It’s three days before the Pope leads hundreds of thousands of people in a mass at Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway, and four miles away at the Wells Fargo Center, one of America’s most famous ex-Catholics is already getting into the spirit of the occasion. Madonna uses a giant cross as a stripping pole and writhes around on a re-creation of the Last Supper table as she moans, “Yeezus loves my pussy best.” “Popey-wopey is on his way over,” she says later in the show. “I think he’s stalking me.”
The gleefully blasphemous moment is one of 21 elaborately choreographed numbers on Madonna’s Rebel Heart Tour, which has been packing North American arenas since it kicked off September 9th. It’s her most extravagant stage show ever — a two-hour set that features samurai warriors, matadors, gypsies, rockabilly kids dancing around a body shop and a dangerous-looking dance routine on top of giant swaying poles, not to mention a grand finale set in a gleaming 1920s-style Paris cafe.
“The logistical avalanche of putting it together was unlike anything I’ve ever done,” says Arianne Phillips, the head costume designer, who notes the tour uses 500 pairs of shoes and 450 costumes. “Every day of rehearsals felt like an impossibility.” To prepare for the show, the 20 backup dancers spent three months putting in 14-hour days, six days a week. The 57-year-old Madonna was right beside them. “No matter what we asked her to do, like riding a nun like a surfboard, she’d try without flinching,” says Megan Lawson, the tour’s head choreographer.
The day after the Philadelphia show, Madonna phoned up Rolling Stone to talk about the tour.
At what point in the creation of Rebel Heart did you start brainstorming ideas for this tour?
Finishing my record was filled with panic and pressure because of all the leaks, so I wasn’t really thinking about my live show until I released the record and started making videos and doing my promo show. So honestly, I didn’t really try to sit down and get my head around it until last March. That’s unusual for me because I usually start thinking way, way, way in advance.
When you did start plotting out the tour, what were your goals?
My goals are always the same. I want to take people on a journey. I like to explore themes. I believe that if you’re going to a big venue like a sports arena or a stadium you need to present a kind of entertainment that interfaces with all of the senses.
I don’t think it’s enough to just stand onstage and sing. I think that there are moments for that, but I’m a very visual person. I was trained as a dancer, so those kinds of things are really important to me, in my shows, anyway.
I feel like when the audience walks into a show, they walk into a magical world, and they’re transported for two hours to another time and place, and they plug into the matrix of my creative brain, which, generally, explores and expresses all of the things that I’m interested in, and/or inspired by. So that’s always my goal. And of course, it changes and shifts from record to record, from tour cycle to tour cycle. The moods I’m in, the themes I want to express, all of that.
What are the primary themes of this tour?
The first message is empowerment, and we’re using the song “Iconic” as the opening. It talks about being a warrior and fighting for what you believe in, and recognizing that we all have the ability to be iconic in our own ways — to be warriors, to shine. Also, I’m honored that I had Mike Tyson is in my song and video, because I really look up to him and admire him as a person who has gone through the roller coaster of life, who has walked through the fire, gone through the darkness. And for me, he’s metamorphosed into a human being who is someone to look up to and be inspired by.
So, that would be the first theme. And “Devil Pray” is a song about being sucked into the illusion that alcohol and weed can give you insight into sort of the upper world, so to speak, or can make you closer to God. And in fact, they do. But I think in the end it’s an illusion.
As I said, I don’t just jump from subject to subject, so we have to go on a journey. We have to start out as warriors, and then we explore themes of sex and religion, because they are things in our society that are always separated. And, to me, sex is a sacred gift that was given to us. It’s meant to be played with. I like to, obviously, provoke people with concepts of sex and religion’s point of view about it. That’s because I believe that people need to be challenged even if they disagree with me, which is fine. But I’m not gonna take you song-by-song. We’ll be talking for two hours.
How about you just tell me your process for picking which older songs to put into the set list. That couldn’t be easy.
That is really, really hard. Basically, I go through the catalog, which is a pretty long list of songs. And once I got an idea for the themes I want to explore, I break the show down into four sections, and then I try and find ways to interweave my old songs with the new, and generally that has to do with themes. So we try a lot of stuff out, and it doesn’t work.
Then we try things that I never would have thought of and it does work. It’s a very, very long process. That’s, for me, the biggest challenge, to marry the old with the new. Because obviously those songs I wrote a long time ago, and I have to reinvent them to a certain extent so that they speak to me now versus the woman that I was 30 years ago.
I’ve always admired that about your concerts. It would be so easy to simply do your 15 biggest hits and stick to the original arrangements, but you’ve never once taken that easy route.
No. And I just couldn’t do it, anyway. I just couldn’t do it.
Can you explain why?
Because I’ve changed, and sonics have changed. The sound of a synth or an 808 [drum machine] … everything has just changed so much. If you put the exact song next to something new, it just sounds so small and mono. You know what I mean? They just can’t live together.
“True Blue” was a really great moment, stripping it down like that.
Yeah. I love performing that song and “La Vie En Rose.” They’re so much fun because there’s something naive and sweet about singing a song on a ukulele.