Local guitarist Rory Callais and burlesque star Bella Blue will honor the icon in "Bedtime Stories" at One Eyed Jacks on Saturday.
Madonna is a fitting burlesque muse. As a sex icon and an artist who has continually remade herself, it makes sense that a variety show with its roots in theatrical caricature would take on Madonna as its subject. New Orleans burlesque performer Bella Blue and musician Rory Callais have done just that with "Bedtime Stories: A Madonna Burlesque and Live Music Tribute," which they'll debut at One Eyed Jacks on Saturday.
"Bedtime Stories" is part of what the duo calls its "Iconography Series," which pays tribute to popular music icons. After three successful David Bowie tribute shows, Callais and Blue thought they should keep doing tribute shows but to different icons. Callais says they fell on the idea of doing Madonna and realized it would be perfect.
“She’s someone who has a ton of hit songs,” Callais says, and “a lot of distinct looks through different eras that would lend itself to this type of show.”
Madonna’s forthright sexuality empowered a generation of young women and she, like David Bowie, was constantly evolving. “She’s been pretty in everyone’s face about owning her sexuality,” Blue says. She reassures that the show will indeed involve some rolling around on the floor, in reference to Madonna’s controversial breakout performance of “Like a Virgin” at the first-ever MTV Video Music Awards in 1984.
Madonna's symbolic cultural value, even more so than her music, sealed her status as an icon for Blue and Callais. “There are lots of great musicians. There are lots of great artists,” Callais says. “But in this, the music’s a jumping off point to, What does this person or this artist mean to people outside of three-minute pop songs?”
Sarah Celino, co-producer of the show and Callais' wife, seconds this idea: “Especially in the Deep South and with a Catholic upbringing, Madonna and her videos were some of the very first chances that I got to see a woman claiming her sexuality without any restraint, and refusing to succumb to all the ways that the media and critics tried to shame her.”
Part of what makes Madonna interesting to Blue is that her image has kept changing. “You look at her,” Blue says, “And you’re like, I know that’s the same person, but this person is so different from what they were. So it gives us a lot to work with in terms of the burlesque aspect because there’s so many different variations.”
As the headmistress of the New Orleans School of Burlesque since 2008, Blue wants burlesque to be more inclusive of non-traditional dancers. She hopes her work can dispel some of the traditional assumptions surrounding the art form, especially those restricting who gets to participate in it. In addition to female-bodied performers, there will also be non-binary and male dancers joining "Bedtime Stories."
“People have very linear thinking about what burlesque is and who can do burlesque,” Blue says. “I think I would want [the audience] to leave reshaping their thinking around that, if maybe they’ve never been to a burlesque show before but now they’re going to come and see a bunch of different people in different bodies and different interpretations.”
“It’s no longer just about women owning their sexuality,” Blue continues. “Or women being in your face about it. It’s also about anybody being able to take that.” With that in mind, she believes anyone can interpret Madonna, regardless of gender.
Musically, Madonna has been an interesting challenge. In a typical burlesque performances, dancers are accompanied by pre-recorded tracks. Callais is the lead guitarist for both Darcy Malone and the Tangle and local indie rock band Vox and the Hound, and one thing Madonna has never done is sound indie. He's excited by the project and feels like he has taken her music in some fresh and interesting directions.
“It’s definitely more of an interpretation as far as the music,” Callais says. “We’re trying to not approach it like we’re a rock band covering these songs. We’re trying to do them justice, but if you listen to a lot of Madonna recordings, she’s not even doing them exactly like the record [when performing live] because it’s just impossible.”
There’s something about a live band that narrows that delicate gap between performer and audience. “When you go to a concert, Celino says, “you might be participating in the sense that you’re dancing or you’re singing, but sometimes that visual aspect doesn’t always come through in the same way [in burlesque]. So this time around with doing Madonna, we definitely want to pull something from the audience and make it much more of a give-and-take between the two, not just people on a stage performing for you or at you.”
Icons are iconic precisely because they give us something to relate and identify with on a mass scale. Once we get to know these icons-- their talents, personalities, quirks-- we are drawn to their presence because we are already familiar with what they stand for and what they can offer us as consumers. Madonna’s magnet stardom implies a degree of familiarity. There’s an implicit draw to tribute shows based on the assumption that everyone already knows something about who the person is and by deduction, already know more or less what the show’s “about.” Bedtime Stories’ creators affirm that honoring the Queen of Pop could offer audiences who otherwise don’t know much about burlesque an accessible outlet for understanding it better.
Blue also thinks audiences will be excited to see fun new interpretations on something they’re already familiar with. “People are gonna come see these performances,” she says, “they know who they [the icons] are for the most part and they know their normal presentations. So I think for the audience, I think it’ll be exciting to see them do something that might be out of their wheel house. I’m not really a person that would be like, “Let me pick this Madonna song and strip to it.” But I like her music, it just wasn’t anything that ever popped into my brain. But it’s challenging and it’ll be fun to see how everyone delivers their interpretation.”