And that’s just the fireworks. There were celebrities to ferry to the Red Zone. Camera equipment to set up at the Lincoln Memorial for those sweeping live shots. Approximately one zillion flags to place on the National Mall, and a slightly smaller quantity of lights to surround the Reflecting Pool. There were three former presidents to assemble 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 rousing call for American unity through soaring pop songs and tributes to people caring for their community.
The production? An unprecedented logistical puzzle that had to be solved in less than six weeks. The team faced a deeper challenge beyond the daunting details: how to reinvent the look and feel of a long-held national tradition — to give meaning to absence, incorporating both grief and optimism; to dazzle the 10.5 million TV viewers who watched the concert as it aired.
“There was a feeling of determination, but also uncertainty,” says Stephanie Cutter, one of the show’s executive producers. “The same feeling like most Americans were feeling, like you just didn’t know what was going to happen next. But the determination to get this done because we felt the country really needed it helped us overcome that.” And that anything-can-happen vibe made for great TV.
When the pandemic eliminated the possibility of hosting an in-person parade and inaugural balls for President Biden, the team behind the virtual Democratic National Convention production got to work designing suitable replacements.
“It was part of the whole storytelling of the inauguration, where it’s important to realize where we are as a country and reflect that,” says Cutter. “But then it’s reflective of 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 reached for that by including musical and dance acts from every state (and, notably for ’90s kids, reuniting the band the New Radicals). The field of flags on the Mall simulated a gathering of all the president’s supporters who couldn’t be there, and forestalled the optics of him being sworn in before an empty field. A ceremony the night before the inauguration recognized Americans who died of covid-19 with 400 lights around the Reflecting Pool.
“We settled on 400 weeks ago, knowing that [it] would probably be close to that number,” says Cutter. “And remarkably, we hit that number on Tuesday.”
But it was the prime-time concert that captivated the country, featuring Bruce Springsteen, Jon Bon Jovi, Demi Lovato, John Legend, and speeches by the president and vice president. It was hosted live at the Lincoln Memorial by Tom Hanks who, yes, was just as freezing as he looked.
The talent had heated trailers near the memorial, but “unfortunately for Tom Hanks, he didn’t have time to go back to it,” in between live shots, says Ricky Kirshner, an executive producer who has also produced the Tony Awards and Super Bowl halftime show. “So he got a little chilled by the end.”
That the concert would be staged at the Lincoln Memorial was supposed to be a surprise — at first, to prevent crowds from showing up and spreading coronavirus, and later, because of security concerns. But Legend’s wife, model and actress Chrissy Teigen, tweeted a video from Tuesday’s rehearsal. (“LMAO apparently that was all supposed to be a secret and i got scolded so act surprised tomorrow I’m crying,” she tweeted.
Safety was the big concern, obviously: “What happened on January 6th I wouldn’t say derailed us, but it certainly caused us to take a step back,” says Adrienne Elrod, the director of talent for the Biden transition team. A few performers, says Cutter, dropped out after the Capitol attack.
Some of the performances were prerecorded elsewhere, presenting different logistical complications. For Black Pumas singer Eric Burton, the request to perform his band’s song “Colors” came only two days before inauguration. Obviously, he cleared his schedule — and so did the Moody Theater in Austin, where the band performed.
“I’m still pinching myself, the way it came together so quickly,” says Burton — so fast that he didn’t get to tell some of his friends, so they found out when they saw him on TV.
It was Justin Timberlake who called singer Ant Clemons to tell him the two would be singing their song “Better Days” for the show.
“I couldn’t believe that I was going to be a part of history,” says Clemons, who pretaped his portion with Timberlake at the Stax Museum in Memphis. He called the song “something that you can play to be that little voice or reminder that better days are coming.”
Every song was chosen for the story it told, says Elrod. That included Demi Lovato’s performance of Bill Withers’s “Lovely Day,” which the singer had never performed in public before, and learned only a few days before inauguration, says Elrod. And that moment where President Biden bopped along to the song with his baby grandson, Beau?
“Him holding his grandson was not planned,” says Elrod. “It was a beautiful moment because it was authentic.” (“LOVE YOU,” Lovato wrote on Instagram, with an image of the president watching her perform.)
Setting up those shots inside the White House was one of the hardest parts of the day, says Cutter. “We couldn’t get in there until noon,” because the building was being sanitized after President Donald Trump’s departure, so there was no rehearsal. “It was a mad dash.”
In normal times, only the people who shell out for pricey tickets get to attend inaugural balls — and those jaded ballgoers complain about how the food was bad and the coat check was slow, anyway. The inaugural concert was a great equalizer: Everyone got the same view of Katy Perry’s outfit. No one got blisters from hours of wearing heels. The production team hopes it will start a tradition.
“An inaugural ball does not capture the attention of a nation,” says Cutter. (But unlike a television special, a ball does recoup some of its costs through ticket sales, meaning the virtual route is not as cost-effective as it might appear, she noted.)
“I think it’s important going forward that there be plenty of content to make people feel that no matter where they live, no matter if they can afford to travel to Washington, D.C. — do they feel like they can be a part of this?” says Elrod.
Besides, viewers still got the cutesy staged romance usually delivered through a ball’s first dance — except this time, it was a view of the first and second couples snuggling and taking in the sight of those spectacular fireworks to the tune of Perry’s “Firework.”
There were more than 20,000 fireworks, says Adam Biscow, whose Nashville company, Strictly FX — they do the fireworks at the Super Bowl, which explains the oomph factor — collaborated on the pyrotechnics with New Jersey’s Garden State Fireworks. They set up two launch sites — one near the Washington Monument, the other on the Tidal Basin — to accommodate the disparate camera angles for both Perry and the president. But having two locations made the show seem bigger.
Twenty thousand fireworks is a lot of fireworks, Biscow admits.
“The ground was literally shaking,” he says, and because it was a cold, clear night, the sound traveled far enough to rattle windows in the suburbs, as well as the nerves of Washingtonians only two weeks removed from a violent attack. Five hundred of the shells were handmade, designed to explode with twinkling gold glitter and a weeping willow-esque effect.
The other reason the display was so grand: “As we started booking more acts, the finale compressed into just Katy’s song,” says Kirshner, but the number of fireworks remained the same.
“Typically that would be a 30- or 40-minute display, and they literally wanted to compress into four minutes,” says Biscow.
“Honestly,” says Kirshner, “we got a lot of bang for our buck.”