You may have heard that Madonna is back. If you haven’t heard it, you’ve probably seen it: her new live tour – her first in four years – is an elaborate theatrical experience packed with four decades worth of the best pop songs ever made, and it has been plastered all over social media feeds since it kicked off last week. Highlights include: Madonna in a metal box flying around the arena, Madonna in a spinning cage straddling half-naked dancers in lacy gimp masks, Madonna thrashing out on an electric guitar at the end of a catwalk.
Like Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour, The Celebration Tour is a journey through Madonna’s banger-filled career with a narrative that follows her from her coming-of-age in New York City, to her embrace of Ballroom culture in the 1990s (RuPaul’s Drag Race winner Bob the Drag Queen leads us through the night as the MC), and her iconic VMAs kiss with Britney Spears in the early 2000s.
“She had been planning to make a biopic and she was going to contextualise that through the lens of New York City,” Ric Lipson, Madonna’s stage designer of architecture firm Stufish (who also designed Beyoncé’s Renaissance tour set), says. But, with that movie scrapped, she poured all of the autobiographical inspiration into this show. The show kicks off in Lipson’s approximation New York City – with areas of the stage temporarily representing the likes of legendary music venue CBGBs (where Madonna kickstarted her career in the early ’80s) and Danceteria, a club she frequented on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. From there it takes us on a wild journey through her biggest songs – many of which she hadn’t played in decades.
GQ spoke to Lipson about building the show with Madonna, and the pros and cons of the live music boom on TikTok.
GQ: What concept did Madonna bring to you for this tour?
Ric Lipson: I met with her back in August last year, and we talked about New York and wanting to do something more modern [than her previous tour, 2019’s Madame X], something more about staging, lighting and photography.
On her last tour, there were no phones allowed. So we discussed the idea of letting the fans get close to her, and showing her in ways with camerawork how people are used to seeing her on social media, which is portrait, 16:9. And that we could tell the story of this show, [her career] and these decades, through multiple catwalks and the blocks to emulate the Manhattan bridge. So when she first leaves the circular stage and comes down to [our approximation of the famous New York club] CBGBs, that’s the east side and then we have uptown, downtown and the west side.
The circular stage is a memory and echo of the VMAs performance in 1984, where she was on a large, oversized wedding cake in a wedding dress. Then she tripped and fell down the wedding cake, and everyone was like, her career is over. She turned that around and became the biggest musician in the world.
That movie was scrapped in January 2023. It sounds like she’s put her personal story into this tour instead?
For sure. I mean, I don’t know what the status of that movie is. But certainly some of the ideas that she had for that exist in this show.
Did the show change materially after Madonna’s health scare earlier this year?
A few tiny things but mainly to make the show more efficient. Madonna rehearses unlike most artists. She has been rehearsing the show every day since April. So her fitness has built up constantly from day one. Other artists, their dancers go and build the show somewhere and they come in a few weeks later. After the break, about two months, she was back to the same thing and we did another six weeks of rehearsals.
We met briefly at the show, and you mentioned that TikTok is always on your mind when you construct these shows, because you know much of the world will be seeing sections of it on there. How much of a practical impact does that have on your work?
We’re used to designing shows that have to be seen by the audience all angles, without revealing something that they shouldn’t reveal. Certainly, we now have to think about what fits well in portrait shots.
One of the weirdest things that has become a thing, which sounds crazy, is colour balance. Historically, you would colour balance the lighting, with a screen everything else for for the eye, or for professional cameras, or for the video cameras shooting the show. Now, if you do that, and you put your mobile phone up that wants to autocorrect white balance, you end up with very strange pictures on the phone. And because so many people take pictures with phones, [lighting designer Rob Sinclair and video director Bert Parre] are now altering the lighting and the video to look good on the phone.
So that’s the biggest thing the phone has added, the extra level of complication to make sure that she always looks good in the light, that her hair isn’t the wrong colour, that her skin doesn’t end up looking green because it’s self-corrected too much blue or whatever else.
How do you feel about audiences viewing the shows through their phone screens?
I think it takes away from the audience to not be engaged with actually watching the show, but I think that the audience is becoming the curator of the show. It’s interesting which ones they take, because they’re not always the ones we think they will. In any show, you want to create highs and lows, and you go, ‘What are the five key moments on Instagram or TikTok?’ We imagine it’ll be certain moments like when she’s in the frame, when she’s in the cage for “Like A Prayer”, or when she’s doing “Hung Up” with all the cast members with their tops off. We create these things, but actually, the public are the people that decide what memories they take home.