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Let Adele Be Adele: How Her NBC Concert Left Such an Impact (and Could Snag an Emmy)

Director Beth McCarthy-Miller and executive producer Jonathan Dickins reveal the strategies that helped them capture the magic of seeing Adele live for television.

ADELE LIVE IN NEW YORK CITY -- Concert -- Pictured: Adele -- (Photo by: Virginia Sherwood/NBC)

Virginia Sherwood/NBC

Even non-music fans can appreciate the talent and personality on display at most concerts. That’s especially true with an artist like Adele, whose live performances are where she truly shines brightest. It’s an experience that audiences beyond just a stadium full of ticket holders ought to be able to enjoy.

Re-creating that live concert experience was the challenge facing the producers and director of “Adele: Live In New York City.” The one-off special, which was filmed at Radio City Music Hall on Nov. 17 and broadcast by NBC on Dec. 14, ultimately received four Emmy nominations. Give credit to director Beth McCarthy-Miller, who treated “Adele: Live” like the concert event it was and not just another TV special.

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This directive originated with Adele herself, according to the star’s manager/executive producer Jonathan Dickins. “She didn’t want to tape it like a TV show. Every single take was the first take,” he told IndieWire.

In fact, Adele barely even rehearsed for the program. “She did four or five songs for us [at sound check],” McCarthy-Miller said. “I’m sure, as a performer, it kept it much more fresh for her, but I think she was nervous as well.”

ADELE LIVE IN NEW YORK CITY -- Concert -- Pictured: Adele -- (Photo by: Virginia Sherwood/NBC)

It was Adele’s first time performing in four years, after all — “a pretty pressurized situation,” Dickins put it. In early documentary-style moments in the special, Adele walks to the stage clutching a drink and looking very tense. However, following an introduction by Jimmy Fallon, she strode in front of the audience, kicking off the 42-minute special with (what else?) “Hello.”

Backed by an impressive band, back-up singers and a string quartet, Adele is very much at the center of the action, with her signature banter and cackling laugh serving as the punctuation between songs.

“Obviously she is very funny and she has that other dimension,” Dickins said. “If I’m dead honest — with music specials on TV,  I think you’d just get a bit bored if it was just one song and then another song… It hearkens back to a bygone era really — she’s someone who doesn’t just sing songs. It’s a big part of her personality. She likes to explain.”

To that end, when it came time to edit the original 90-minute concert down to a runtime that would fit into an hour of network television, the producers were forced to cut many songs — but preserved as much of the banter as possible.

“She was so vibrant on the show and had such an incredible audience relationship that we decided more of her talking and maybe one less song would be great,” McCarthy-Miller said. “I think that’s what made the special so special, is that you got to see a lot of her personality in it.”

The chain of events that brought McCarthy-Miller into the project are easy to track. As Dickins noted, the Adele team had a pre-established relationship with “Saturday Night Live” after she broke out in the U.S. by performing her first big single, “Chasing Pavements,” on the show. They built upon that relationship by partnering with Lorne Michaels on the NBC special. “It felt like the right time to revisit where the success had started, really,” Dickins said.

Michaels then called up McCarthy-Miller, a 11-year “Saturday Night Live” veteran, to direct the project — a hearkening back to her earliest days as a director for MTV. Over the years, McCarthy-Miller has helmed everything from live musicals (“The Sound of Music Live”) to single-camera scripted comedy (“30 Rock”) because, as she put it, “I like to do it all.”

ADELE LIVE IN NEW YORK CITY -- Concert -- Pictured: Adele -- (Photo by: Virginia Sherwood/NBC)

But as McCarthy-Miller has been working in scripted more often these days, switching from the two-camera set-up on “Modern Family” to the 15 cameras used to capture “Adele Live” wasn’t the most natural transition. “It’s an easier skill set to do when you’re doing it frequently,” McCarthy-Miller said. “So when I sat down to start rehearsing I was like ‘oh, here I am.’ I had to turn a different brain on.”

This represents McCarthy-Miller’s 10th Emmy nomination (with no wins) for directing, which makes her “the Susan Lucci of the Emmys,” she joked. But the director still considers it a complete honor to be nominated, especially for a diverse range of projects. “Just the fact that I get to do all these kinds of directing is such an absolute thrill for me and makes me so happy that I’ve never been painted into any kind of corner. Then there’s being recognized for it across the board — it’s all just icing on the cake.”

Adele is currently touring the U.S. on an epic stadium tour. During her recent series of concerts in Los Angeles at the Staple Center, her two-hour set featured a lot more music than the special. But it was watching her engage with the massive Staples Center crowd that really struck a chord, because of how intimate she made the experience feel — an intimacy which somehow also got captured in the New York City special.

That’s not surprising to Dickins. “I think all of her shows are intimate,” he said.

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