Madonna's first ever greatest hits tour will be "a documentary through her vast career" that includes more than 40 songs, her musical director says.
In an exclusive interview, Stuart Price told the BBC the show draws on four decades of archive footage and studio recordings to tell the star’s story.
“A greatest hit doesn’t have to be a song,” he said. “It can be a wardrobe, it can be a video, or a statement.”
He added that Madonna was back to full strength after a summer health scare.
The superstar was found unconscious in her New York apartment in June and rushed to hospital, where she received treatment for a serious bacterial infection.
Lucky to be alive
The singer later said she was “lucky to be alive”, and postponed the start of the sold-out Celebration Tour from July to October.
The premiere will now take place at London’s O2 Arena on Saturday.
“The person that is going to take the stage looks incredible, sounds incredible, performs incredible,” said Price, reassuring fans that the 65-year-old had fully recovered.
He added that the three-month delay had been used to polish the show.
“Madonna has very high expectations of how much hard work people will put into something,” he said. “It’s very uncompromising – but she’s equally as hard on herself.
“So when she took a break, that pause created an opportunity to further enhance the show. And I’m sure the opportunity [for her] to focus on being 100% well was greatly received as well.”
Since she burst onto the UK charts with Holiday in 1984, Madonna has scored another 71 hits, including 13 number one singles.
“That was the big challenge,” admitted Price. “In two hours, can you get all of it in? That’s hard. But every great moment she’s had, we took a bit of it.”
Many hits will be played in full, some will be interpolated into other songs, and still more will be used as “bridges” between acts.
Price suggested a ballpark figure of 25 songs would be performed, with elements of 20 more appearing in some form.
And what about a Taylor Swift-style acoustic section, where different tracks can be rotated into the playlist every night?
“Well, Madonna’s reputation is for being highly precise and highly rehearsed across all departments. When you look at a tour of this scale, it has so many moving parts, so many elements, that everything has to be highly fixed.
“But there’s one thing that’s always dynamic, and that’s Madonna herself. Her personality is so strong, her interaction with the audience is so strong, that it creates opportunities for variation from night to night.”
Price is one of the most in-demand producers in the industry, with credits including Dua Lipa’s Levitating, The Killers’ Human and Kylie Minogue’s All The Lovers.
The pair established a musical shorthand that he said works almost telepathically.
“It sounds very spiritual – but a lot of the ideas we have about music are inferred or non-verbal. There’s just an understanding of feeling.”
Although Price hadn’t worked on a Madonna concert since 2006, their bat-senses began to tingle in January.
“When she announced the greatest hits tour I called her just to say, ‘Congratulations, I think this is a great idea’. And she said, ‘I was just thinking about you, and I thought you’d be the perfect person to work with on this’.
“So two weeks later, I went to New York.”
By that point, “Madonna had a really already highly evolved storyline” for the show that “reflected on her career, from being a young woman in New York and learning the scene, all the way through to motherhood, spiritual awakenings, and all the ups and downs. The storyline was just really, really compelling”.
It’s no coincidence that the tour was conceived while Madonna was also working on a movie of her life story.
Due to star Julia Garner, the project was put on ice in January, around the same time as the tour was announced.
“One of the Madonna’s skills is that she’s able to cross-pollinate ideas between different projects,” said Price. “In this case there’d been consideration about doing a biopic [which gave] this tour the potential for having a documentary aspect to it as well.”
As a result, the show will draw on news footage, classic costumes and music videos.
More crucially, it will use Madonna’s original multi-track recordings, with Price extracting “a vocal take where there’s a car going by in the background” or “a solo from a guitarist who’s no longer with us” to recapture the original spirit of the songs.
In fact, for the first time since she performed club shows at the start of her career, Madonna will not be joined by an on-stage band.
“There are live musicians that perform at different parts of the show,” said Price. “But what we realised is that the original recordings are our stars. Those things can’t be replicated and can’t be recreated, so we decided just to embrace that.”
“With Madonna, everything is always about recontextualising stuff, finding ways to take strong original messages and see how they resonate in the era that we’re in now,” said Price.
“A lot of the powerful moments [in this show] are to do with where the music intersects with something that society was going through, especially something emotional, like the Aids crisis. Those moments are incredibly powerful.”
In Madonna’s world, details matter. And with thousands of hours of archive to draw on, it sounds like the Celebration tour will spotlight her ongoing contribution not just to pop music but to culture.
We’ll find out on Saturday night.