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How Madonna’s Celebration Tour was brought to life

As Madonna's Celebration Tour continues across Europe, the singer's creative team and set designers tell Rolling Stone UK how they brought her career-spanning triumph to life.

By Nick Reilly

Madonna live in London (Picture: Live Nation UK)

As Madonna‘s Celebration Tour continues to travel around Europe, the team that developed the show’s staggering, era-spanning stage design have told Rolling Stone UK how they brought the singer’s vision to life.

The show kicked off at London’s O2 Arena last month, with our review hailing it as “a masterclass in arena production”.

At one point in the show we see Madonna entering a vibrant gay NYC club to reflect her early days of stardom in the city, while another moment in the show takes a spiritual turn as muscle-clad dancers are positioned on a rotating platform for a powerful rendition of ‘Like A Prayer’. It’s the design concept of stage designer Ric Lipson of architecture firm Stufish, who headed up the vision for this show.

“Historically, Madonna’s tours are started by her saying, ‘Here’s the album that I’m writing, this is the mood of it and this is what I’m trying to say’. She’d work with her director and together they’d come up with a song order to sort the show,” explained Lipson.

But this latest tour proved something different entirely. Instead of theming it around a single album, the creative team were tasked with delivering the singer’s demands for a show that took stock of her groundbreaking career.

“She knew that she wanted to base the show through the eyes of her being spiritually born in New York City. From the early days of landing in Times Square and going down to the Lower East Side, CBGBs and the clubs, the places she hung out when she was young. Her concept of the show then evolved into a geography that would lay out the whole city,” explained Lipson.

Madonna performs during opening night of The Celebration Tour at The O2 Arena on October 14, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/WireImage for Live Nation)

“But she’s always wanting to do something different and asked how we could do an arena tour that didn’t feel like Madame X or previous arena tours. But also one that felt correct for the way people are touring at the moment. Since 2015, social media has completely changed in the way that people are consuming things through their phones and taking shots of things. So for us, it was all about how do we display and portray Madonna in a different way that also makes her feel more connected?”

The answer, it transpired, was to create a vast network of on-stage runways that allowed her to get up close and personal with nearly every section of the arena.

“On the Madame X tour, she really loved how connected to the audience she felt and the audience really loved that relationship that they felt they had with her because of the proximity,” said Lipson.

Lipson also speaks of the “banners that came out constantly with projections on”, allowing the singer’s image and key motifs of her career to be displayed to the entire crowd throughout the show.

But the banners are also responsible for one of the show’s most emotionally charged moments too. During ‘Live To Tell’, Madonna travels across the arena on a flying platform while photos of all the close friends she lost to AIDS – including Keith Haring and Freddie Mercury – are projected on drop-down screens.

“She knew she wanted to sing that song and she knew she wanted to sing it for those people,” Lipson reflects.

“It’s like a time machine,” he adds of the flying frame that the singer uses. “The first time she uses it is when she’s looking back at the eighties and it’s a very powerful moment, which for me is one of the most emotional things I’ve seen in a pop show. Ever.”

It makes a further appearance when the singer delivers an arena-stunning rendition of ‘Ray Of Light’, reflecting the entire theme of the show: celebration. That future-facing era, however, proved one of the trickiest for the team to fully create.

“That end section was hard because you’ve already shown the tricks of what the stage can do and that’s why we kept a cube from the Bedtime Stories section to raise the downtown stage up a whole five metres.

“We go into ‘Billie Jean’ / ‘Like A Virgin’ while getting into the outfits for all the cast for Bitch I’m Madonna. It was quite a lot of costume changes as they’ve just come out of ‘Ray of Light’ too, so there had to be a song in-between where they could all get changed, including Madonna. That’s where the Billie Jean video fitted in. Fundamentally that was the challenge because we’d done a lot already and then needed to deliver another fifteen minutes of staging that builds up to that energetic ending.”

Ultimately though, the hard work of Stufish and the rest of the creative team have paid off. As Rolling Stone UK said on the night, it’s a show that goes far in sufficiently celebrating each era of the singer’s career. Thanks to Madonna’s large team, this is a celebration well and truly delivered.