Moulin Rouge! The Musical: Making a Stage Spectacular

By David Cote

Along with baseball, rock ‘n’ roll and jazz, the Broadway musical is uniquely American. And, like any cultural tradition, it didn’t just appear. Its origins lie in 19th-century European operetta, which emigrated to the New World, got mixed up with jazz, chorus girls and vaudeville comedy—and before you know it, you’ve got Show Boat and Oklahoma! The creators of Moulin Rouge!—both filmmaker Baz Luhrmann and Alex Timbers, director of the Tony-winning stage spectacular, know this lineage very well.

In its dazzling, epoch-hopping score and approach to visual storytelling, the hit show represents the missing link from Belle Époque Paris to Broadway today, from operetta to the mega-jukebox musical. Unlike other so-called jukebox musicals, Moulin Rouge! does not repurpose a catalogue from one artist or era. More than hundred and sixty years of popular song from Offenbach to Lady Gaga: That’s the raw material the creative team took and remixed into a single, thrilling, dramatic voice.  

Moulin Rouge! began, of course, as Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin’s groundbreaking 2001 film. The Australian auteur had made his name with the beloved dance comedy Strictly Ballroom and the Shakespeare-disrupting Romeo + Juliet. Now he planned his most ambitious cinematic statement. Inspired by the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, Luhrmann needed to find a milieu for his romantic vision of artistic striving and doomed love, a maximalist homage to Hollywood movie musicals.

He hit upon fin-de-siècle Paris, the seedy yet glamourous neighborhood of Montmartre, where artists and aristocratic patrons rubbed shoulders. His premise: The real-life Paris club became the center of a story about a small-town poet named Christian, who comes to Paris, joins the Bohemians, and falls in love with Moulin Rouge’s diva Satine. In this ravishing fable, love conquers all and we witness the importance of living for Truth, Beauty, Freedom, and Love.

When Luhrmann and co-screenwriter Craig Pearce needed a device to tear through the veil of history to convey the genius of poet Christian and his tragic, beloved Satine? They said goodbye to linear chronology: Elton John and a universe of rock and pop stars have written deathless love songs for past, present, and future.  

Instantly iconic, the movie was a global hit. Its breezy, postmodern flair would be imitated for years to come. But would Moulin Rouge! live only on celluloid, or were other media beckoning? Everyone agreed that its mix of glamour and grit made the dance-filled backstage drama perfect for Broadway. But who would adapt it?  

Of course, everything was dependent on fearless producers who could secure rights to dozens of songs that would make up the extraordinary score. Carmen Pavlovic and business partner Gerry Ryan were up for it. The Australian-born co-founders of Global Creatures (Walking With Dinosaurs) first met Luhrmann and Martin in 2009, eager to throw their hats in the ring as producers of the stage version.

Knowing that he didn’t want to direct the stage version himself, and that Moulin Rouge! wouldn’t succeed if it were just a slavish recreation of the movie, Luhrmann gave the acclaimed young director Alex Timbers his blessing to re-envision the world. Timbers and the producers quickly assembled a dream team, a cadre of 21st century New Bohemians.

Logan was appointed to write the book; the award-winning writer had long proved his genius at infusing distant times with contemporary relevance, from imperial Rome (Gladiator) to gothic Victoriana (Penny Dreadful).

As music supervisor, Timbers needed someone to curate and weave together pop hits of the past decade and more. He chose Justin Levine, a frequent collaborator and song savant whose taste in music bridged centuries.

And to get the world on its feet, bumping and grinding to “Lady Marmalade” or strutting to a Rolling Stones medley, the fearless Sonya Tayeh was picked, a newcomer to Broadway but already an experienced choreographer who had designed steps for Madonna, Kylie Minogue, and Miley Cyrus.  

About his core team, director Alex Timbers notes: “John Logan is brilliant at elevating genre, at world creation. We knew we wanted to lean in to the grit and authenticity of the characters. We were immediately on the same page. Having worked with Justin before, I knew he had the ideal sensibility to blend old and new songs. I knew we needed the movement to draw equally on the worlds of musical theater and contemporary pop videos, choreography that would be surprising, sexy, witty, inventive, and that could push story as well as the boundaries of the audience’s imagination. Sonya Tayeh immediately leapt to mind. I got excited about John and Justin and Sonya working together. They all come from different worlds, but those worlds would inform different aspects of the range and patina that we wanted Moulin Rouge! to possess.”  

Then there were the songs. How to get rights to scores of high-charting tunes that would be woven into the unique songscape? “Every artist deal was treated equally, and we were genuinely prepared to find an alternative for any song,” producer Carmen Pavlovic’s explains. “This required management and the creative team to hold hands and commit to the philosophy from the outset. It put the onus back on rights holders to decide whether they joined the club.”

In the end, the score for Moulin Rouge! would encompass 160 composers, 70 songs, and 30 publishers. There has never been anything like it before on Broadway. As Pavlovic says, “It felt less like we were creating a show and more like we were creating a movement.”

And the theater community certainly agrees. Last year, the production came away with a staggering ten Tony Awards for Best New Musical, Best Director, Best Choreography, Best Actor in a Leading Role, and Best Actor in a Featured Role, as well top prizes for scenic design, lighting, costumes, sound, and orchestrations.

An absinthe-streaked love letter to Broadway fans, Moulin Rouge! is more than a stunning achievement in theatrical craft and producing muscle. It’s a piece of intensely emotional musical storytelling for an audience eager for mythic pop spectacle, more passion, more drama, more everything. All are welcome at this club.

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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