What it feels like in a whirl: Madonna and ''family'' deal with acute labor pains in delivering the you-know-what of all pop tours

By Jeff Gordinier
Updated July 27, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

Get into the toaster and crouch. Shut the door. Bend your knees. You’re in a square, transparent pod underneath the stage at London’s Earls Court. The point man is staring at you, waiting for a thumbs-up. If you’re holding a guitar, aim the fretboard vertically, otherwise a tuning peg might get clipped on the way up and — claaaang! — you’ll storm the stage in a hail of sour notes. Keep your arms at your sides. During rehearsals a dancer almost got a limb sliced off when a toaster hurled her into the air sooner than expected. They call it a toaster because it can pop you out like a piece of toast. Sometimes it’s cannonball-fast, but usually it hoists you slowly, into a dry-ice fogbank, as if you’re a platform-booted member of Kiss. If it looks like you’re not ready, ”we abort the move,” says production manager Mark Spring. If you are ready — if thumbs-ups are exchanged — then seconds later you’re cavorting with Madonna in front of 17,598 fans. ”It’s like going from one world to the next,” says guitarist Monte Pittman. ”Under the stage it’s like a hidden city. It’s like something in Star Wars. Then you go up and there’s just a sea of people screaming.”

For nearly half of her 42 years, Madonna’s every move — every haircut, video, lyric, lip-gloss hue, snippy utterance, and tempting-taunting gluteal gyration — has been enough to elicit howls from the crowd and subatomic analysis from the media. The latest chapter in the discourse, Drowned World Tour 2001, marks the first time she has toured since the stripper-chic cabaret of 1993’s Girlie Show. So you can pretty much count on a flurry of zany public contemplation now that this, her inaugural road show of the 21st century, just made its levitating, nunchaku-flipping, 100-minute Stateside debut on July 21 in Philadelphia. What does Madonna’s battle with the samurai warrior tell us about female empowerment? What’s the significance of the gas masks? What’s with the brutal pastiche of Japanimation? Why does she steer away from her standard clutch of hits — no ”Like a Virgin,” no ”Like a Prayer” — and focus on a series of solemn vignettes about psychosexual-spiritual liberation? And what about Jesus, the mechanical bull? What does it all mean?!

She’s not saying. But a true student of Madonna-ology would probably get more insight into the diva by snooping around here, among the toasters, in the low-slung catacombs under this London stage. This is where the European leg of the tour is winding to a close. Right around the corner is the 12-city, 29-date American passage, which sold out months ago. Much has been made of the military vastness of the tour; Madonna’s advance team distributes a sheet full of oceanic data about it. (A 4,900-square-foot stage, 1,500 storage trunks, two jumbo jets, a kimono with a 52-foot wingspan. Left off the press release: The $50 million gross that Pollstar predicts they’ll generate in U.S. ticket sales alone.) Frankly, though, you can learn just as much from the minutiae. Because as you chat with Drowned World’s cast and crew — Mama Ciccone’s traveling ”family,” albeit maybe a more dysfunctional one than the brood captured in 1991’s Truth or Dare — you realize that each itty-bitty detail is a manifestation of the matriarch’s steely creative will.