120 Years in the Making

By David Cote |

Mash-up and remix are the origin story of the Broadway musical. Take 19th-century European operetta, add jazz, toss in chorus girls and clowns you’ve got yourself a show. Next, take this newfangled vaudeville musical, add a book with tears and suspense you’ve got Show Boat. Weave the score and book more tightly you’ve got Oklahoma! An ecstatic, knowing embrace of mash-up and remix are also at the heart of Moulin Rouge! The Musical. The hit show currently playing at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre honors and celebrates 120 years of Broadway musical storytelling and popular song. It represents the missing link from 1899 Paris to 2020 Broadway, from operetta to the mega-jukebox musical. An absinthe-streaked love letter to Broadway, Moulin Rouge! is more than a stunning achievement in theatrical craft and producing muscle. It’s a piece of intensely emotional, deeply integrated musical storytelling that boldly diverges from its source to forge a visceral connection with fans hungry for mythic pop spectacle that delivers more passion, more drama, more everything.    Every season on Broadway, new musicals get sorted and shoved into boxes: The Future of Broadway. The Classic Broadway. The Commercial Hit. The Artistic Innovation. Moulin Rouge!, through the alchemy of diverse talents with a singular vision, explodes those boxes — it can-cans outside them and grafittis the borders with a blood-red kiss. Moulin Rouge! does not repurpose a catalogue from a single artist or era. One hundred and twenty years of popular song, from Offenbach to Lady Gaga: That’s the raw material the creative team has taken and mashed-up and remixed into a singular, dramatic voice, into something utterly gorgeous and new.    Moulin Rouge! began, of course, with Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin’s groundbreaking 2001 film. The Australian auteur had made his name with the beloved dance biopic Strictly Ballroom and the Shakespeare-disrupting Romeo + Juliet  now he planned his most ambitious cinematic statement to date. Inspired by Greek myth, 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 — among other parts.    With her encyclopedic knowledge of historical dress, architecture, and interior design, Catherine Martin helped Luhrmann (her partner in life and cinema) realize this glittering universe of Belle Époque glitter and greasepaint. 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, Moulin Rouge star Satine? They said to hell with chronology: Elton John and a universe of rock and pop stars have written the love songs for past, present, and future.   Hyperkinetic, wildly hybrid, 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 be the alchemist-magicians to adapt it? The answer would have to wait, until history was ready to roll and repeat.   Of course, everything was dependent on fearless producers who could secure the four-way underlying rights, and rights to dozens of songs that would make up the once-in-a-lifetime score. Carmen Pavlovic and business partner Gerry Ryan were up for it. The Australian-born co-founders of Global Creatures first met Luhrmann and Martin in 2009, eager to throw their hats in the ring as producers of the stage version of Moulin Rouge!  In addition to securing the rights held by Luhrmann, it would take them nearly a decade to secure the rights to the movie (including those held by Fox, Craig Pearce and the French family who owns the actual Moulin Rouge establishment).    Equally crucial, Pavlovic assembled an international producing team that included longtime friend and collaborator Bill Damaschke, a 20-year veteran of DreamWorks Animation and founder of StoryKey Entertainment. Then there were the songs, so many songs. How to get rights to scores of high-charting tunes that would be woven into the unique songscape? 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.    Running parallel to the painstaking, decade-long rights process was the quest to find the optimal creative team to usher Moulin Rouge! to the stage.     “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.”   Luhrmann and Timbers happened to be at a dinner party thrown by a mutual friend. Luhrmann had seen and admired two Timbers shows: Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Here Lies Love. The two critically acclaimed musicals were exuberant, irreverent riffs on history — the disastrous populism of America’s seventh president and the gaudy, dictatorial reign of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos of the Philippines. Both shows mashed up and remixed pop tunes and surreal, eye-popping visuals. The day after the party, Luhrmann emailed Timbers: Want to meet and talk about Moulin Rouge?    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 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.”   To craft the visual and sonic design of Moulin Rouge!, Timbers and the producers were just as meticulous, assembling a team of Broadway veterans with multiple Tony Awards among them. Derek McLane was recruited to transform the Al Hirschfeld Theatre into the Moulin Rouge, “part nightclub, part dance hall, part theatre, part dreamscape,” as the script calls for. Costume designer Catherine Zuber poured the gorgeous cast into a series of bespoke, epoch-hopping costumes, mixing Parisian silhouettes, contemporary fashion, and a discreet dash of BDSM. For lighting, Justin Townsend came aboard to carve zones and moods out of the immersive environment, plunging us into a tantalizing and arousing spectrum of reds, purples and blues. One cannot underestimate the importance of sound design balancing dialogue and a score woven from dozens of different song fragments, and Peter Hylenski did heroic work, turning it into a seamless sonic whole.   None of this storytelling and design acumen would see the light of day without herculean feats of producing stamina. Every musical decision made by the core team would require hours of legal and contractual finessing, and every “no” they received from a composer or publisher would impact the direction and coherence of the piece. In terms of getting the rights, there were nail-biters, to be sure. “Every artist deal would be treated equally, and we would be genuinely prepared to find an alternative for any song,” was Pavlovic’s mantra. “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,” she explains. “That was the only way we could steel ourselves for every challenge, because the years of licensing obstacles were relentless. If ultimately a rights denial came for commercial or artistic reasons, we reminded each other that it was an opportunity to find a stronger creative solution. This was a show being made for now and the ‘now’ of it gave us many thrilling choices.”      Now. More than just another jukebox musical with exceptional staying power. Moulin Rouge! is the musical we must have now because it’s woven into our cultural DNA. We see its archetypes and blood-red symbolism in our dreams.   “More than just another jukebox musical with exceptional staying power. ‘Moulin Rouge!’ is the musical we must have now because it’s woven into our cultural DNA.”   Rewind to 19th-century Paris, to the iconic structure that became a famed place of erotic liberation and new forms of entertainment. “Moulin Rouge” means “Red Windmill.”    Think of a windmill. Wind turns the blades, which spin and grind. A common sight in the countryside that looks surreal against a cityscape. Its blades, always turning, symbolize revolution and progress, but also remind us that existence is circular. We live, we love, we die. Repeat.   Then there’s red. The color of blood, of life and death. The heat in your cheeks when your lover draws near. The muscle that keeps the beat in your chest as you kiss. Champagne hits your blood and makes you dance. A disease travels in the blood. Red lips, red curtains, red spots on a white handkerchief. Life, love, and the shadow of death are locked in a dance.   Moulin Rouge! the film prophesied the world that Moulin Rouge! the Broadway musical now inhabits: A decentralized, democratized world of artists and lovers who all belong to the same club, even as old power structures are falling apart. Everything is up for grabs, to be mixed and matched and mashed-up how we please: The music we stream, the clothes we wear, the people we love, and the identity we cultivate, all make us members. As Pavlovic says, “It felt less like we were creating a show and more like we were creating a movement.”    It’s a movement that spills beyond the theater and the city. In nearly every corner of the culture and politics, barriers are crashing down. High and low. Old Guard and Disruptor. Critic and Influencer. Artist and Amateur. Male and Female. These false dichotomies are vanishing fast. We live in a new age of open, participatory, peer-driven “new power.” In 1899 Paris or 2020 New York City, traditional authority is giving way to online crowdsourcing, radical transparency, and fan enthusiasm. The future belongs to Airbnb and Black Lives Matter, to SoundCloud and social media.    Behind the scenes and center stage, mash-up and remix are the raison d’être of Moulin Rouge! The Musical: age-old theatrical tradition and operatic storylines amplified over state-of-the-art sound technique; the can-can blended seamlessly into a fierce twerk line. Belle Époque costumes glitter under concert-like lighting. Dizzying, wraparound sets immerse you in a world that is simultaneously foreign and just around the corner. Moulin Rouge! embraces the past and present of the Broadway musical, while pointing toward the future.    “‘Moulin Rouge!’ embraces the past and present of the Broadway musical, while pointing toward the future.”