Behind the Weeknd’s Halftime Show: Nasal Swabs and Backup Plans
When the Weeknd headlines the Super Bowl halftime show on Sunday, the stage will be in the stands, not on the field, to simplify the transition from game to performance. In the days leading up to the event, workers have visited a tent outside Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., to receive nasal swabs for Covid-19 tests. And though a smaller crew is putting on the show this year, the bathroom trailers have been going through three times as much water as usual — because of all that hand-washing.Amid a global pandemic, the gargantuan logistical undertaking that is the halftime show has gotten even more complicated.In a typical year, a massive stage is rolled out in pieces onto the football field, sound and lighting equipment is swiftly set up by hundreds of stagehands working shoulder to shoulder, and fans stream onto the turf to watch the extravaganza. This year, there is a cap on how many people can participate in the production, dense crowds of cheering fans are out of the question. And only about 1,050 people are expected to work to put on the show, a fraction of the work force in most years.The pandemic has halted live performances in much of the country, and many televised spectacles have resorted to pretaped segments to ensure the safety of performers and audiences. The halftime show’s production team, however, was intent on mounting a live performance in the stadium that they hoped would wow television audiences. To fulfill that dream, they would need contingency plans, thousands of KN95 masks and a willingness to break from decades of halftime-show tradition.“It’s going to be a different looking show, but it’s still going to be a live show,” said Jana Fleishman, an executive vice president at Roc Nation, the entertainment company founded by Jay-Z that was tapped by the N.F.L. in 2019 to create performances for marquee games like the Super Bowl. “It’s a whole new way of doing everything.”One of the first logistical puzzles was figuring out how to pick staff members up from the airport and transport them to and from the hotel, said Dave Meyers, the show’s executive in charge of production and the chief operating officer at Diversified Production Services, an event production company based in New Jersey that is working on the halftime show.“Usually you pack everyone into a van, throw the bags into the back, everyone is sitting on each other’s laps,” Meyers said. “That can’t happen.”Instead, they rented more than 300 cars to transport everyone safely.Many of the company’s workers have been in Tampa for weeks, operating out of what they call a “compound” outside of Raymond James Stadium, the home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The compound includes 50-foot-long office trailers, which used to fit about 20 employees each but now are limited to six. There are socially distant dining tents where people eat prepackaged food, and a signal for which tables have been sanitized: the ones with chairs tilted against them.Outside the perimeter of the event, there is a tent where halftime-show workers have been getting Covid-19 tests. Staff members have been getting tested every 48 hours, but now that game day is close, key employees, including those who are in proximity to the performers, are getting tested every day, Meyers said. Each day, workers fill out a health screening on their smartphones, and if they’re cleared, they get a color-coded wristband, with a new color each day so no one can wear yesterday’s undetected.Each time workers enter the stadium or a new area of the grounds, they scan a credential that hangs from around their necks so that in the event that someone tests positive for Covid-19 or needs to go into quarantine, the N.F.L. will know who else was in their vicinity. And there are contingency plans if workers have to quarantine: crucial employees, including Meyers, have understudies who stand ready to take their places.All of those measures are taken so that the Weeknd can step out onstage Sunday for a 12-minute act that aims to rival years past, when the country was not in the midst of a global health crisis.“Our biggest challenge is to make this show look like it’s not affected by Covid,” Meyers said.The challenge was apparent on Thursday at a news conference about the halftime show. When the Weeknd strode to the microphone, he took in the room and noted, “It’s kind of empty.” His words were perhaps a preview of how the stadium might look to people watching from home. (About 25,000 fans will be present — a little more than a third of its capacity — and they will be joined by thousands of cardboard cutouts.)But the Weeknd (Abel Tesfaye), a 30-year-old Canadian pop star who has hits including “Can’t Feel My Face” and “Starboy,” is known for his theatrical flair. His work often has a brooding feel, an avant-garde edge, and even some blood and gore (he promised he would keep the halftime show “PG”).This will be the second Super Bowl halftime show produced in part by Jay-Z and Roc Nation, who were recruited by the N.F.L. at a time when performers were refusing to work with the league, in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who began kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial injustice.The N.F.L. and Roc Nation are keeping quiet about the details of the program to build anticipation, so it is unclear whether it will have the usual big-budget effects of halftime shows past, which have featured Jennifer Lopez dancing on a giant revolving pole, Katy Perry riding an animatronic lion and Diana Ross memorably exiting by helicopter.What is clear is that there is unlikely to be anything like the intimate moment Lady Gaga had with a few of her fans during her 2017 performance, when she clasped their hands and embraced one of them before going back onstage for “Bad Romance.” The Weeknd is taking the stage in a much more distanced world.Ken Belson contributed reporting.