Much has been made of Madonna's decision to eschew the hit songs that first made her a household name on Drowned World, her first tour in nearly a decade. During the nearly two hours she spends onstage, Mo (or Madge if you prefer, two of the latest appellations for the ageless pop icon) performs songs that are mainly culled from her past two releases, Music and Ray of Light. Obviously not interested in revisiting her past, the now 43-year-old mother of two traded in the material world for a drowned world, which is often quite dark — but unmistakably of her own making.

Broken up into four distinct mini-operas, each with its own set pieces and costumes (the eye-popping wardrobe was created by Jean Paul Gaultier, as well as Donatella Versace, Dean and Dan Caten of D2, and Dolce & Gabbana), the show embraces style after style, adopting the affectations of multiple musical movements in a pattern that mirrors Madonna's career moves. If the term “highlights” really works for a show like this, here are a few: She arrives via a “spaceship,” perches in a 24'-tall aluminum tree before flying through the air on cables á la Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, rides a mechanical bull (surrounded by plastic-wrapped bales of hay), pops out of a spinning, 3,800lb “poof chair” set piece with upholstered, three — walled dance ramps that peel open on hinges and serve as dance space, and — perhaps most notably — accompanies herself on guitar for several songs.

It all seems rather fitting, given her expertise at sensing emerging trends and riding each wave for exactly the right amount of time before jumping to the next. By refusing to commit to any one style, she manages to outpace staleness, while somehow stamping the entire show — and its often puzzling vignettes — with her own musings on women and power.

Having admired Ricky Martin's 1999-2000 Livin' La Vida Loca world tour, Madonna recruited its director, Jamie King, as well as much of the production crew (creative technical consultant Joyce Flemming and production manager Mark Spring) and design team, including lighting designer Peter Morse, production designer Bruce Rodgers, and video director Carol Dodds.

Among the designers, Morse's relationship with Madonna spans back the furthest, to her 1990 world tour. “As great as Blonde Ambition was, and as proud as everyone was to have been associated with it — it was certainly my proudest moment as an LD — this just blows it away,” he says. “Maybe because it's not as straight ahead. It's very different, very edgy, and very challenging. In fact, the key to this whole design is what is not lit. It's like the old analogy: It's not really the bars that make a jail cell, it's the space between them.”

Before he was given the job of filling in the spaces on the tour's stage, Rodgers was asked to design the look of Madonna's opening performance at the 2001 Grammy Awards. “I did a sketch that Jamie King presented to her, and everything got built and delivered to the rehearsal stage in Culver Studios,” he says. “The first time I met her was there, and I was a little intimidated from the start. She was very serious and very professional, but also kind, saying she liked my work.”

After that, Rodgers began to sketch out concepts for the tour's design via input from King and Madonna's manager, Caresse Henry. The outline was as follows: Act I, “Madonna wants to arrive in a spaceship”; Act II, “Kabuki Theatre/Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon — style with a tree”; Act III, “White trash with a mechanical bull”; Act IV, “Latin/Gypsy”; and the encore, “Music.”

A Bruce Rodgers/Tribe sketch of the Drowned World tour.

“We went through at least three weeks of concept ideas, and discussed how to reveal Madonna, how fast or slowly the lifts would work to pop up dancers, where they needed to be, etc.,” Rodgers explains. “The first lift she comes up on we call Cousin It. We meant for people to see it — we wanted them to be aware that there were mechanics involved. It was very in your face.

“The problem with the spaceship arrival was that they'd already sold 270° around the arena,” he adds. “So I had to make sure there was enough space for it to land over on stage left without impinging on the Spanish staircase pop-up over on stage right, and still have everybody feel like they paid for the same show. It's an abstract spaceship that is really in the shape of a halo and its facade is made up of a checkerboard pattern of Barco DLITE 7mm LED panels. It moves on special rigging motors and it has effects built into it like lighting and LED; its skin in the back is silver-painted chainlink, just to give it a little more texture.”

Operatic Spirituality

Since Rodgers didn't know Madonna and wasn't all that familiar with her music, he filled his CD player with her music while sketching the concepts. “It became obvious to me in the sketching phase that this was going to be a very dark show,” he says. “Her music is very spiritual, but in a really dark way. While a lot of people on the design team had done similar theatrical concert events, none of us had really done anything on this type of operatic level.”

Once the concept was sketched out, Madonna and King signed off on the design based on their feeling that Rodgers had the correct vibe going. “They never asked about the theory of the design or reasons for the look,” he says. “It just felt right to them, which is important. One of the hardest parts in the beginning was getting everybody who was involved in making the production to stop saying, ‘That's impossible.’ Jamie and Madonna were constantly supporting the design, saying, ‘Go for it.’ Also, I'm used to trying to get the most out of the least amount of money. But because of the time frame, the costs were running up, and it made me — and everyone else — panic a little. Yet she knew where every nickel was going because she had frequent budget meetings with Jamie. She wanted to know so she could pick and choose what she wanted to have. It was like building a house with Madonna.

“But I also had deeper reasons for the design,” Rodgers continues. “The scale, the connections, the color, the balance, the opaque and translucent surfaces, the garage doors, the LED placement, and the asymmetry within the symmetrical set were driven by the emotions I felt as I listened to her music. Technically, the set is a machine designed with the other creative people involved in mind. For instance, the LED in the set is prominent because Dago González, who I knew from Ricky Martin, was the video artist hired for Madonna's tour. Also, knowing that Jamie was directing and heading up the choreography, I designed several lifts and entrances and levels that he could direct the dancers around. The set design is literally a backdrop for Madonna. It absolutely doesn't compete with her — like anything really could — but it complements what she's trying to do.”

Once production rehearsals were underway, Madonna consulted with Rodgers on specific adjustments she wanted to see. “She really needed to take ownership of the design so she could feel that the set was truly hers.” One change she asked for was with the large metal tree that appears during the kabuki theatre/butoh section of the show. “She wanted it to be a tree with fans built into it so it could blow her hair, so I put Mark Fichou, my metal sculptor friend, to work. I did some silhouette renderings of it first to get the kind of haunted feel she was looking for. When we brought it in, she wanted us to make it a little more scary and sharp. She said, ‘Go bolt butcher knives to the limbs.’ Since this is a touring piece, we didn't do that, but we took it back and added a lot of shards to it and painted it bright chrome. Hydro (AKA head carpenter Robert Mullen) had to grind it down and make it less sharp so it didn't hurt anyone.”

Then, Rodgers brought in Matt Aston to paint the entire set. “His work has this distressed quality in all of his artwork, which is what we wanted,” Rodgers says. “But he's also a very well known painter here in LA, so the walls are like giant Matt Astons.”

While planning the set's construction, Rodgers met with engineer John McGraw, who had the rolling stage built by Brian Sullivan at B&R Scenery and handled everything from the stage structure down — everything that the audience never sees — including the “toaster” lifts, which literally pop dancers onto the stage. All Access, meanwhile, built everything from the stage up, in one month's time.

Branam Enterprises developed several flying special effects for the show: one for flying Madge herself, another to fly two dancers in a separate choreographed routine, and four descending rigs for other dancers.

Light in the Darkness

While Peter Morse had to wait until the set's plans were approved before he could design the lighting system, he met with King to go over concepts much earlier. “Jamie showed me hundreds of photographs and artistic renderings — things that were not necessarily related to the show, but ideas that he was drawing from,” the LD explains. “He had them all labeled and had a fairly good idea of how he wanted the show to flow and, of course, he had sat with Madonna a lot. And her words were, ‘I don't want to see the show lit in any way that is similar to any other show.’ Plus, they wanted a dark show that would fit the mood and the feel of what she was doing. Yet there were also disco elements that they wanted to include for certain songs.

“In the actual design process, it came down to daily confrontations — friendly discourses, really — between me and McGraw and Bruce, because anything I tried to do ran into roadblocks,” Morse continues. “The spaceship invariably moves every five seconds and blocks all kinds of focuses. So I had to think about how I was going to light the show with lamps that would make it past that or under it or through it and how to utilize it as a lighting element also. That's how I got started.”

Morse realized the spaceship itself had to have light sources beneath it. “I knew they would have to be low profile but high output and have some variety to them, since it went anywhere from 1' to 40' off the floor,” he says. “Coincidentally, I had just seen a demo in Vegas of the new Vari*Lite 2402 wash luminaire. I was really blown away by it and I felt that given its size, it was perfect for this application.

“For the rig, I had to design a system that would allow me to get positions inside and outside of this spaceship,” he continues. “So no matter where it went, I could cross over it or under it or certainly light it both within and without. The truss configuration I came up with allows me to backlight and sidelight. I fought for the highest trim of the rig to be no more than the high trim of the spaceship. That didn't happen, so I opted to go with the 1200 Series Coemar fixtures, both hard-edged and soft. They are all high-output fixtures, which I felt would cover me beautifully. But those lights put me in mind of Ferraris — they're just unbelievable when they're standing still and they run great — when they're running. When they're not running, they're a nightmare.”

To cover the centrally staged items, plus the requests that King and Madonna made, the LD put in three Syncrolite 3,000W xenons. “These were added for key moments in the show, where a well-defined area had to be established, and where I could employ a strong beam of light for an undeniable focus. These lights will overpower the rest of the rig, and allowed me to actually light several scenes, using nothing but one or two of the Syncros,” Morse explains. “I also put in six ARRIs that I used on Ricky's show. They were there for the full-out disco and fun songs, where I could lower the lights and really do something big. There are also some High End Systems Turbo Cyberlights® that really help us out a lot, because they can cut through at difficult angles.”

On the floor, Morse placed a bank of High End Studio Beams. “They are really friendly on the face — it's a nice color temperature for that — and I felt that would give me great shin kick resolution,” he says. “I also have High End Studio Colors®, which are punchy as hell and great workhorses. Around the set, there are five truss spots with one upstage center that stay locked on top of the truss above the videowall, which was very similar to what we did on Ricky. I also put a few more VL6s around the set pieces and I put a lot of Studio Colors upstage on what we call the floating groundrow. It's about 6' off the height of the stage, but all the way in the back, so it shot in and around the set pieces. That allowed us to do a lot of nice effects. We have a groundrow that had to roll out to fit into the set design, so I put in a couple of Coemar Super Cycs that lit up the silver drapes in the background. That also tipped forward to give us a beautiful halo effect around the tree and geisha sections — that's how we got that really stark, wonderful red look.”

Unlike most concert tours, Madonna's was booked from the beginning for six to eight weeks of production rehearsal time. “She's very demanding, precise, exacting, and thank God for that, because it was great to have weeks of physical rehearsals, without the stage,” Morse continues. “It gave me an opportunity to sit in and see her run through things, so I could start getting ideas and make changes as we went into the ongoing design of the system. Once it was built and loaded in, and we were into hard programming rehearsal time, we had still another three weeks. It was really valuable time and we needed every minute of it. It was well thought out.”

Lighting programmers Arnold Serame and David Arch worked with Morse to put the lighting system together and program the two Flying Pig Systems Wholehog II® consoles. Serame is also serving as the tour's lighting director. “When Arnold said he wanted to be the LD and program it — he'd do both or nothing at all — that was just a gift from the gods as far as I was concerned,” Morse says. “My main concern for the LD out there was that communicating with Madonna is so important, because she's tough. But I knew that Arnold would be on top of his game and completely comfortable with running the show. Plus, we have a great working relationship. We've done so many shows together that he reads my mind pretty well. Between him and David programming I couldn't think of a better arrangement.”

Morse also relies heavily on spotlights to complete the show's look. “I found early on that the spotlight cueing was truly essential to the flow of the show,” he says. “What we had programmed was one thing, but if I didn't hit her just right from a certain angle, it just didn't work. And I covered my angles purposely — I definitely put two dead-on for her so that she really read properly for the closeups. There is a large portion of the show that is lit with hard sidelight and there is even a portion of the show that is lit only by hard backlight. To me, that was theatre, and it really spelled out what she was looking for.”

Just as in a theatre production, the role of stage manager is key. “Joyce Flemming is the secret weapon,” Rodgers adds. “She gets in there and wrangles everyone from the execs to the riggers and explains what has to happen in order for the fog to come on a half a second after the lighting cue comes on but a half-second before the LED screen fades out. Jamie sits to her left and judges, but the person who communicates it is Joyce. She did it for Ricky and she's doing it for Madonna and she doesn't flinch. It's not easy being the person telling everyone whose cues are late. That's why the timing is so perfect.”

Screen Savers

Because of the relative starkness of the stage and lighting design, the show's video content creates much of the show's beauty. For the placement of the video screens, Rodgers worked with King, who insisted that the vertical, 12'-wide × 16'-tall Lighthouse 10mm Pixel Pitch LED screen Madonna had been using on her promotional spots be included. “It was my idea, because of the 270° sightlines, to make garage-door video screens that allowed the dancers to make entrances; they also lay flat, so Madonna could dance on them,” Rodgers says. “I wanted the spaceship piece to be entirely covered in LEDs, but due to weight restrictions, we had to break it up into a patchwork of panels that are attached to it.”

Traditionally, the video crew is among the last brought in, and this tour was no different. When production involves such a large amount of complex images, up-front design is needed to get the correct visual system together. Dodds worked closely with content designer Dago González and video engineer Josh Alberts to get the necessary video playback system perfected. “One of the problems was that the system the production team had specified was one that they had used for playback on the pieces Madonna had done for the promo spots, whether it was a TV show or two or three songs here or there,” she explains. “For the promos, Josh Alberts was set up right next to music programmer Michael McKnight, and a timeline was instigated for each individual piece. In rehearsal, the pieces were being honed into specific timelines as the video playback material was coming in bit by bit.

“The trigger factor became more intense the tighter the show became,” Dodds continues. “It became increasingly apparent we could not rely on being able to trigger playback with a normal pre-roll time; we would have to roll from one song into the next. Because of that, we had to set up the playback in groups, like chapters, rather than individual songs. Not only that, Mike was going to be set up under the stage and video could be up to 300' from him. The problem with that was the hardware we were using no longer fit the bill. So we had to rebuild the system at the end of rehearsals while moving overseas for the show's opening.”

Alberts put together the playback system and did the software design using a system called ARTI (Advanced Remote Technology Inc.). Of course, as each piece of playback material came in, there would be changes in synch, and since there were up to six different tapes for one song, there could be six individual synch points. “Once we got the material, Josh would work with Mike to get the right frame synch synched up, and check the rest of the video. It's a very time-consuming process and it made the end of the rehearsal period a real crunch time for everybody. We were trying to get everything coordinated so they could rehearse to it, as well as trying to make it right for the first shows that were coming up.

“Also,” she continues, “we got the final product of what we were going to use the day before we left for Barcelona [where the tour commenced], then we had two days of rehearsal there. So it was an incredible crunch at that point in time to make it all come together in time for the first show. We virtually had to rip the whole thing apart and rebuild it overnight — and get the right content in there. The video team is very collaborative, so everybody has to be on his or her mark. We have two different kinds of screens. So the guys coloring the screens have an intense job because it's virtually impossible to match the two types of screens that we're using. So they have to make choices based on the playback material. This was another process that was at the last moment because we didn't have the final playback material until the end. Thankfully, Stefaan Michels was very conscientious about color matching and Nocturne was very good about helping to facilitate everything.”

The designer of the actual video content was González and Madonna signed off on everything shot by shot. Just as varied as the rest of the show's design, the video ranges from colorfully flashy techno sequences to clips from Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me for “Beautiful Stranger.” There is also a video of Madonna singing, “Paradise, Not for Me” in kabuki costume and makeup and later a long shot of Madonna made up to look battered, complete with fat lip and black eye. Next, there is a truly disturbing Japanimation video shown during “What It Feels Like for a Girl.” This is later followed by black-and-white video of all different types of people during “Secret.”

“It was a very intensive situation, and he did a great job of coordinating all that,” Dodds says. “Unfortunately, since we got all of this at the last minute, they all had an incredible turnaround time because we couldn't actually time the pieces into anything until we had the finished product. Everything got pushed up against the wall, and what was supposed to have been a month-long rehearsal period ended up being, ‘Okay, we have an hour and a half before we have to pack the trucks!’ ”

During the show, Dodds concentrates on filling the side screens, which are totally live throughout. “They reflect my decisions of how best to tell the story of what's going on,” she says. “I will bring the audience into it when she's talking to them or there is a huge reaction to something. I work very closely with the camera operators on this.”

In deference to the playback content's intensity, Dodds didn't concentrate on image magnification (IMAG) as much as a director normally would. “I started to take that to the next step to give them a sense of what was actually happening and where to channel your attention, rather than just giving them a closeup of a face,” she explains. “That gets old pretty quickly, but because it's sold 270, there are some parts that not everyone can see. It's a fine line. As long as you can glance up there and get a sense of what's going on and then come back to the actual moment onstage, it seems to work together. You have to try to find that balance.”

Because of the way the show is structured, the transition periods (where Madonna leaves the stage to change costumes) are usually video segments. “I used the transitions from live to playback video and back to live. It ties it all together and makes it as one at the same time,” Dodds says. “It's striking to see all the screens having the playback material on them at some points in time because then it doesn't make it such a shock when there is live video happening on the stage as well.”

While the darkness works well for the show's sense of drama, it isn't a friendly atmosphere for video cameras. “It was difficult to shoot because when you're looking at the stage show, if it's dark, it's OK,” Dodds explains. “If you have a bright video screen in the background, your eye can adjust to that dichotomy of light intensity easier than the camera lens will. So it was a very interesting juxtaposition to find that balance where it would work for the stage show and for video.

“It did help that Peter and I have worked together often in the past,” Dodds continues. “Some of the looks Peter came up with are so beautifully dramatic that I was really glad that the video was able to retain the drama of the instant. Normally Peter does much brighter shows, so I think this was a nice stretch for him and it made it an interesting and very enjoyable experience.”

“Her video work for this was really outstanding,” Morse says of Dodds. “At first, I told Jamie that he was just letting the video blow us out, because when the video blacks out instantaneously, all of a sudden there is so much richness onstage — until the video comes back and blows it away again. But it's very artistic and very well done, so you can't really argue about that.”

With Madonna casting the final vote on nearly every design decision, the production crew was able to help her pull off what has become one of the most talked-about tours in years. “Working with Madonna was cool; she was all everybody ever thinks: very professional and very serious about trying to put on an amazing show,” Rodgers concludes. “I've never experienced working with an artist who had such a complete dedication to taking part in everything. I'd say 80% of the design was inspired by her music, and the other 20% was the collaborative result from everybody involved. So, in a weird way, it was a design by everybody.”

MADONNA'S 2001 DROWNED WORLD TOUR CREDITS

Director/Choreographer JAMIE KING

Assistant director TIFFANY OLSON

Choreographer ALEX MAGNO

Assistant choreographer KELLY PARKER

Associate choreographer STEFANIE ROOS

Creative technical consultant
JOYCE FLEMMING

Production directors CHRIS LAMB, GERRY STICKELLS

Production manager MARK SPRING

Production stage manager SCOTT CHASE

Production assistant DIANE EICHORST

Production designer BRUCE RODGERS/TRIBE INC.

Lighting designer PETER MORSE

Live video director CAROL DODDS

Video director and designer DAGO GONZáLEZ

Video sequence editor ELEONORA FILIPELLI

Additional video sequences DAN RUCKS

Lighting director/programmer ARNOLD SERAME

Lighting programmer DAVID ARCH

Art director JOSEPH KALE/TRIBE INC.

Set engineering and construction JOHN MCGRAW

Lighting crew chief ROBERT COOPER

Lighting technicians VIRGINIA CORBETT, BILL BOYD, MIKE GOTT, MICHAEL PARKER, TIM SCHIAVONE, STEVE SLIGAR, MARK KLOPPER (VARI*LITE)

Electrician HENRY WETZEL

Art direction/set design JOSEPH KALE/TRIBE INC., JAMIE CARR/TRIBE INC.

Storyboards and models CLARK HINKLE

Design coordinator MIKE RHODES/TRIBE INC.

Head carpenter BOB MULLIN

Carpenters JACK RICHARDSON, PETER TURCHYN, GINO CARDELLI, SAM FIRST, LENNY GUICE

Head rigger T.J. THOMPSON

Riggers LETICIA ALCALA, JOHN KINAL, ARTURO DICKEY, RODNEY DICKEY

Props RANDY WILSON

Pyro/confetti BOB HOOD

Programmer/keyboards MICHAEL MCKNIGHT

FOH audio engineer DAVE KOB

Monitor audio engineer BLAKE SUIB

Audio technicians CLIFF DOWNEY, MARTY STRAYER, ANTHONY TANG

Set construction ALL ACCESS STAGING, B&R SCENERY

Tree sculpture MARC FICHOU

Video engineer/programmer/show control JOSH ALBERTS

Head LED screen technician STEFAAN MICHELS

Camera operators CHRISTIAN LAMB, JOE VICTORIA , AL LARSON , PETER MOLL

Projectionist/camera operator BRAD REIMAN

LED technician HANS FRANKEN

Soft goods MEAGAN DUQUETTE/SEW WHAT

Set painter MATT ASTON

Lighting suppliers LIGHT & SOUND DESIGN/FOURTH PHASE VARI-LITE, INC.

Video supplier NOCTURNE

Audio supplier CLAIR BROTHERS AUDIO

Rigging supplier BRANAM RIGGING

MADONNA'S 2001 DROWNED WORLD TOUR LIGHTING & VIDEO EQUIPMENT (PARTIAL LIST) Lighting Equipment

(26) Vari*Lite VL6C wash luminaires
(18) Vari*Lite VL6C-HE luminaires
(26) Coemar CF1200HE luminaires
(40) Coemar CF1200 washlights
(16) Coemar CF7XHEs
(3) Coemar Super Cycs
(6) Coemar NAT-TMs
(28) High End Systems
Studio Beam luminaires
(34) High End Systems Studio Color
575 luminaires
(20) High End Systems Studio Spot
575 luminaires
(16) High End Systems Turbo Cyberlights
(5) 40K Lightning Strikes strobe units
(22) High End Systems AF-1000
Dataflash strobes
(7) Arri 2.5K Compulites
(4) Syncrolite 3K lights
(5) Lycian 1.2K long-lens followspots
(4) Flying Pig Systems Wholehog II consoles
(5) Reel FX DF-50 foggers
(3) High End Systems F-100 fogger

Video Equipment

(28) 9" Sony Monitors
(03) 13" Sony monitors
(1) 20" Sony monitor
(1) 13" VGA monitor
(2) 27" VGA monitors
(60) GVG Video EQ Das
(5) Audio hum buckers
(12) Video hum buckers
(1) Clear-Com four — channel
(15) Clear-Com beltpacks & headsets
(1) UVW-1800 Beta deck
(1) BVW-75 Beta deck
(3) Sony VHS decks
(7) TBCs
(1) Pinnacle Aladdin DVE
(1) ARTI (Advanced Remote Technology Inc.) a20 port 422 control system
(12) Doremi hard drive playback devices
(4) Ikegami HL-55 broadcast cameras
(3) DXC-950 point-of-view cameras
(1) DXC-SLC lipstick camera
(1) GVG 250 production switcher
(1) GVG Horizon video router
(6) Barco LED videowalls
(1) Light House LED videowall
(2) DLP 15k projectors
(2) 12 × 15 Soft Screens
(5) Pentium III control computers
1,100' Triax
1,500' Cam Lock power cable
1,400' XLR audio cable