A miraculous world awaits inside the ultimate pleasure palace at Moulin Rouge! The Musical. Swathed in crimson velvet and twinkling lights, with a twirling windmill on one wall and a giant elephant torso on the other, Broadway’s Al Hirschfeld Theatre has been transformed into a sumptuous setting for romance and revelry in turn-of-the-century Paris. This wildly anticipated stage adaptation of Baz Luhrmann’s blockbuster 2001 film begins previews June 28, directed by Tony Award nominee Alex Timbers.
“When you walk into our theatre, your mind will be blown,” promises six-time Tony Award nominee Danny Burstein, who plays impresario Harold Zidler. “The film is so theatrical, and we knew we had to create something equally good but unique to the theatre — something that has never been seen on stage. Even before the show starts, our ensemble mingles with the crowd, like eye candy. Everything is stunningly beautiful.”
The glorious work of designer Derek McLane sets the stage for the story of Christian, an ambitious American-born writer who instantly falls in love with Satine, the famous nightclub’s bewitching chanteuse. The colorful cast of characters at the Moulin Rouge includes artist Toulouse-Lautrec, his Bohemian friends, and a wealthy duke who becomes a rival for Satine’s affection. The star-crossed lovers, created on film by Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor, are played by Tony Award winner Karen Olivo and Aaron Tveit, who won raves during the show’s sold-out pre-Broadway run in Boston last summer.
Fans of the movie will recall that Moulin Rouge! used hits from the likes of Elton John, Patti LaBelle, and the Police to convey the characters’ emotions. The Broadway production adds an array of Top 40 tunes released since 2001, arranged and orchestrated by music supervisor Justin Levine. “Pop songs can be innately untheatrical, but the music in our show works incredibly well for the storytelling,” says Tveit, whose credits include Next to Normal on Broadway and Grease Live! on TV. “There’s a twofold reaction from the audience when they recognize a song and then realize how well it fits the story they’re seeing. They absolutely love it, and it’s so exciting for us as actors.”
Tveit and Olivo, a Tony winner for West Side Story and an alum of Broadway hits In the Heights and Rent, perform a medley of love songs at the end of Act One, expanded from the film to encompass more than 20 tunes from multiple eras. “It’s been one of the biggest joys of my career to make music with Aaron,” Olivo says of the costars’ sizzling chemistry. “We actually have similar-sounding voices, and there are times when we can’t tell who is singing what note! He inspires me every night to do new things with my voice. There’s a lot of trust between us.”
The central romance in Moulin Rouge! is animated by the choreography of Sonya Tayeh. “Sonya’s choreography is endlessly imaginative and so damn sexy,” Burstein says with a laugh. “But it’s not just steps: She also understands drama and theatricality. The movement comes organically out of a moment on stage.”
“The choreography is athletic, but it’s also emotional,” adds Olivo. “Sonya is telling a story through physicality, creating movement that’s based on what the characters are feeling. When the ensemble is dancing next to a character who is singing, you see two versions of their emotional life, one physical and one aural. It’s really fantastic.”
The stars agree that their characters have gained strength and complexity in the book by Tony Award–winning playwright and screenwriter John Logan. “John came in and treated this story like he was revising a Shakespeare play,” explains Tveit. “He elevated the material while telling the age-old story of an open, optimistic boy who has always wanted to be in love and a girl who has been beaten down and damaged by love.”
The alluring Satine has become grittier in the stage version. “She’s an aging performer who came from a dark background and decided at a young age that, rather than dying in an alley somewhere, she was going to become the biggest star in Paris,” says Olivo. “I love the fact that Satine is unapologetic about getting what she needs, but it’s all based in the community and family she has found at the Moulin Rouge.”
That combination of grit and heart appealed to Burstein, a veteran of musicals ranging from Fiddler on the Roof and South Pacific to Cabaret and My Fair Lady. Zidler, the Moulin Rouge’s top-hatted ringmaster, “is big and flamboyant and savage,” the actor says, “and yet he is also warmhearted and kind. He’s a survivor who fights for the people he loves, and there’s a decency about him that I think we’re all crying out for.”
The qualities that made Luhrmann’s movie both timeless and ahead of its time have been expanded in Timbers’s visionary stage production, and the response in Boston exceeded the company’s wildest expectations. “We kept hearing, ‘I was waiting for this,’” says Tveit. The show’s core values, “the ideals of truth, beauty, freedom, and love — treating people the way you want to be treated and allowing love to enter your life — are things people need right now. Everyone can take something away from this story.” Adds Olivo, “You leave the theatre feeling a sense of hope and happiness, and yet it’s based in a story that has substance. As big and flashy as it is, our show has a lot of sincerity.”
Broadway vet Burstein gets the last word, calling the Broadway production of Moulin Rouge! “the ultimate escape. For two and a half hours, you will disappear into a world that will move you, not just emotionally, but in a way that’ll to make you want to jump out of your seat. It’s all there.”