This past April, John Legend launched his first-ever Las Vegas residency, Love in Las Vegas, at Planet Hollywood’s Zappos Theater. In the process, the multi-talented EGOT-winner joined the ever-growing ranks of vital, younger artists increasingly redefining what such shows can be — and like his contemporaries in the residency space, he’s found that such spectacles offer myriad and unique creative opportunities.
“Vegas is such a fun canvas to paint on,” says Legend. “It’s kind of liberating.”
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When it came to conceptualizing the show, Legend turned to a long-trusted collaborator: creative director Rob English. The two met around 2014, when Legend was signed to Troy Carter’s management company at the time, Atom Factory, and English was on its creative team; later, when Legend’s current manager Ty Stiklorius left Atom Factory to start her own firm, English came along, and they’ve worked together ever since. “He’s just got great taste and knows me very well,” says Legend of English. “He’s able to translate his understanding of me and what I represent to people and put that on the stage visually.”
The result is a dynamic show that perfectly encapsulates Legend’s essence — capturing his appeal as a refined performer, blending technical skill with raw emotion, and employing his extensive catalog to tell the story of his artistic journey and influences. “I think the understanding of Vegas residencies has changed,” English reflects. “Once upon a time it was a death sentence, a signal your career was over. Now, it’s got a completely different color to it. It’s a sign of legitimacy and icon status.”
Ahead of its closing performance on October 29, Legend and English spoke (in separate conversations) about making Love in Las Vegas come together.
What was the appeal of doing a Vegas residency now for both of you?
John Legend: I think Vegas is a fun canvas to paint on; there’s already so much tradition, so much allowance to go big, and kind of the expectation that you’ll go big. It’s kind of liberating; it makes you feel like you can do things you may not have done on a normal tour.
Rob English: The real challenge was, “How do you do Vegas and get a tasteful outcome?” It’s its own beast. Going into our show, we knew from very early on that we had to approach this differently, turn it on its head. How do we bring John Legend’s culture into a show and have it make sense?
What was the starting concept for the show?
Legend: We wanted to tell my story — and a lot of that was about going back to my beginnings in church, where I learned to play music, music that influenced me. We also wanted to be sure it was retrospective on my entire career so far, so music from all of my albums. We spent a lot of time thinking about the sets we’d have; we have a church set at the beginning of the show, a city block party scene that’s more about my time in Philly and New York, we have a piano bar where we get more intimate and I do a lot more solo moments, and then the Vegas celebration at the end fully embracing the spirit of Vegas and a throwback to a lot of the ‘70s references that inspired us. I think it starts from knowing who you are as an artist, basing it in who you are, the music you’ve created, your story and what makes you unique.
English: We basically set out to make like, a movie — loosely based on John’s life, but with this ‘70s flair. The goal was to give a nod to a certain era — in this show to this very Black ‘70s Vegas theme — but it’s gotta be new. You can be inspired by an era, but what you do has to feel contemporary. If you veer too deeply into nostalgia, it can feel camp, almost like a parody of the thing, vs. a fashionable take on a thing.
I think the best Vegas residencies really remind the audience of the totality of who an artist is as a performer – and Love in Las Vegas does that.
English: That’s John. The same guy who plays these love songs everyone wants at their weddings is also super funny on The Voice and with Chrissy [Teigen]…. we wanted to showcase all of that. We’re able to remind people of the full personality he is who they can connect with. A few of the industry people I know who’ve been to the show, they say they feel connected to him in a way they haven’t in awhile. Because we have this canvas of a 90 minute-plus experience, you can really take them on that ride.
John, did you look to other recent artist residencies for inspiration at all?
Legend: I went to see several of my friends here, and every artist who plays here has a different story. I saw Usher, Bruno and Anderson [of Silk Sonic], Gwen [Stefani]. I loved seeing Gwen’s show, reminiscing through different looks and styles she’s gone through over the years; part of what’s cool about a Vegas residency is that it’s a chance to look back and celebrate all the stories in your life that brought you where you are.
All of them are wonderful. And my show is not like any of their shows. You see things you’d never do yourself, because it’s not you, but you love it for them. And it’s just fun to see other people’s take.
What informed putting together the playlist for the show?
English: The hits that end up in the show, it’s based on streaming data, the things that fans really love — and it’s a combo of that and individual things we personally felt would be really fresh and interesting and new. We took some twists and turns here and there. One of the big wins that was very intentional was starting the show off with the way people were introduced to John, with “Used to Love U.”
Is there a hope that the residency will be a springboard to certain other things in John’s career?
English: John’s manager Ty and I discuss these things, and to be honest, this was not about anything else. It was not something he had to do; it wasn’t a vehicle to promote the new album necessarily. Going into it, it was just a way to create an important part of John’s legacy. Doing a Vegas residency was something he’d always dreamed to do. It was a benchmark life achievement moment. The goal I think is that it will play on in different iterations in the coming years — maybe as an opportunity for people to get access to John who don’t necessarily get out to the tours and who want to connect with him.
Legend: It’s a great mid-career thing – you have enough of a repertoire to sustain a residency, but you’re definitely not retiring. [Laughs.] There’s so much ahead of us. It’s a good time to look back and celebrate, but to show people what’s next as well. Mostly, I just want to be proud of the work we do onstage; are we creating a beautiful experience for people, are we making them feel connected and loved? We wanted it to be truly uplifting and celebratory. I think we were certainly able to do that.