You might say that LeRoy Bennett is a shining light among lighting and production designers for pop music. Doing double duty creating both touring sets and their illumination, he started out with a 14-year run as Prince’s collaborator, went on to work with Nine Inch Nails and Madonna and has counted Beyoncé’s and Bruno Mars’ halftime shows among his five Super Bowl gigs. Now, besides handling the production and lighting design for the upcoming Paul McCartney and Maroon 5 tours, he’s plying his twin trades for the über-divas of the moment, Lady Gaga and Arianna Grande.
“It’s interesting, because right now in the music charts there is this back and forth between Arianna and Gaga at the top of the charts,” says Bennett, referring to how “Shallow” came back post-Oscars and knocked “7 Rings” out of its No. 1 slot. One thing these two don’t have to vie for his services, since it worked out nicely for him to go straight from working on Gaga’s twin Las Vegas residencies to Grande’s upcoming tour, which starts this month.
He’s also working on Grande’s appearance at the Coachella festival in April — and no, for anyone who’s been wondering, she won’t just be replicating her touring show when she headlines the closing night of the desert fest for two Sundays in a row. “You won’t feel like you’re being cheated into seeing the same show” if you have tickets for both, Bennett says. “There’s a visual connection, but it will be musically different” in the arrangements, Bennett says, “and different visually in some sense, because there are a couple elements that don’t exist in the touring show.” (Will her appearance in the summer at Lollapalooza similarly deviate from the tour? “Yes, at the moment. Until she says otherwise,” he laughs. “She doesn’t like to always do the same thing all the time. But the theory is that both Coachella and Lollapalooza are the same.”)
The general aesthetic will at least be the same on the Grande tour and at her festival shows. What they will share is “a clean, spherical, curvy world,” along with visuals that involve soft front projection instead of glaring LED screens. “It’s a very unconventional way of doing a show, because there are certain things that Ariana doesn’t like about normal concert lighting. So the way I approach this thing is that it’s a lot softer and more feminine and delicate. It’s not a dark show, but it is somewhat of a darkershow. We’re actually using projection to light the dancers and the stage at the same time, and we’re lighting the floor. … LED screens are always harsh, because it’s emitting light, where projection is reflecting off of the surface, which is a lot softer. And so we’re creating more of this kind of beautiful, illusional fantasy world for her. … It’s a whole other level than what people have seen when she’s performed live on the past tours, with a lot more sophistication and elegance and variety. It’s really different than anything anybody else has ever done before.”
Of Gaga’s two Vegas stints, which will alternate at the Park Theatre throughout 2019, Bennett says has a particular affection for the big-band Jazz & Piano show. “I love both sides of her. I mean, I appreciate and I love what we do when we’re doing all this crazy stuff, but the Jazz show for me is who she is, and I love that a lot.” But crazy is very much in Bennett’s wheelhouse, too, so he also tackled Gaga’s much more high-tech Enigma show.
Gaga’s self-described “progressive pop” show in Vegas starts with what he calls “a pretty straightforward flying gag.” He can make it sound like that was an easy one for them only because he also designed her Super Bowl halftime show, which similarly had her airborne, and where he learned that “she’s a natural in a harness. She’s a super trouper when it comes to all that. She has no fear.”
He also got to conceive three massive props for Gaga’s Enigma show. The most talked about is a giant robot that appears to be “driven” by Gaga. Eventually, you realize her dancers are providing all of the robot’s movement, which doesn’t take away from any of the fun of it. “It’s basically the old puppeteer type of thing with a prop like that,” Bennett says. “Because building a serious robot that would do that would have been ridiculously expensive. It’s mirrored, and that’s what gives it its massive presence, because the lights are bouncing off of it. It distracts from the fact that the dancers are there, until suddenly you stare at it long enough and you realize, oh, there’s people actually manipulating that thing. But because of the size and the amount of reflective light coming off of it, that you automatically assume that it’s a mechanical piece. It’s tricking your eyes and your brains — mirrors can do that.”
Also in the Enigma show are a “giant light pod that comes down, and I wanted that thing to have its own kind of personality as kind of a character within the show.” Other props include “the surgical table that comes out as they’re injecting or drilling her, kind of like a flat mirrored slab. And then there’s what we call the bean, but it’s really referred to as the healing chair, when they roll her out and the pod comes down on top of her and she’s laying in basically a square shaft of light.”
Bennett believes in the message of the show and endeavored to make the spectacular elements a means toward an emotional end. “One of the most beautiful aspects about her is that she cares so much about people,” he says of Gaga, whose Enigma show is “just trying to give a message of loving yourself and accepting who you are as a human being. And I think that’s a great thing, and you feel that in the room when she’s in it. It’s not something you see too often, in artists.” The plaudits for the show (including Variety raves for both Enigma and Jazz & Piano) have been exciting for him, but “it’s not about me. It’s more about just being happy for her, because I adore her and any time that this kind of positive reaction about her happens, I’m all for it. She’s a a good human being.”
He doesn’t knock anyone else he’s worked with, even though his resume includes some of the most famously demanding entertainers in pop history. “I’ve worked with all sorts of people, and some are more divas than others. I’ve been very fortunate that I would have to say I don’t really think of any of ‘em being nasty people. You know, they’ve all got a heart to them. Some of them are a little rougher around the edges sometimes. But you know, I see beyond all of that, and because I’ve worked with so many artists over the years, I can see inside people. Because I have to. That’s the only way I can work. I have to understand who they are and how they tick to be able to visually portray their show. I never want to be any artist’s best friend. I want to be a friend, but I don’t want to be too close, because you have to maintain a certain distance from an artist, but be close enough to understand who they are, psychologically, as a human being.
“So, fortunately,” he adds, “I started at the top with Prince, beginning in 1980, so I learned all that I needed to learn to carry through the rest of my career with my years with him,” he says with a laugh. Safe to say working with him or Madonna was an intimidating experience? “He didn’t scare me,” Bennett counters. And the thing with Madonna is that she’s one of those people where the moment you show weakness, like a crack in the door, she’ll be right in there, and you’re finished,” he chuckles. “Artists are like dogs. When they sense fear, they’ll attack you. But ultimately, with my job, I’m there to support them, and they should never have to worry about what I’m doing for them, because they’ve got enough to worry about. I always try to take that burden off their shoulders. And, you know, they’re all human beings. … I was actually married to somebody that was like Madonna at one point, so I knew what it was like.”
Bennett tries to encourage artists not to worry about being competitive, and that their mutual originality will trump all that, but says sometimes his clients can’t help but look at what the other guy or gal is doing, despite his best efforts to keep their eyes on the prize.
“Unfortunately, particularly on ‘Saturday Night Live’ and those things, it can become a competition with the artists,” Bennett says. “Fortunately all of the artists I work with have enough talent as performers that they can carry off things on their own, and don’t have to worry about all the bullshit. But they still feel like they have to have (certain production elements), and it’s like okay, fine. So you get into ‘Kanye does this’… I’m so tired of hearing that. It’s like, who cares? I mean, all he does is copy shit anyway. Nothing I’ve seen him do is original. I’ve seen him copy my own stuff! It just gets really challenging, because you have to then go to the production of the show and say, ‘Okay, this is what we’re doing,’ and they freak out. But I’ve done it enough with a lot of these places that they know that I’m going to push it to the edge, but I’m not going to do something that’s impossible or make their lives miserable.”
Bennett very much stands behind Grande’s unusual aesthetic for live shows and TV performances, although he often is in a position where he has to explain to producers that she knows what she’s asking for, Generally, in all her appearances, Bennett says, “she likes to be part of an environment and not to stand out too much in it. It’s as if she wants to blend in with everything around her and just sing instead of being lit like a normal star. She wants to be seen, but not like at a higher level than anything else that’s in the environment that she’s in. She likes to be subdued in her presence on stage.” So is “Light me a little less” a common superstar demand? “No, you don’t hear that too much from other artists or their management,” he laughs.
“She’s very particular — which is great! — about what she likes and what she doesn’t like. There’s no gray area. It’s it’s either a thumbs up or two thumbs down — way down!” he laughs. “In how she’s lit and how’s she shot, with everything, she’s very, very particular about that. Because she’s not popping out from everything like normal people, we always have to find the right balance, the right angle, and with television, it’s usually a little struggle, because it’s a little darker than what they would normally want.” And she has a very particular taste in pink gels that is “maybe just a bit more exaggerated” than TV producers are used to or think will work. “It’s like trying to explain to people, either we do it this way or she’ll probably walk out. Because that’s the way she rolls.” He admires Grande sticking to her guns with a visual aesthetic that might seem counterintuitive to another superstar who’s all about the spotlights. “She definitely doesn’t want to be lumped in with the rest of the girls.”
Fortunately, Bennett has some experience with artists who like a dimmer style of lighting. Sometimes really, really dim, as in the case of his ongoing collaboration with Nine Inch Nails.
“With people like Trent (Reznor) or the Cure, those kinds of artists, that audience expects it,” he says of the under-lighting approach. “When it’s a pop star, that’s a whole different world. But although Ariana is a pop star, she doesn’t want to be a pop star, or at least doesn’t want to be viewed in a live situation as a normal pop show.” With NIN, “it’s very aggressive and in-your-face” — but not in Reznor’s face. “As long as you barely see Trent enough — there’s no spotlight, or side light. And with the Cure, it was heavily backlit, with just a little bit of light on Robert (Smith), and the other guys didn’t have any light at all. They were always silhouettes.”
He’s not doing much work on this year’s Maroon 5 tour, because it essentially repeats the design from their tour in 2018. But the McCartney stadium tour is getting a refresher. “Sometimes there are minor changes and kind of spicing things up a little bit” between McCartney outings, he says, “but this particular show is quite different than what we’ve been doing for the last 10 years.” Part of it is because the production wanted to streamline and carry “less weight,” but he says that directive “inspired me, and I wanted to simplify things anyway and make things a lot more modern and cleaner.”
It’s true that he doesn’t have a lot of costume changes to work around with McCartney. “He takes his jacket off!” says Bennett. The production design can’t be too distracting. “I’ve watched people cry in the audience when they hear songs, because it brings back their childhood, and it’s trying to capture the essence of those periods at times as much as possible, to enhance that emotion even more. So it’s making sure all that happens around him, but he’s always the focus of everything.” With McCartney “a lot of the input from him is more based on video,” and one thing they’ve added for the “Neighborhood” tour this year is a 3D animation that appears during the song “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
Bennett enjoyed working with Beyonce on the Super Bowl, but suffice it to say it wasn’t his lowest-pressure experience ever. He became a point person dealing with the halftime producers, helping convince them her outfit wasn’t too revealing, an objection he found ridiculous. Meanwhile, on Beyonce’s end, it was an ever-changing-to-the-last-minute tight ship. “She’s incredible as a performer and artist. But her Parkwood camp itself — it’s a lot to deal with,” he says. “The end result is always amazing. It does border on almost over-the-top at times. It’s always rehearsed solidly. Any time she’s doing, say, the halftime or any television-based thing, it’s always rehearsed off-site, and they have cameras in there, and they make all the camera cuts and give it to the director and say, ‘This is what you’re doing.’ The director has no say.”
After working with Prince for 14 years, he was ready for anything. He came on board when Prince would sometimes play to half-empty clubs in 1980, but says he was little different as an unknown than he was later, although he did become “more isolated” during the “Purple Rain” tour.
“What you saw is what you got,” Bennett says of Prince. “It was my first job as a designer, and my first five days with him were hell. I used to go back to the hotel and cry. I was 21 or 22, and I knew I could do it but he was just so hard on me, and he expected me to know every single song he had ever written, even though he was relatively unknown at that time. Fortunately the band were dear friends; they’re my family. They got the torture as well. I mean, he was big on public humiliation,” he laughs. “But once he started to see I knew what I was doing, and it was what he liked and maybe more than he expected, we became very close friends, and he treated me very well. I used to say that he gave me the freedom to do what I want. But Susan Rogers, who was one of his engineers over the years, said, ‘No, he didn’t give you freedom. He treated you as his equal.’ And I’d never thought about that. He and I were partners in doing what we did, and he always pushed me to go further than I could go — and he did that with everybody, really, because he would do that to himself. And I’m very blessed that I did work with him, because he gave me an amazing career. I’ve had to work hard, and I’ve done what I’ve done, but Prince opened my eyes to who I am, and I’m pretty lucky and always grateful for that.”