At least nobody took a razor to his scalp. There are four sections to a Drowned World show, loosely laid out as Punk, Geisha, Cowgirl, and a sort of Flamenco/Ghetto Fabulous fusion. As the Punk one came together, Mom wanted the whole family — including longtime backup singers Donna De Lory and Niki Haris — to submit to some drastic tonsorial modulations. “She was like, ‘Niki, c’mon, you gotta wear a Mohawk,’ ” Haris says. “Sorry, we didn’t wear a lot of Mohawks in Detroit, where I’m from. Black folks weren’t really into Mohawks. The only Mohawks I saw were on, like, Aryan youth. I fought her tooth and nail. It got really hairy for a while. She felt like I was fighting her, and how could I do this to her, and she thought I was her friend. And I was like, ‘Okay, Madonna, you know what? If this is going to give you some joy, I’ll do it.’ ” When the time for her own shearing arrived, De Lory ducked into a dressing room and let Haris twist her tresses into tight, spiky knots. “I was in a panic. I had to come up with a hairdo in five minutes,” De Lory says. “I walked by Madonna down the hall and she’s like, ‘I love it!’ So, saved the hair.”
The matriarch, says Dean Caten, “doesn’t miss a thing.” He and his twin, brother Dan, who run a design firm called Dsquared, were adopted to expand on the spangled, pastel, Queen of the County Fair look that Madonna unleashed with last year’s Music. “She calculates how high she can lift her leg according to the weight of the pant, and stuff like that,” Dean says. “I remember one shirt we made a little bit bigger, and she noticed. She said, ‘No, this is bigger, you changed it, make it the way it was.’ We’re talking about half a centimeter. She is very, very sharp.” If, as Andy Warhol once put it, “The new Art is Business,” then the CEO of Drowned World Inc. must qualify as the Picasso of micromanagers.
“‘Oh my god, we’re gonna suck. Oh my God, this is gonna suck. Oh my God, they’re gonna boo us off the stage,’ ” Niki Haris says. “That’s what was going through my head, to be really honest with you.” She’s thinking back to spring, when the Drowned World army mobilized in Los Angeles for seven weeks of rehearsals. “Finally Madonna was like, ‘Please just trust me. I’ve been very successful. I know what I’m doing,’ ” Haris goes on. “I was like, ‘You know what? You’re right.’ ”
Plunging into Drowned World’s rehearsals was a bit like climbing into one of those toasters: Fail to stay alert and you might wind up nicked, bruised, or sliced. Stuart Price, the tour’s brash musical director and keyboardist, recalls the development phase as “infuriating.” Madonna had a conceptual hybrid in mind, a twining of the digital thump of European club life with the grand theatrical gestures of Broadway. “A lot of the time the problems to be fixed were so simple, but there seemed like such a struggle to make things work,” Price says. “There were a lot of boulders in the way that stood between her vision and the execution of it.” How were those boulders rolled away? “Well,” says Price, “she fired them.”
“Madonna wants what she always wants…edgy,” says tour director and choreographer Jamie King, a maestro behind such edgy enterprises as the recent Ricky Martin spectacle. “She wanted something new, she wanted change, and she wanted to do something she hadn’t done before. And in order for anyone to do that, you kind of have to get rid of what you’ve used in the past…. If someone’s not cutting it, or they’re not inspiring her in a new way, there’s no reason for them to be there.”
For all these allusions to creative obstacles, Price and King don’t name names. However, one key person who left at a critical point was Michael Bearden, Madonna’s musical director for much of the ’90s. “I just find the whole thing funny,” says the virtuoso jazz keyboardist. ” ‘Boulders being in the way’ and all of this sort of thing — none of this was conveyed to me at all.” Bearden doesn’t recall any unusual stress during rehearsals. “I never got any tension,” he says. “You’ve got to understand you’re dealing with cats who’ve never done a live tour as intense as a Madonna tour. So any tension I think is just self-manufactured.” Bearden disputes any implication that he was let go. “At one point I was [musical director], willingly. And at another point I wasn’t, willingly,” he says. “From my standpoint, I’m glad I’m not there.” He’s now working with Jennifer Lopez and Michael Jackson.