of the whole storytelling of the inauguration, where it’s important to understand where we are as a country and reflect that,” says Cutter. “But then it reflects who President Biden is, to give a sense of optimism and hope for the future if we come together and work together.”
The virtual parade achieved this goal by including music and dance numbers from all over the states (and, especially for kids from the 90s, bringing together The New Radicals). The field of flags on the mall simulated a gathering of all of the president’s supporters who could not be there, and prevented the optics of his swearing in in front of an empty field. A ceremony the day before the inauguration recognized Americans who died of covid-19 with 400 lights around the Reflecting Pool.
“We settled in 400 weeks ago, knowing that [it] would probably be close to that number, ”Cutter says. “And remarkably, we hit that number on Tuesday.”
But it was the prime-time concert that captivated the country, with Bruce Springsteen, Jon Bon Jovi, Demi Lovato, John Legend and speeches from the president and vice-president. It was hosted live at the Lincoln Memorial by Tom Hanks who, yes, was as frosty as he looked.
The talent had heated trailers near the memorial, but “unfortunately for Tom Hanks he didn’t have time to go back there,” between live shots, says Ricky Kirshner, an executive producer who also produced the Tony Awards and Super Bowl Halftime Show. “So he got a little cold at the end.
The fact that the concert was being held at the Lincoln Memorial was meant to come as a surprise – at first, to prevent crowds from showing up and spreading the coronavirus, and later, due to security concerns. But Legend’s wife, model and actress Chrissy Teigen, tweeted a video of Tuesday’s rehearsal. (“LMAO apparently it was all meant to be a secret and I was scolded, so be surprised tomorrow I’m crying,” she tweeted.
Safety was the big concern, obviously: “What happened on January 6, I wouldn’t say, derailed us, but it certainly made us take a step back,” says Adrienne Elrod, Director of Talent at the Biden transition team. A few artists, says Cutter, gave up after the Capitol attack.
Some of the performances were pre-recorded elsewhere, presenting various logistical complications. For Black Pumas singer Eric Burton, the request to perform his band’s song “Colors” came just two days before the inauguration. Obviously, he erased his schedule – just like the Moody Theater in Austin, where the band performed.
“I’m still pinching myself, the way it all fell into place so quickly,” Burton says – so quickly that he couldn’t tell some of his friends about it, so they found out when they got there. ‘saw on television.
It was Justin Timberlake who called singer Ant Clemons to tell him the two would perform their song “Better Days” for the show.
“I couldn’t believe I was going to be part of the story,” says Clemons, who pre-recorded his part with Timberlake at the Stax Museum in Memphis. He called the song “something you can play to be that little voice or to remind you that better days are coming.”
Each song was chosen for the story it told, Elrod says. This included Demi Lovato’s performance of Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day,” which the singer had never performed in public before, and only learned a few days before the opening, Elrod says. And that moment when President Biden moved on to singing with his grandson, Beau?
“Holding her grandson was not planned,” Elrod said. “It was a beautiful moment because it was authentic.” (“LOVE YOU,” Lovato wrote on Instagram, with an image of the president watching her play.)
Putting these plans in place inside the White House was one of the toughest parts of the day, Cutter says. “We couldn’t get in until noon” because the building was undergoing remediation after President Donald Trump left, so there was no rehearsal. “It was a crazy race.”
Normally, only the folks who fork out expensive tickets can attend the inaugural balls – and those jaded baseball players are complaining about the poor quality of the food and the sluggishness of the locker room, anyway. The inaugural gig was a great equalizer: everyone has the same take on Katy Perry’s outfit. No one has had blisters after hours of wearing heels. The production team hopes it will start a tradition.
“An inaugural ball doesn’t grab a nation’s attention,” Cutter says. (But unlike a special, a bullet Is recoup some of its costs through ticket sales, which means the virtual route is not as cost effective as it looks, she noted.)
“I think it’s important going forward that there is a lot of content to make people feel that no matter where they live, no matter if they can afford to travel to Washington, DC – have- do they feel they can be part of it? ” said Elrod.
There have been over 20,000 fireworks, says Adam Biscow, whose Nashville-based company, Strictly FX – they do the Super Bowl fireworks, which explains the punch factor – collaborated on the pyrotechnics with Garden. State Fireworks of New Jersey. They set up two launch sites – one near the Washington Monument, the other on the Tidal Basin – to accommodate the disparate camera angles for Perry and the President. But having two places made the show seem bigger.
Twenty thousand fireworks is a lot of fireworks, Biscow admits.
“The ground was literally shaking,” he said, and since it was a cold, clear night, the sound traveled far enough to shake the windows of the suburbs, as well as the nerves of Washingtonians just two weeks from a violent attack. Five hundred of the shells were handcrafted, designed to explode with shimmering gold glitter and a weeping willow effect.
The other reason the show was so grand: “As we started to book more acts, the finale compressed into Katy’s song,” Kirshner says, but the number of acts fireworks remained the same.
“Typically it would be a 30 or 40 minute display, and they literally wanted to compress into four minutes,” Biscow explains.
“Honestly,” Kirshner says, “we got our money’s worth.”