21 Jul 2018

Stage Next For Oz Hits

The Australian

When Moulin Rouge! came out in 2001, it was as if the cinema had swallowed an ecstasy tablet. Baz Luhrmann’s film was essentially a mash-up of La Boheme and La Traviata — but remade for a millennial audience with saturated colour, over-the-top emotion and a pumping soundtrack.

Catherine Martin’s Oscar-winning production designs conjured a fabulous nightclub and the Paris demimonde of the late 19th century. It put the fun into fin-de-siecle, and audiences couldn’t get enough.

The party is set to continue, as Moulin Rouge! makes the leap from screen to the musical stage. Moulin Rouge! The Musical opened for previews on July 10 at the Emerson Colonial Theatre in Boston, in a “pre-Broadway” engagement. Luhrmann and Martin, or Baz and CM, remain as fairy godparents, but have otherwise entrusted their baby to a new production team, led by next-gen theatre whiz Alex Timbers.

Timbers recalls meeting Luhrmann at a dinner party in 2013, where they got to talking about the cultish oeuvre of British filmmaker Ken Russell. Then Luhrmann asked if he would be interested in directing Moulin Rouge! Like a camera zooming over a scale model of Paris, Timbers was transported to the film’s heady atmosphere. “I remember being in the movie theatre in 2001, and walking out on a high,” he says.

Timbers is one of Broadway’s rising stars whose output crosses over from experimental to mainstream: he’s done everything from Rocky the Musical to David Byrne’s disco paean to Imelda Marcos, Here Lies Love, and a Peter Pan prequel called Peter and the Starcatcher. For a time he was also engaged as the director of Frozen on Broadway, before Disney Theatrical let him go. A profile of Timbers in The New Yorker last year noted his taste for high artifice and experimentation — qualities that may have been too great a risk for Disney, but probably a perfect match for Moulin Rouge!

He and Hollywood screenwriter John Logan have slightly reframed the narrative while keeping all the essentials intact. It’s still the story of an aspiring writer, a courtesan with a cough, and the louche aristocrat who tries to come between them. Lady Marmalade and much of the film’s soundtrack remains, with the addition of more recent hits.

What a stage show can’t do is reproduce the hyperactive camerawork and editing that was a feature of the film, but Timbers says he and his designers have attempted to translate that energy and emotional impact.

“If you were able to walk into that intoxicating, exotic world — that’s exactly what I want,” he says. “The show isn’t an arena show or a tent show — it isn’t actually in a nightclub, it’s taking place in a theatre. But I think we are doing many things that will bust through the fourth wall and give a unique visceral experience.”

Moulin Rouge! The Musical is produced by Sydney-based production house Global Creatures, the same outfit that put Strictly Ballroom on stage. While Luhrmann directed the world premiere of Strictly Ballroom in Sydney, it was reworked before its first British season in 2016 with a new director, Drew McOnie. Luhrmann by this time was busy with his hip-hop drama The Get Down for Netflix, hence the talk with Timbers about Moulin Rouge! In the press announcement of the stage production, Luhrmann sang Timbers’s praises as a kindred creative spirit. “It’s immensely gratifying to know that a new wave of artists will be leading Moulin Rouge! into its rightful theatrical realm,” he said.

Leading all this activity is Carmen Pavlovic, the chief executive and co-owner of Global Creatures, which has become Australia’s most prominent producer of new musicals — all of them, to date, adapted from existing sources.

Pavlovic joined the company a decade ago and herded Global Creatures’ first international hit, the arena show Walking With Dinosaurs. The next year she made the company’s biggest rights acquisition from Lurhmann’s Bazmark, bundling the worldwide rights for Strictly Ballroom with a licence to produce Moulin Rouge!

While Strictly Ballroom and the adaptation of another beloved Australian film, Muriel’s Wedding, were produced in Sydney, Pavlovic has instead taken Moulin Rouge! to the US for its stage rebirth. Given the worldwide cinema box office takings for Luhrmann’s film, the twinkle of two Academy Awards, and Global Creatures’ rights investment, expectations are high. Pavlovic says she wanted the US production team to be in their own creative element, rather than disrupt the show’s “alchemy” by having rehearsals in Australia.

“It’s such a big brand and I just really thought it would benefit from having a Broadway profile,” Pavlovic says in her office at Sydney’s inner-city Surry Hills. “It’s got such international appeal … of all our titles, the expectations are biggest there, no doubt about it.”

The year is shaping to be a monster one for Global Creatures. Muriel’s Wedding opened last November and hit a sweet spot with Sydney audiences — flattered by the exuberant depiction of their city, and charmed by the winning performance by Maggie McKenna as Muriel. It won five Helpmann awards this week (but missed out on the key categories of best musical and best new Australian work), and will return for a national tour next year.

In April, Strictly Ballroom made its West End debut, and Walking With Dinosaurs begins another worldwide tour in Britain this month.

In November comes one of the company’s most cherished undertakings, with the Broadway premiere of its 2013 musical, King Kong.

Moulin Rouge! has been pencilled for a possible Broadway opening late next year. Pavlovic won’t reveal turnover or projections, but says this year’s slate of international openings has involved a capital-raising of $80 million from private investors.

She has been helped by veteran Broadway producer Roy Furman, who has led the campaign there for King Kong. Global Creatures’ own level of risk varies, but its investment is less than 50 per cent in any one show, and “often quite a bit less than that”.

The company has built its own intellectual capital, Pavlovic says, in its construction of deals for adaptation rights, allowing Global Creatures enough flexibility over creative inputs. The original author or rights-holder typically has approval over the creative team, script and the show’s marketing identity, but Pavlovic says that, in her experience, this is a formality.

“From a creative development point of view, I do think it’s in the interests of the work that it can be re-imagined and theatricalised from the underlying material and that requires the original authors or licensors to be open-minded and flexible about the creative merits of that,” she says.

Global Creatures secured the rights for Muriel’s Wedding six years ago from creator PJ Hogan, who came on as the show’s writer. (Pavlovic credits him with the masterstroke of having ABBA appear as characters.) The show also involved a novel co-production arrangement with the Sydney Theatre Company, which came about when Global Creatures had trouble securing a theatre — STC manages the Roslyn Packer Theatre at Sydney’s Walsh Bay. Under the “enhancement deal”, a model more common in the US and Britain than here, Global Creatures injected funds for the show’s development as part of STC’s subscription season. The subsidised theatre company gained a show it possibly couldn’t afford otherwise, and Global Creatures had the benefit of STC’s expertise and facilities, before taking Muriel on a full commercial tour. STC will continue to receive an income from future performances.

But Global Creatures’ march on Broadway and the West End, the world capitals of musical theatre, has not been without casualties and occasional missteps. Broadway has long been Pavlovic’s dream for King Kong, a story that’s part of New York mythology. Getting there will have taken five years since the Melbourne season opened in 2013 and, apart from the magnificent six-metre silverback gorilla that is the show’s leading man, much of King Kong hasn’t lasted the distance.

After Melbourne, Pavlovic parted ways with director Daniel Kramer and writer Craig Lucas. She won’t discuss the reasons for their departure. Another creative team comprising composer Jason Robert Brown, writer Marsha Norman and director Eric Schaeffer came on board in 2015 — none remains.

“It’s really tough, because the relationships are intense,” Pavlovic says. “I have intense relationships with the creative teams we work with, I like the collaboration.”

She says King Kong’s Broadway premiere, now with a book by Jack Thorne (co-writer of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child), songs by Eddie Perfect, and with McOnie in the director’s seat, will have resolved the show’s inherent problem of having a central character that doesn’t speak. Built by the Creature Technology Co in Melbourne, and operated like an enormous marionette, Kong will now occupy a world that “relates to him”, in which sets and props also are operated by puppeteers.

Strictly Ballroom, too, has been through several iterations since its Sydney premiere in 2014. Luhrmann reworked the show before its Melbourne run, and it was again revised before the British premiere in Leeds. Jonathan Church was at one point in discussions to direct, before his short-lived term as artistic director of STC. McOnie directed the Leeds season, a North America tryout in Toronto, and the West End premiere in April. The first reviews to appear after the London opening landed with a thud — just two stars each in The Times and The Guardian — but others have been more positive.

Pavlovic says Strictly Ballroom is in great shape, and she is philosophical about the time it takes to perfect a show.

“There is no doubt that in 10 years we have made mistakes and had a lot of successes,” she says. “I think every project is reaping the rewards of the one that came before it … I think Muriel’s really benefited from all of the development we’ve been through in the past.

“We’ve learned to be an organisation, not just a group of individuals and, from my personal point of view, the kind of approach to creative development, and strong feelings about things that aren’t working in a script, or the challenges of transferring a film to the stage — I feel I’ve got better insight into that part of the process.”

The company will continue to evolve as it pushes more of its theatrical children onto the world stage. Pavlovic sees her role changing to focus more on the development of new shows, a move that would possibly mean a restructure. She does not want to be known only for adaptations of pre-existing titles.

Global Creatures is talking with London theatre powerhouse the Old Vic about a possible co-production, and with an Australian writer on an original story idea.

If there’s a common theme to the shows on Global Creatures’ slate — from ballroom breakaways to lovesick gorillas — Pavlovic says it’s a preoccupation with outsiders and with trying to find a place to belong. She hopes the company will retain its Australian identity and way of doing things, even as it expands its reach.

“My hope is that Moulin Rouge! will come to Australia, and that Muriel’s Wedding will have an international life,” she says. “And Kong, it’s a bigger show to be rolling out, but I’d love it if we had flagship productions of King Kong in some of the bigger territories, that would be my ultimate goal.”

Over in Boston, we may wonder how much of an Australian voice remains in Moulin Rouge! Baz and CM continue to provide “creative services” but the cast and production team are more or less Broadway natives.

Timbers knows what he’s been entrusted with, saying Moulin Rouge! will capture the film’s spirit while upping the energy for a new audience.

“When I went into the film, I felt how funny it was, how beautiful and grand in ambition,” he says. “I’m trying to find a way to make this as beautiful and visceral, and to leave the audience walking out on that same cloud — those bohemian ideas of beauty, truth, freedom and love.”