The “Moulin Rouge! The Musical” experience begins long before the show starts.
The bright red neon “Moulin Rouge” sign and the giant hearts welcome people into the space, making them feel like they are in the club in 1890s Paris rather than the Al Hirschfield Theatre on Broadway. But in a break with Broadway tradition, theatergoers are encouraged to take pictures and interact with the set before the show starts. To add to the atmosphere, members of the cast appear on the stage before the show — some dancing seductively, others swallowing swords.
The preshow show is about pulling visitors into the world of “Moulin Rouge,” but bringing the trappings of the modern world with them. It’s the same idea the movie’s director Baz Luhrmann used when he set out to reinvent the movie musical with his film in 2001.
“I always try to think about the audience when I start a show,” says Alex Timbers, director of “Moulin Rouge! The Musical” which opens July 25. “And thinking, ‘I'm going to see the show ‘Moulin Rouge,’ I want to walk into a space that feels like the Moulin Rouge, that feels like this sort of immersive, intoxicating exotic club.”
Timbers hired set designer Derek McLane, who has won Emmys for his work on the Oscars telecast and “Hairspray Live” and Tony nominations for his work on “Ragtime” and “The Pajama Game,” to create the club. “We thought he could get us lots of grandeur and beauty, but also deal with the practicalities of having to fit all those locations into the like 40-by-30-foot box,” Timbers says. “I feel like he really delivered on it. But what's more, it's so fun. When we had our first preview, we saw the audience walk into that space and be blown away. They were immediately whipping out their phones and like taking pictures and videoing it. I've never worked on a show like this before.”
Aaron Tveit, who plays Christian, the narrator and half of the star-crossed couple at the center of the show about Bohemians creating a show to help save the Moulin Rouge club, says he has enjoyed seeing people get into the “Moulin Rouge” mindset. “It’s a different experience on Broadway,” he says. “When you walk into the theater, you feel like you’re immediately transported. I think that's something that is really going for us that the audience can feel like they're actually in the Moulin Rouge.”
The cast also includes Karen Olivo as the dancer-courtesan Satine, and Danny Burstein as Harold Zidler, the colorful owner of Moulin Rouge. Like pretty much everyone involved with “Moulin Rouge! The Musical,” Tveit says bringing a beloved character from a well-respected movie to the stage is daunting. “I'd be lying if I said that I haven't watched the movie and kind of marvel at the wide-eyed, open earnestness that Ewan McGregor has,” he says. “He's so brilliant at it, and that's something that's tremendously difficult. I've definitely watched the film and tried to figure out how he's able to capture that.”
THERE'LL BE SOME CHANGES MADE
Tveit has managed this feat before: On Broadway, he originated the role of Frank Abagnale in 2011's “Catch Me If You Can,” a part played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the 2002 movie, and he played Danny in the 2016 TV version of “Grease.” “Every time, I just try to try to look at what the script for this version has,” he says. “Our story is a bit different. I mean Satine’s character is very different as well… There's subtle differences that change the tone a little bit.”
Among the changes are that Christian is now an American from Lima, Ohio, rather than British, and he’s a songwriter rather than a poet. “He’s never been around artists before but he has this artistic heart and this yearning to find love and to find out how to express himself,” Tveit says. “Then, he comes into this Narnia of people that he's never seen before…. And they’re actually telling him that he's good.”
For Timbers, the demands of bringing Luhrmann's movie to the stage go far deeper than just character and story. “When you think of that movie, beyond just how emotionally rich and clever it is, it’s also so cinematically virtuosic — the way he moves the camera, the editing style,” Timbers says. “A lot of the challenge for the designers and myself and for the choreographer was figuring out how you create a vocabulary that can't do any of those things, but is theatrical and analogous to what he did, that has that same energy.”
A lot of that energy comes from putting so many performers on the stage and in the aisles that the audience has to choose what they want to focus on before quickly finding something else to watch.
“Moulin Rouge! The Musical” also adds another layer of interest to the story by pointing out that shows often have more than one meaning. “The Bohemian ideals of truth, beauty, freedom and love — I just think, in 2019 America, it's an exciting and important time to be talking about those ideas and embracing them,” Timbers says. “It’s one of the things that I've found personally really incredible about working on ‘Moulin Rouge’ at this moment.”
Tveit agrees. “Those Bohemian concepts, they obviously meant something in Paris in 1890 and they meant something when this movie came out 17 years ago,” he says. “But I think that those ideals are even more meaningful today. I think that’s the real reason why this story is so timely today. Hopefully, you're getting these ideals and you're able to think about what they mean in our lives, in our society today.”
WHAT “Moulin Rouge! The Musical”
WHEN | WHERE Opens Thursday, July 25, Al Hirschfield Theatre, 302 W. 45th St.
INFO $99-$549; 800-745-3000, moulinrougemusical.com
Part of what made “Moulin Rouge!” groundbreaking as a movie was the way it incorporated modern music into its story set in 1890s Paris. “Moulin Rouge! The Musical” continues that tradition by incorporating some songs written since the movie’s 2001 release. Here’s a look at some of the songs that are now part of the story:
The Lady Gaga anthem is a natural fit into the world of the Moulin Rouge and its dance numbers with an edge.
CHART PEAK No. 2
Sia’s soaring YOLO ode is delivered for maximum dramatic effect, as if the massive ballad could be used any other way.
CHART PEAK No. 8
“ROLLING IN THE DEEP”
Adele’s potent protest against wasted love speaks to the central choices in the “Moulin Rouge!” story.
CHART PEAK No. 1, 7 weeks
“WE ARE YOUNG”
The fun. sing-along about harnessing the power of youth fits perfectly into the Bohemians’ quest to bring their ideals into the world.
CHART PEAK No. 1, 6 weeks – GLENN GAMBOA