Moulin Rouge! The Musical Featured In Vogue Magazine
Alex Timbers reimagines Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! for the stage and—with songs by Lady Gaga, Sia, and Outkast, among others—a new generation. By Adam Green. Photographed by Baz Luhrmann.
Baz Luhrmann was born to reinvent the movie musical for a new generation—which is exactly what he did in 2001 with Moulin Rouge!, his deliriously romantic mash-up, set in 1890s Paris, of La Bohème, La Traviata, and the Orpheus myth, with a soundtrack that exploded with modern-day pop songs, lavish Technicolor sets and costumes (by his wife, Catherine Martin), and a hyperkinetic cinematic style that drew on MGM musicals, MTV videos, and Bollywood spectaculars. The motto of this blatantly artificial world, served with a knowing wink (which nevertheless swept us up in its very real, very breathless emotions), could be borrowed from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “Enough! Or too much.”
In his own way, the brilliant theater director Alex Timbers—whose work includes Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Here Lies Love, and, most recently, Beetlejuice—was born to reinvent Moulin Rouge! for the stage, as another generation of New York audiences will discover when his electrifying, eye-popping, and blissfully over-thetop adaptation of Luhrmann’s masterpiece opens on Broadway, after a smash run in Boston, this month.
“I’ve spent my life taking classics and interpreting them in radical ways,” Luhrmann says, “so how could I not applaud someone taking a work of mine and interpreting it in a radical way? You have to interpret things for the time and place you’re in. In the end, it’s still a tragic opera, but Alex applies himself to it in such a dexterous way that there’s irony and fun and music and emotion.”
Luhrmann grew up in Herons Creek, a tiny, remote Australian town with a total of seven houses in it, where, he says, “if you didn’t have a good imagination and an ability to create worlds in your mind, you were lost.” Fortunately his family, which ran a gas station and a pig farm, also ran the local movie theater and had a blackand- white TV set (which showed exactly one channel), and Luhrmann devoured a steady diet of old movies, including musicals, with which he fell in love. His mother was a ballroomdance instructor who started giving him lessons early, and his father insisted that Luhrmann and his siblings study painting and music. Before long he was staging little shows, performing magic tricks, making films with his father’s 8-millimeter camera, and acting in school plays.
Apparently it was the ideal upbringing to produce an artist of dazzling originality, one with a singular, idiosyncratic vision and an expansive playing field: film, theater, opera, commercials, music videos, pop songs. After the success of his first two films, Strictly Ballroom and Romeo + Juliet—both of which had healthy doses of moviemusical DNA encoded into their cinematic language—Luhrmann wanted to take on the genre itself. He and his co-writer, Craig Pearce, set their film in Belle Epoque Paris, in and around the legendary Moulin Rouge nightclub, telling a tragic love story straight out of verismo opera with the Orpheus legend—a young poet and musician travels to the underworld in search of his dead love, Eurydice, and is reunited with her only to lose her again, emerging forever changed—as its mythical underpinning.
But Luhrmann also had what he calls a “preposterous conceit” that allowed his Orpheus—a Bohemian poet named Christian, played by Ewan Mc- Gregor—to metaphorically enchant the very rocks and stones to follow him because of his voice: “When our poet opens his mouth, ‘The hills are alive with the sound of music’ comes out of it,” he says. “Whether you like The Sound of Music or not, it’s a giant hit that’s got artistic cred—so it’s a funny, concise way of saying ‘The guy has magic.’ ” Preposterous or not, the conceit turned the love story between McGregor’s Christian and Nicole Kidman’s doomed Satine, a nightclub star and courtesan, into a pop fantasia, giving the music its audience had grown up with—from “Your Song” to “Lady Marmalade”—an operatic grandeur.
Luhrmann had long wanted to bring Moulin Rouge! to the stage but felt that he wasn’t the right person for the job—he worried that he was too close to the material and might be overprotective of it. Enter Alex Timbers, 40, a downtown wunderkind who has brought the cheeky, postmodern spirit of his theater company Les Freres Corbusier to Broadway and shares with Luhrmann a restlessly playful and inventive mise-en-scène. “When I saw Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, I could tell that his aesthetic and the way he told a story—very high-energy, very theatrical, ironic but also moving—had a certain kinship with mine,” Luhrmann says. “And after I met him, I knew that he would have his own interpretation but also understand the language of the film.”
The biggest challenge Timbers and his team faced was how to bring the film’s hypercinematic exuberance alive on a stage. “We had to create a visceral and kinetic excitement using an entirely theatrical vocabulary,” Timbers says. “We don’t have any of those virtuosic “I wanted to build this exotic, intoxicating world that felt beautiful and dangerous and gritty and sexy,” Timbers says. “It felt important to use period elements—but to put them in a form that feels contemporary and surprising” techniques like close-ups and Steadicam and music video–style editing, but you want the show to be able to leap over the footlights—emotionally, but also as a spectacle. So we use a lot of techniques to do that.”
Do they ever. From the moment you enter the theater, it’s clear that Timbers has realized his mandate to make the show—which he’s been working on for the past six years—“360.” It’s as if you’ve walked into the Moulin Rouge itself, courtesy of the gorgeously overwhelming set (by Derek McLane) that greets you: There are hearts within hearts, chandeliers, the stage flanked by a windmill on one side and an elephant on the other. Then out come the corset-clad boys and girls of the night (who come in all colors, shapes, and sizes) and the fashionable members of the Parisian demimonde in Catherine Zuber’s fabulous costumes. The next thing you know, “Four Bad Ass Chicks from the Moulin Rouge,” as the script identifies them—propelled onstage by Sonya Tayeh’s wildly exuberant choreography—are belting “Hey sista, go sista, soul sista, flow sista,” and we’re off to the races. “I wanted to build this exotic, intoxicating world that felt beautiful and dangerous and gritty and sexy,” Timbers says. “It felt really important for the sets and the costumes to use period elements, and for us to be ruthless about that, but to put them in a form that feels contemporary and surprising.”
The seven-time Tony-winning costume designer Zuber (The King and I, My Fair Lady) has done that and then some, tipping her hat to Catherine Martin’s designs for the film without imitating them. She’s even managed to design Belle Epoque finery that allows the dancers the freedom of movement to execute Tayeh’s propulsive choreography. Zuber is also a master of using costumes to reveal character and situation, as with the ornate gown she designed for Satine after she becomes the Duke’s courtesan and enters his glittering world. Inspired by designs from John Galliano’s 2006 couture collection, it features a bodice that looks like a cage and three rows of lacing down the back. “It’s almost like she’s a prisoner,” Zuber says.
Playing Satine this time around is Karen Olivo (West Side Story, Hamilton), who brings very different qualities to the role than Kidman, both physical (Olivo is a woman of color) and temperamental (desperate, determined, and down-to-earth, as opposed to ethereal). Aaron Tveit (Next to Normal, Catch Me if You Can), meanwhile, sings like a dream and brings the requisite dewy idealism to the naive Christian, but with a hint of something edgier.
The story is very much the same as the film’s: Satine is the star attraction at the Moulin Rouge, owned by the rapacious Harold Zidler (Danny Burstein), who is in financial hot water and in danger of losing the club. Christian and Satine meet and fall head over heels, but she has been promised by Zidler to the villainous Duke (Tam Mutu), who can give her the bejeweled life she’s always dreamed of, forcing her to choose between that and true love. Meanwhile, Christian and his pals Santiago and Toulouse-Lautrec (Ricky Rojas and Sahr Ngaujah) are writing a show, bankrolled by the Duke, that is meant to save the Moulin Rouge from going under. Then, of course, Satine has this persistent cough and . . . well, you know.
The big difference in terms of the storytelling is that book writer John Logan (Red) has fleshed out and deepened the characters and the relationships between them. “We looked at the major characters, asked what their backstories were, and tried to figure out how grounded they could possibly be in psychological realism and yet still be heightened in that way that musical theater demands,” Logan says. “How did Satine get to be this sparkling diamond—and what’s the price she’s paid along the way?”
But the boldest change—and in many ways the heart of the show—is in the new songs, which give Moulin Rouge! fresh emotional resonance (and whip the crowd into a frenzy). Along with the familiar Bowie, Madonna, and Elton John tunes, expect to hear from the likes of Outkast, Sia, Beyoncé, Fun, Adele, and Lorde, to name but a few (there are more than 70 songs in the show). To curate Moulin Rouge!’s dizzying playlist, Timbers, Logan, and music director/ genius Justin Levine holed up in a Times Square hotel room with a digital keyboard, dredged up their musical memories, and took note of what worked. Their taste is impeccable, whether using a song for its sheer exuberance, as with a rousing version of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” or to reveal a character’s inner desires, as Satine does with Katy Perry’s “Firework.”
Logan has been blown away to see how powerfully audiences have connected with the show—and the songs. “I went to a wedding recently, and when the dancing started, I heard half our score being played, which was wild,” he says. “And when you see audience members respond to the songs—‘They’re using that song? Oh, my God! No way!’—you can feel how excited they are. It’s an experience I’ve never had before. It’s magic.”