Designing the Spectacular World of Moulin Rouge! The Musical

By David Cote

Entering Moulin Rouge! The Musical, you encounter a world like no other: sensual, mysterious, decadent. A hypnotic dance loop plays as aristocratic men in top hats circle seductive women in lace and bustiers. You take your seat and gaze at rich, red fabric on the walls, the neon sign, details in lamps on each table. The music feels like it’s coming from 360 degrees. Lights rake over bodies promenading back and forth. It’s hard not to notice the elephant perched beyond the proscenium, and the red windmill on the other side. An exquisite tension hangs in the air, before the show has even begun. Welcome to the club.

You’ve never seen a Broadway show as wildly immersive as the Tony-winning Moulin Rouge! The Musical. The revolutionary design started on Broadway and goes around the country.

“I began by amassing huge amounts of research,” scenic designer Derek McLane explains. “There were many period photos of Montmartre and the Moulin Rouge, of Parisian courtesans’ apartments.” The walls of the theater, McLane adds, are draped in no fewer than nine different types of red fabric, each its own hue and pattern. The heart-shaped portals you see upon entering are loosely inspired by Baz Luhrmann’s film. “I worked hard to create a structure both densely patterned and lacy so that you see through one set of patterns into another,” McLane says.

Costume designer Catherine Zuber poured the cast into a series of bespoke costumes, mixing Parisian silhouettes and edgy, contemporary couture. “Since the music is contemporary, the challenge is to introduce a modern interpretation,” Zuber notes. “The choreography is high-energy, requiring costumes that are not restrictive.” She notes that director Alex Timbers “kept us on track by insisting that the design should occur now and in the past simultaneously.”

“I had a vision that we’re inside a spinning crystal chandelier,” says lighting designer Justin Townsend. Shifting rapidly from spotlighting actors to bathing them in romantic reds, purples and blues, Townsend tucks tiny lights around the set to allow the stage and house to sparkle. Every reliable surface holds a lightbulb that can pulse and animate. “My hope is to create the same quality of the movie,” the designer says, “being on a ride with the camera pulled and pushed into and out of the scenes with wonder and joy.”

Peter Hylenski fuses dialogue and a score woven from dozens of song fragments into a seamless sonic whole. “From the very first bass notes and finger snaps, we should understand the flavor and attitude of the evening ahead,” the sound designer says. “Ultimately, it’s my responsibility to shape and sculpt the inputs from the cast, band, and sound effects to weave a sonic tapestry.” Hylenski shares his secret weapon: concealed in and around the set are some 200 various-sized speakers. Even in the table lampshades of the front seating area.

As Townsend sums up: “We combine images and sounds that shouldn’t work together but have a deeper truth, a deeper beauty, when placed next to one another.” The theater community certainly agrees. Last year, Moulin Rouge! The Musical came away with a staggering ten Tony Awards, including top prizes for scenic design, lighting, costumes, sound, and orchestrations.

David Cote is the author of the upcoming Moulin Rouge! The Musical: The Story of the Broadway Spectacular (Rizzoli). David is aNew York-based theater and TV critic who writes for The A.V. Club, Observer, and 4 Columns. He’s also a playwright and opera librettist, and author of books about the making of Spring Awakening, Jersey Boys, and Wicked.

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