Moulin Rouge! The Musical
Moulin Rouge! The Musical

How Moulin Rouge! The Musical Mashes Up Pop Songs With Theater History

In Moulin Rouge!, the romantic writer Christian is a newcomer to Paris in 1899. He meets a group of bohemian artists who are trying to write a song. They’re struggling until Christian wows them by singing “The hills are alive / With the sound of music!” It’s a moment that inspires knowing laughter in the audience, and it’s also a way for the creators of the Tony Award–winning Broadway musical to pay tribute to the art form of theater.

Moulin Rouge! The Musical is based on the 2001 Baz Luhrrmann film, which combined a period setting with modern pop songs and cinema references. “The movie is a mashup of different movie references; you’ve got Marlene Dietrich, you’ve got Marilyn Monroe,” says the show’s director, Alex Timbers. “And so we wanted to do the same thing in terms of [the stage show] being a kind of a remix of musical-theater references.”

The winner of 10 Tony Awards is a romantic melodrama set in Paris, where penniless writer Christian falls in love with a courtesan at the Moulin Rouge named Satine. But Satine is conflicted between her love for Christian and her desire for economic security, embodied by the devilish Duke. The story of is “a mashup of Romeo and Juliet, La Bohème, La Traviata, and Orpheus and Eurydice. All those stories have been put in a blender,” says Timbers.

Timbers admits the theater references in Moulin Rouge! The Musical are “oblique as opposed to direct in the way that the pop song references are,” but discerning theater fans might recognize some of them.

For example, the opening number, when the cast sings “Lady Marmalade,” does not exist in the film. It was inspired by “Willkommen” from Cabaret. It is when the Moulin Rouge owner, Harold Zidler, introduces the audience to the legendary spot, in a similar way that the Emcee in Cabaret takes the audience inside the seedy world of the Kit Kat Club. Timbers also says the opener was inspired by “Tradition” from Fiddler on the Roof, when the different denizens of the community are introduced.

“On the Left Bank, there’s the aristocrats. On the Right Bank, there are the bohemians,” says Timbers. “And then there are the dancers. It’s just to introduce you to all the different classes and walks of life that will come into conflict during the show.”

Another highlight is the Act 2 opener, a tango-inspired take on Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” (combined with other songs about forbidden desire, such as “Tainted Love” and “Toxic”) called “Backstage Romance.” Timbers says the sequence was inspired by “Too Darn Hot” from the musical Kiss Me, Kate, which he says is his “favorite Act 2 opener ever.” Like “Too Darn Hot,” “Backstage Romance” takes place behind the curtain as the actors and dancers are taking a break from putting a show together and sparks are flying.

“We’re starting Act 2 with something that’s not Christian and Satine, that’s a little more left-of-center, on these secondary characters and their relationship,” says Timbers.

Another way Moulin Rouge! The Musical pays tribute to musical theater is how it turns pop songs into bona fide production numbers that also tell a story. There are more than 70 songs within the musical, spanning over 160 years of music. It includes songs that were featured in the film and new medleys created for the show. Music director Justin Levine helped choose the songs. For him, it wasn’t about finding the most recognizable melodies. Instead, in true musical-theater fashion, he picked the songs that would fit the characters’ emotions and the needs of the story. That’s also why he doesn’t consider Moulin Rouge! The Musical a jukebox musical.

“Typically, a jukebox musical is one where you select the music first or the music is the driving factor in how the story unfolds,” explains Levine. By contrast, in Moulin Rouge! The Musical, the team first outlined the story, “then it was my job to source the music and build the score that would serve that story.” Levine used to play at a piano bar that took requests, so he had to have hundreds of songs available in his brain, which is now a repository of music.

In choosing the songs, Levine thought up lyrics that would match what the characters were feeling in a particular moment. For example, there’s a medley of love songs sung between Satine and Christian called “Elephant Love Medley.” Christian is trying to convince Satine to give in to her feelings for him, while Satine is hesitant. And so the medley becomes an argument, with Christian singing lines such as, “Open up your eyes, then you’ll realize / Here I stand with my everlasting love,” and Satine responding with, “What’s love got to do, got to do with it? / Who needs a heart, when a heart can be broken?” In that genre-spanning medley, Levine managed to squeeze 20 songs into five minutes.

“While on the surface, it can feel like it’s a name-that-tune moment, it’s actually a very meticulously crafted argument between those two characters,” says Levine. “In fact, when I rehearse that song with Christian and Satine, wherever I am, we usually have them read the lyrics as if it’s a scene.”

That’s also why many of the songs in the show are mashups and medleys. While a musical-theater song can portray character growth and motivations, a pop song is usually just about one feeling or one concept. “You hear the song ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,’ you’re not going to learn much more than that,” says Levine. “As a result, a mashup gives you this opportunity to do what often a great song in a musical does, which is create an argument or a shift in perspective.”

For example, when Satine has broken Christian’s heart, he begins by singing Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” to show how tortured he’s feeling, and then he transitions to anger via Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep.”

But fans of the show may notice that there is one “bespoke musical-theater number” in Moulin Rouge! The Musical. It’s called “The Pitch,” and Levine actually wrote original music and lyrics, and combined them with melodies from classic French songs such as “La Vie en Rose” and “Habanera.” In that moment in the show, when the characters are trying to convince the Duke to fund their stage play, there wasn’t a pop song that could fit the needs of the scene.

“Because it’s an exceptionally unique moment within the show, it felt like it called for that,” says Levine, who also got to show off his songwriting chops. “I was really excited to get to write a song for the show and to write lyrics for the show.”

Moulin Rouge! The Musical has been a hit on Broadway, and it has now also played Australia and London. And when we spoke, Levine and Timbers were preparing productions in Germany and South Korea. To them, the fact that the show has been positively received worldwide speaks to how universal it is. It combines a recognizable story of star-crossed lovers with familiar songs, and blends them into something original: a maximalist musical that’s a feast for the eyes and ears.

“There’s a universality. It taps into something that we recognize and are attracted to,” says Timbers. “There was a woman I met from Japan, and she saw it 12 times in a row. This is a story that people resonate with in a really strong way.”

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