The Grandest Grand Finale: Madonna Celebrates Record-Setting Touring Career

If one wanted to get a bead on Madonna’s illustrious, 40-year career, a good to place to start would be last Saturday (May 4) in Rio de Janeiro. There, the Queen of Pop, and likely all else, performed a free concert before a massive swath of humanity blanketing the city’s stunning Copacabana Beach. A two-and-a-half mile stretch of sand nestled between the South Atlantic and the city’s famed promenade was transformed into the world’s largest and most banging dance floor. The show, like the entirety of “The Celebration Tour,” was a tribute to Madge’s groundbreaking career, but this was the run’s grand finale and so it wrapped in even more spectacular head-exploding maximalist Madonna fashion: With a record-setting 1.6 million attendees — the highest ever for a stand-alone concert — making it the grandest grand finale ever.

“It was unbelievable,” says Arthur Fogel, Madonna’s promoter since 2001 and head of Global Touring for Live Nation. He knows a thing or two about great performances, having promoted historic tours by the likes of David Bowie, Beyoncé, U2, Lady Gaga and The Police among many others. “It was an incredible experience and pretty flawless pulling it off in the end. It wasn’t easy to get there, as you can imagine, there was a lot to deal with …”

That would be a vast understatement. For starters, try 18 massive sound and video towers, an 8,700-square foot stage, cargo planes carrying a reported 270 tons of production, 4,000 workers, the construction of a foot bridge from the Copacabana Palace Hotel to the beach stage for rehearsals and then, of course, the Brazilian military.

BLAME IT ON RIO: An aerial view of the record-setting 1.6 million crowd gathered on Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana Beach to see Madonna perform the grand finale of her “Celebration Tour.”
Photo by Daniel Ramalho / AFP / Getty Images.

“The navy was even there protecting the beach,” Fogel says. “Seriously, there were Navy destroyers just a few hundred yards off the beach controlling the boat action and access. It was amazing.”

And then there was something unexpected and utterly terrifying that not only could have derailed her record-setting Rio show, but her entire tour and so much else: a serious life-threatening medical emergency. Thankfully, she fully recovered and the affliction only deepened the meaning and scope of “The Celebration Tour,” enhancing her team’s and fans’ deep love and appreciation for Madonna.

“For me, every day with [Madonna] in it is a blessing,” says longtime manger Guy Oseary from Rio, the day before the tour’s grand finale. It’s such an important point that he called back after our initial interview to clarify. “The tour is called ‘The Celebration Tour,’ so we’re celebrating her career, but we’re also celebrating her life. It’s perfect that it aligned already with celebrating her 40 years and then something like this happens. It isn’t like you had to shift anything; it just added extra meaning. It didn’t change the run of the show necessarily, it just brought more emotion to it. Everything is already a blessing, but it’s an even more meaningful blessing after what she endured and came back from.”

"Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty" Costume Institute Gala At The Metropolitan Museum Of Art Arrivals
To The Nines: Madonna and longtime manager Guy Oseary attend the “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” Costume Institute Gala at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 2, 2011 in New York City. (Kevin Mazur/Wireimage/GettyO

“I forgot five days of my life or my death,” Madonna said from the stage of London’s 02 Arena on what became ‘Celebration’s first show back on October 14, 2023 after landing in the ICU. “If you want to know my secret, and you want to know how I pull through and how I survive, I thought, ‘I’ve got to be there for my children. I have to survive for them.’” Madonna, of course, meant her six children, Lourdes, Rocco, David, Mercy and twins Estere and Stella, some of whom turned up on stage for this tour.

But in a larger sense, too, Madonna is the grand matriarch to millions upon millions of fans whom over the last four decades she’s empowered, elevated and provided a safe party space for them to commune, vamp and thrive.

This Madonna’s done with a stone cold classic catalog of hits multiple generations grew up with; her brilliant and wildly creative artistic expressions and collaborations with and/or inspired by some of the greatest artists of our time; her enlightened messages of feminism, equality, inclusivity, liberation and joy, which were radical and exploded minds upon first impact and over time have become even more important; and her amazing capacity for philanthropy and walking the walk as much, if not more than, talking the talk . And it’s in the live space, with her 12 major tours, where these expressions take full flight.

Madonna In Detroit, 1985
GONNA DRESS YOU UP WITH MY LOVE: Madonna performing on 1985’s “Like A Virgin Tour” sporting fashions she collaborated with Maripol on. Here performing on May 25, 1985, at Detroit’s Cobo Arena.
Photo by Ross Marino / Icon and Image / Getty Images

“Madonna’s live performances have been crucial in terms of her career and have helped her to take her artistic vision to a whole new level and bring forth an opportunity to share her music with her fans,” says Dr. Matthew Donahue, professor in the Department of Popular Culture at Bowling Green State University. “Her tours have always been this combination of music with visual and performance art as a way to treat her fans to a spectacular show and also a way to bring fans together. Her live shows themselves are works of art and the ‘Celebration Tour’ is no exception, with highly choreographed performances set to her empowering lyrics, intense music, along with a massive multimedia production reaching both her older fans, who have followed her over the years, and also her newer fans, who know her music but might not have had the chance to see her perform.”

And perform and celebrate they have. “The Celebration Tour” grossed an astronomical $227.2 million and sold 1.1 million tickets over the course of 80 shows between Oct. 14, 2023 and May 4, 2024, according to Pollstar Boxoffice reports (her final Rio date was not included because it was a free show). It was also No. 3 on Pollstar’s 2024 Q1 Worldwide Top 100 Artist Grosses chart.

“The Celebration Tour” is just the latest feather in Madonna’s plumage-festooned hall of fame live hat. She is one of the greatest touring acts of all time and her data bears this out. She’s mounted 12 major tours over the course of her long career and grossed a jaw-dropping $1.61 billion selling more than 12.6 million tickets over 650 shows, according to Pollstar Boxoffice reports, with six tours over grossing over $100 million.

Madonna 'Rebel Heart' Tour Sydney
Just Like A Prayer: Madonna on her ‘Rebel Heart’ Tour at Allphones Arena on March 19, 2016 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Zak Kaczmarek/Getty Images)

Her record-setting 2008-09 “Sticky & Sweet Tour,” which ran from Aug. 23, 2008 – Sept. 2, 2009, was the highest-grossing tour by a woman for more than 15 years. That historic run grossed $419 million, which when adjusted for inflation comes out to $592.7 million, made it the second- highest-grossing tour by a female artist. Adding to that tally is 2012’s “MDNA Tour,” which grossed $301 million; 2006’s “Confessions Tour,” which cleared $194 million and 2015-16’s “Rebel Heart Tour” which earned $169.8 million. And her “Re-Invention Tour grossed $125.3 million. When combined with “The Celebration Tour” that’s a total of six tours over $100 million gross.

Beyond Madonna’s preternatural talent, intellect and brilliant performances are her collaborators and influences, which include legions of brilliant artists of vastly different stripes. What do Nile Rodgers, Martha Graham, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Herb Riits, Donatella Versace, Maluma, Jean Michelle Basquiat, George Harrison, Steven Meisel, Anitta, Abel Ferrera, Nicki MInaj, Frida Kahlo, Jellybean Benitez, David Mamet, Andy Warhol, Patricia Arquette, Sofi Coppala, J. G. Ballard, Keith Haring, Stella McCartney, Johnny Dynell, David Bowie, William Orbit, Mirwais, Tamara de Lempicka, Edward Hopper, The Beastie Boys and Cesária Évora have in common? We’re not sure, but these are artists Madonna has either collaborated or worked with and/or been inspired by—and that’s just a sliver of the many this is true of.

Despite her massive success, seemingly there are always detractors. Like clockwork they crawl out of the woodwork with each Madonna tour, proclaiming it a disaster and citing erroneous ticket prices only seen on the bizarro-world secondary market and ignoring every revenue and ticketing metric meticulously reported for the last 30 years by Madonna’s team. Mind you, it’s often other female artists, including Taylor Swift and Beyoncé, who erroneously get tagged with this lack of sales trope despite these three amazing and powerful women leading the live industry to its greatest heights. One can’t help but think it’s media and misogyny at its worst.

“All that she’s had to endure, she’s a target, right? And that comes with the territory for a lot of celebrities and certainly artists get that,” says Fogel, who promoted Madonna’s first 1985 “The Virgin Tour” at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Garden Arena. “She’s had to endure a lot as that target because she takes so many risks in her career, is upfront about it and doesn’t shy away from a lot of the things that people react strongly to one way or the other. But on this tour and show you realize her catalog of hits, apart from everything else, the actual hit after hit after hit, that Madonna is such a strong musical force in the pop world for so long that it’s just awe-inspiring.”

Screen Shot 2024 05 12 at 5.55.05 PM
MOVIE STARS: Arthur Fogel and Guy Oseary at the premiere of “Who the F**k is Arthur Fogel?” at the Harmony Gold Preview House in L.A. on Jan. 23, 2014. Inset: A film still of Fogel and Madonna from the movie. Photo by Brandon Clark / ABImages | Courtesy Align PR

The “Celebration Tour” show is a phantasmagorical journey through her stunning career with some 30 songs over the course of a two-and-a-half hour house party with some 20 dancers, five choreographers, a Macy’s store worth of costuming, hi-tech production, special guests, her children, a “Vogue” dance-off and so much more.

“Honestly, Madonna is unbelievable, no one could have done what she’s done,” says Sarah Zambreno, who co-manages Madonna and has worked with her since 2006’s “Confessions Tour” (and whom Oseary recently called “an angel sent from the heavens above Chicago”). Minutes earlier, Zambreno returned home from Rio where she oversaw the spectacular finale as well as the entire “Celebration Tour.” It’s kept her on the road for the past six months and she gives all credit to one very hands-on artist.

Ricardo Gomes 8 2
Madonna (Ricaardo Gomes)

“Madonna leads the charge,” she says. “She picks the creatives that she wants to get together with and gets them all in a room and everyone starts creating together. ‘I like this, I don’t like that. More of this, less of that.’ It’s her leading it all, which is why it works. There’s a strong voice that’s giving a very strong opinion. It’s a great process and she’s involved in every part of that process.”

The conception of “The Celebration Tour,” Oseary explains, happened very organically. “We just get together and talk and go, ‘What do we do next? You know it’s the 40-year anniversary’ So it’s like, ‘Do we or don’t we?’ It just made sense to go out there and celebrate 40 years of an incredible career.”

One challenge of chronicling Madonna’s action-packed, hit-filled career is that there’s just way too much of a good thing. “At one point we were in meetings and saying we could just do the ‘80s as a tour and then come back another year and just do the ‘90s,” says Zambreno. “It was an embarrassment of riches, of songs and visuals and costumes and videos to choose from. And how do you pick? Everyone’s going to have a different opinion on what makes the most sense to put on screen. At the end of the day the best solve was just her voice, her narrative, her story and how she wanted to tell it.”

The not-so-secret weapon to Madonna’s incredible success is Madonna, who is part creative director, tour manager and dedicated collaborationist with a legendary work ethic who takes nothing for granted.

Sara Z and Guy Oseary
IT’S LIKE A DREAM (TEAM) TO ME: Madonna’s managers, Sara Zambreno and Guy Oseary,(Photo: Guy Oseary)

“She’s the most organized person you will ever meet,” Zambreno says. “She gives people the opportunity to really shine. When you talk about the costumes, you have Eyob Yohannes, who did costumes on “Madame X,” and came together with Rita Melssen, who, on the last tour was her assistant and is now a full blown costume designer and stylist. They worked nonstop, seven days a week to get everything done. I would say that’s one (career) through-line She really does take a chance and uplift people to find their own craft]

Zambreno goes on to credit some of her other collaborators. “Jamie King, the tour director, is amazing,” she says. “He’s been with her for so many tours. They speak the same vocabulary and he’s really excellent at translating things to the stage. And then Louis James came in and also helped as creative director and his sketches and some of his ideas, like the idea for the doppelganger, came out of a meeting with Madonna. There’s quite a few people. Ric Lipson, our stage architect, was there from the first date, sketching out ideas and showing how to make New York look like a stage and the cake from “Like a Virgin” be in the middle of the stage. And then he brought in Rob Sinclair, our lighting designer, who has literally been working on this since, I think, October 2022.”

And then Madonna brought in Sasha Kasiuha to be her content director, who she first met when she was editing “Madame X.” And Sasha just learned how to edit to work on that project and now he did the content for all those screens and put together “Live to Tell” with the AIDS memorial. It’s quite an amazing, amazing team that Jamie oversees, but it’s people who really have their own spaces and work directly with Madonna to bring it to life.”

By late June of last year, after rehearsals that first began in New York City in April and then moved to Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, New York, just a few weeks out from the tour’s launch date, life got in the way. It happens to mice, men, women, cultural icons.

“On Saturday June 24, Madonna developed a serious bacterial infection which [led] to a several day stay in the ICU,” Oseary wrote on Instagram on June 28, 2023. “Her health is improving, however, she is still under medical care. A full recovery is expected.” He also announced “The Celebration Tour,” which was set to kick off in three weeks on July 15 at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, would be postponed.

Opening Night of Madonna: The Celebration Tour London
A Living Memorial: Madonna performs “Live To Tell” with a screen paying tribute to lives lost to AIDS on the opening night of The Celebration Tour at The O2 Arena on October 14, 2023 in London. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/WireImage for Live Nation)

Twenty-three North American arena dates in all would be postponed or canceled. This included two Madison Square Garden plays, one at Chicago’s United Center, a night at, and with the tour now kicking off in Euope in mid-October.

In December, at her show at Brooklyn’s Barclay’s Center, Madonna, in her hold-nothing- back pathology, revealed how very serious her condition was and thanked the person who saved her life. “There’s one very important woman who dragged me to the hospital. I don’t even remember. I passed out on my bathroom floor,” she said from the arena stage. “I woke up in the ICU. Thank you Shavawn. She saved my life … I was in an induced coma for 48 hours…”

The severity of Madonna’s health scare not only deepened the meaning and scope of the trek for her team, but it of course deeply impacted Madonna.

“Thank you for your positive energy, Prayers and words of healing and encouragement,” began Madonna’s July 10 Instagram post. “I have felt your love. I’m on the road to recovery and incredibly grateful for all the blessings in my life… The current plan is to reschedule the North American leg of the tour and to begin in October in Europe. I couldn’t be more grateful for your care and support. Love, M”

Drag Race Winner; Bob the Drag Queen performs onstage during the free concert of US pop star Madonna at Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on May 4, 2024. Madonna ended her “The
Celebration Tour” with a performance attended by some 1.5 million enthusiastic fans. (Photo by PABLO PORCIUNCULA/AFP via Getty Images)

“She taught us how to dance! She taught us how to express ourselves, she taught us how to party and she taught us how to FUCK!,” screamed the resplendent Bob The Drag Queen, the tour’s MC, winner of the eighth season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and the best hype person on the planet. Bob’s clad in Victorian frippery and screaming at the top of his powerful lungs: “And tonight I need you all to turnt up! Because this is not just a show, this is not just a concert, this is not just a parrrrrty, IT’S A CELEBRATION, BITCHES!!”

And so the “Celebration Tour” begins. Madonna appears at first as if an apparition, stunningly beautiful in a black gown and raised halo above her head, much like her holy namesake. She launches into what could be the show’s overarching narrative theme, a plaintive song from 1998’s Ray of Light’s “Nothing Really Matters.” It’s a song with introspective and confessional lyrics expressing regret and vulnerability at how she lived “selfishly” and only to make “myself happy.” Here, though, it is also a story of personal growth and wisdom with the resonant mantra of “Love is all there is.” It’s an acknowledgement of her transformation, transcendence and perhaps submission to a higher power. It could also be the message of this entire tour.

“Madonna is a beloved icon and hosting her at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, her hometown, was unforgettable,” says Howard Handler, president of the venue’s parent company 313 Presents, who was clearly touched by her performance. “Detroit fans are known for their passion and after waiting nine years for her return, the crowd’s anticipation and excitement was palpable. She delivered on every level, as a performer, as a storyteller and mostly with her rock n’ roll attitude. Madonna was also vulnerable, sharing her many Detroit memories including time spent at the Detroit Institute of the Arts, ‘my first gay nightclub,’ and her first dance instructor, the late Christopher Flynn; she even shared personal moments, like a tribute to her 92-year-old father Tony Ciccone (who was in the audience) and how he inspired her amazing work ethic. Perhaps most moving among her personal stories was her wanting Detroit to be proud of her.”

PAST THE VELVET ROPE: Madonna with dancers beneath a giant disco ball during “Holiday,” set
at NYC’s Paradise Grange,during “The Celebration Tour” London opening on Oct. 14, 2023.
Courtesy Align PR

And that’s a typical review from just one of her 81 shows played over six months, which breaks down to a show on average nearly every two days. Madonna at 65 years young is indefatigable.

It’s fascinating to note how to some degree world has come full circle over the course of Madonna’s 40-year career. Last September, 34 years after it was filmed, Pepsi finally released the $5 million commercial filmed to her then-new smash hit, “Like a Prayer.” The video for “Like a Prayer,” however, created something of a needless shitstorm. Directed by Mary Lambert, the music video featured Madonna witnessing what seemed a racist murder, her kissing a Black saint, burning crosses, stigmata and a slip worn as outerwear (Gasp! Have they seen Cardi B.’s and Meghan The Stallion’s “WAP” video?). Whatever the public moral outcry, it led to the Vatican again calling for a boycott, which led Pepsi, her tour’s sponsor, to suddenly pull out.

“The commercial was immediately canceled when I refused to change any scenes in the video where I was kissing a Black saint or burning crosses,” Madonna wrote on Instagram in September. “So began my illustrious career as an artist refusing to compromise my artistic integrity. “Thank you [Pepsi] for finally realizing the genius of our collaboration…Artists are here to disturb the peace.” Maybe Madonna did lose some battles, but today it looks a lot like she’s won the war and thankfully continues to fight on.