Backstage in the bowels of Antwerp’s Sportspaleis, Jason Danter cheerfully apologises in advance for all the swearing. He’s Rebel Heart’s production manager, which, he says, basically translates as, “How the f— do we get this into this?”And that takes some doing. So far, Madonna’s 81-date Rebel Heart tour has rumbled 27 semitrailers of equipment and 185 staff across North America and Europe; but that’s a lot easier than coming to Australia and New Zealand in March, for which three Boeing 747s are needed.
Madonna hasn’t visited our shores since 1993’s Girlie Show tour, so unsurprisingly the $1999.90 front-row seats in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane were exhausted during presales.
Danter served in the Royal Navy, which comes in handy now. “The military teaches you discipline,” he says in his Brummie accent. “You need to make decisions, have plans, work whatever hours are needed to get the job done.” He and his crew have been on site in Antwerp since 7am, joined at around 10am by tour director Tres Thomas.
At university, Thomas was more interested in selling tickets for student shows than singing and dancing in them. His qualifications in accounting and law perfectly suit him for the business of touring, which he’s done for 35 years. He works for Live Nation, which in 2007 signed Madonna to a 10-year global partnership, the first of its kind.
In a deal rumoured to be worth $120 million, Madonna became a shareholder and funnelled the execution of all her forthcoming merchandise, touring and releases, as well as TV and film projects, rights and sponsorship deals into the new Artist Nation division.
According to both Danter and Thomas – her trusted tour lieutenants – a show day runs with sparkling efficiency. Madonna – or ‘M’, as Danter calls her – flies into a city by private charter jet and will settle in her hotel. She turns up to the venue mid-afternoon with her two assistants and a member of her Maverick Management team in tow.
The four-piece band and backing singers soundcheck first, then Madonna runs through parts of the set for 90 minutes, testing the audio at different spots on the stage. “She’s always perfecting her performance,” Thomas says.
Madonna likes to plan well in advance of her tours. “Her rehearsal time is long. It’s the better part of 16, 17 weeks. We sit down, design the show: we have been working on Rebel Heart since November 2014,” Thomas says. But on tour, there are almost always tweaks to be made to the 23-song set.
Choreographer Valeree Young also runs a safety check on the sway poles, the aerial harness and the inflatable bag that one dancer gets shoved onto from a giant spiral staircase.
Backstage, dancers can take advantage of physiotherapists, or they might join in with whoever’s throwing a footy around. Previous tours have had a mini-golf set-up; this time around the entertainment is rotated to keep people amused. The hospitality and catering areas will be running at full throttle.
Madonna’s dressing-room compound comprises a few rooms where she can work out, relax and have her hair and make-up attended to. It’s all decked out by a dedicated “ambience department”, which unloads a semitrailer-and-a-half of furniture, pictures and gym gear at each venue.
The only things locally sourced are the ample flowers. “All of the trays, sofa, pictures, everything is picked out by Madonna, trying to replicate a comfortable living room. She likes a homey atmosphere,” Thomas says.
Before each show, Madonna holds a huddled prayer service, asking for guidance. The performers then get into position as Danter waits at the back of the stage for Madonna to enter. She’s handed over to the stage manager, who sets her up for her opening aerial scene in a steel cage.
“If it works correctly, it isn’t manic. There are stage managers, ambience co-ordinators, wardrobe co-ordinators, 12 people that assist during the show with changing all the costumes beneath the stage.
We’ve had our moments when something is out of whack and has held up Madonna’s arrival, but it’s a very structured, professional environment, with people who have worked together a long time,” Thomas says.
As each of the four acts pan out, performers disappear from view through lifts in the stage. Running beneath the length of the runway is the “coal train”, which transports performers and props in a cart on a purpose-built track, so that they can pop up without the audience seeing their journey.
Madonna has an inner-ear and intercom system, so if something’s not right in a segment, she’ll make a verbal note that will get printed out and delivered to the relevant people for the next soundcheck. After the last encore, she leaves directly from the stage, whisked off by car to her hotel.
“The performers are on a high after a show in front of 15,000 people, so if they’re in a city for a few days they might visit clubs or pubs,” says Thomas. There are some rules – or let’s go with his “guidelines” description – to help all staff maintain decorum in public.
“If it’s a school night, we’ll try and hold it down a little bit,” says Thomas. “But everyone’s human.”
Rebel Heart comes to Sydney Allphones Arena March 19-20.
Creative director Jamie King, who’s worked with Madonna for 18 years, creates a storyboard with Madonna 10 months before the first date. This is sent to set designer Ric Lipson at British company Stufish, who puts it into renderings to get items such as the spiral staircase built to scale.
The stage has three main performance areas, which can sink down to let performers and props on and off. Underneath there’s a whole city, including the wardrobe department, the quick-change areas and train tracks.
Lighting and video design is down to another Brit, Al Gurdon, who did the honours for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2012 London Olympics and worked on Madonna’s 2012 MDNA tour.
The LED video dance floor – The Machine – is 8.5m wide by 4.8m deep, weighing 25,000kg. It lifts up from horizontal and pivots on one hinge to a 90-degree wall. Even broken up, it requires an eight-tonne forklift at every venue.
Close to 2.2 million LED pixels light up the rear screens, which show 22 videos per night. 64,000kg of lights, sound and video equipment go into each performance.
In the segue between acts three and four, dancers climb up seven five metre-long bouncing sway poles. These are from Aussie company Strange Fruit, the same kind used in Mad Max: Fury Road.
There are 10 choreographers and 20 dancers, with styles ranging from contemporary to krump, vogue to flexing, jookin and house.
Lead choreographer Megan Lawson has worked with Missy Elliot and Nicki Minaj and likes to tell a narrative with her routines. “M always says ‘art imitates life’,” she says. “There’s always something human and relatable to the characters we bring to the stage.”
The supervising choreographers watch the show from the sound booth and take notes to make sure everything stays on point. Madonna will also usually have notes for the dancers to read before each soundcheck.
Characters include warriors, blasphemous nuns, medieval executioners and the disciples at a Last Supper ritual. According to Lawson, “in the Spanish second part, we go to Spain and incorporate flamenco and matador motivations. And we couldn’t help but do a Charleston or two in our 1920s French Cabaret.”
Arianne Phillips conceptualises all the performers’ costumes and, with Madonna’s approval, invites in designers to collaborate. Phillips creates mood boards for them that contain sketches, ideas, themes, colours and the parameters of the proposed costumes.
“Nothing in Madonna’s world is ever one-dimensional,” says Phillips. “Act one is a mash-up of a samurai warrior-meets-religious themes. Act two has a Japanese rockabilly mash-up. Act three is matador-meets-flamenco-meets Frida Kahlo. Act four is a 1920s world of Paris-meets Josephine Baker-meets Harlem and the jazz era.”
10,000 hours of workmanship have gone into creating costumes from Alessandro Michele for Gucci, Alexander Wang, Fausto Puglisi, Jeremy Scott for Moschino, NicolasJebran, Miu Miu, Prada and Swarovski.
Sixty people make up the costume staff, dressing, sewing and adjusting. There are 1000-plus wardrobe pieces for all the performers and 500 pairs of shoes have been custom-made. Two and a half million Swarovski crystals adorn Madonna’s costumes.
Madonna has eight costume changes. Her dresser is “Tony the Tiger”, who has quick-changed the world’s biggest divas. It takes about an hour to get all the costumes beneath the stage for quick-changes – there are more than 200 pairs of fishnets alone.
When the tour ends, the costumes are inventoried and kept in a climate-controlled archive.
Thanks to: Jochen Vanhoudt