In a show filled with dazzling delights, nothing tops the entrance of Moulin Rouge! The Musical’s leading lady, Natalie Mendoza. Lowered on a swing from the ceiling of Broadway’s Al Hirschfeld Theatre, Mendoza makes a stunning first impression as Satine, the legendary Paris nightclub’s star attraction. With a tip of her top hat, Mendoza launches into a medley of diamond-themed songs, signaling Satine’s status as “the epicenter of your passion, the apogee of your desires.” This thrilling moment represents a full-circle journey that began two decades ago when she played lead dancer China Doll opposite Nicole Kidman as Satine in Baz Luhrmann’s acclaimed film.
“My experience with Moulin Rouge! has been a thing of fairy tales from the very beginning,” says Mendoza, who helped develop the character of Satine in workshops at Luhrmann’s home before Kidman was cast in the mega-hit movie. “There were improvised moments from that final workshop that ended up in the film and are now in the stage production. It’s magic to see the seeds that were planted 20 years ago be present in Moulin Rouge! on Broadway. It takes my breath away.”
Mendoza has made a seamless transition into a Broadway company that includes 2021 Tony Award winners Danny Burstein as nightclub impresario Harold Zidler and Aaron Tveit as Christian, an impoverished American writer who arrives in Paris in 1899 and falls in love at first sight with Satine. Mendoza and Tveit create a palpable romantic chemistry, with voices that blend perfectly in a series of ballads culminating in their characters’ signature love song, “Come What May.”
“I was completely comfortable with Aaron immediately,” Mendoza affirms. “He’s got such a clear energy that makes one feel safe as a woman and as an artist.” Their onstage warmth reflects both actors’ desire to keep their performances fresh and exciting. “It’s different for us every night, and we really do play,” Mendoza says, describing her partnership with Tveit as an “organic dance” in which the two stars feel free to take the lead at various moments in the show. “Aaron handles that delicate balance in a really beautiful way,” she says. “Again, it’s about trusting and allowing, and I’m proud of the celebration of these two characters being fully expressed [on stage] independently, but also through their love and respect of one another.”
Moulin Rouge! The Musical reunites Mendoza with 2021 Tony Award winner Alex Timbers, who directed her performance as Imelda Marcos in Here Lies Love at London’s National Theatre seven years ago. Timbers’s mastery at combining storytelling and spectacle is just one reason Mendoza considers him her favorite director. “Alex is a visionary,” she says. “He paints pictures you wouldn’t think were possible and edits in such a clever way that you are never not on the edge of your seat wondering what’s about to happen. I also love how Alex casts actors he trusts and then allows them to make the characters their own. He’s secure in how brilliant he is, and so he is also incredibly humble and impossibly kind.”
Though she’s a newcomer to Broadway (a stint in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark was cut short due to injury), Mendoza boasts international stage credits including the West End companies of Les Misérables and Miss Saigon. Born in Hong Kong, she was raised in Australia by a mom of English and German descent and a jazz musician with Filipino and Spanish roots. In addition to her musical background, Mendoza studied classical acting at the Bristol Old Vic. “My curiosity has led me to enjoy the intricacies of the craft of acting,” she says of her varied career path. “Being of Asian descent, I haven’t always been able to play roles large enough for people to know what I’m capable of, but now they’re ready.” Moulin Rouge!, she adds, reappeared in her life at exactly the right time: “Satine was living somewhere within me 20 years ago, and I do believe perhaps it’s only now that the world is ready for my version. Life experience is helpful in giving the character greater depth. It all feels perfect.”
For audiences, a sparkling musical centering on universal values of freedom, beauty, truth, and love feels especially poignant as the theater industry emerges from 18 months of COVID-enforced inactivity. Pop hits ranging from “Firework” and “Chandelier” to “Brick House” and “I Will Always Love You” draw cheers of delight from theatergoers as Mendoza, Tveit, Burstein, and more than two dozen of Broadway’s best performers give their all. The actors can feel the waves of emotion coming their way, even from fully masked audiences.
“One thing I love about returning to theater after the pandemic is the great reminder of our shared humanity,” Mendoza says. “Theater doesn’t exist without our beloved audiences. As performers, we can be a kind of medicine for the collective heart. Masks or no masks, it’s a privilege to make our offering each night for those who want to share in our journey. It’s truly humbling, and my heart is in a state of complete and utter gratitude.”
As she gazes up at the gigantic elephant and neon windmill in Derek McLane’s Tony-winning set and makes her sensational entrance in one of Catherine Zuber’s Tony-winning costumes, Mendoza is savoring her first star turn on the Great White Way. “You know, I naively didn’t realize how big a deal Broadway is,” she says. “That’s probably a good thing. I always just think of the hearts of the people coming to see the show. My one prayer is that I connect with each and every one of them and restore within them a level of joy and hope.”
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