Footlights

From Screen to Stage: The making of “Moulin Rouge! The Musical”

(L-R) Jacqueline B. Arnold as La Chocolat, Robyn Hurder as Nini, Holly James as Arabia and Jeigh Madjus as Baby Doll in “Moulin Rouge! The Musical” (©Matthew Murphy, 2019)


Baz Luhrmann’s fever dream of a 2001 movie musical about roiling life and love in the Montmartre quarter of Paris in 1899—“Moulin Rouge!”—was akin to dropping a bomb on a jukebox. Out poured a kaleidoscopic explosion of pop, rock, classical and jazz: “Nature Boy,” “Lady Marmalade,” “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” “Your Song,” “Material Girl,” Offenbach’s “Galop Infernal.” In short, anything goes, although that Cole Porter song didn’t make the cut.

Four years ago when John Logan’s agent asked if he would be interested in writing the book of a Broadway musical based on Luhrmann’s film, Logan speed-dialed back, “Not only am I interested in it, it’s the single best idea I ever heard.” The writer, whose “Red” won the 2010 Tony Award for Best Play, jumped in eagerly with both feet. “Baz’s movie is a magnificent work of cinema, but it exists on the kinetic energy of film, with pans and quick cuts and close-ups and dissolves, none of which exists onstage because the DNA of the stage is completely different. I knew it would be a challenging thing to work on.”

Immediately, he took a meeting with the show’s director, Alex Timbers, who famously specializes in theatrical heavy lifting (like “Beetlejuice,” currently on the Great White Way). “From our very first discussion, Alex and I were on the exact same page about what we wanted it to be. Our goal became to take the elements of the film—and those great characters—and make them work as well onstage.”

Five principals propel the plot. The female of the five is the sultry chanteuse, Satine (played by Karen Olivo)—a courtesan who comes with consumption, of course, but who can still set off the musical’s love triangle. She’s torn between the good and the bad—Christian, an innocent young composer (Aaron Tveit), and the Duke of Monroth, a rich roué producing her new show (Tam Mutu). Utterly uninvolved in such amours is Harold Zidler, the club’s flamboyantly gay master of ceremonies (Danny Burstein). Last but hardly least is the Moulin Rouge’s most famous habitué, Toulouse-Lautrec (Sahr Ngaujah), the artist who, it turns out, really wants to direct—which he does, calling the shots for the musical the characters above are putting on. 

Logan’s job was to stitch together a cohesive, compelling, dramatic story line from the tunes at hand. “I think there are about 80. Obviously, a lot of them are bits and pieces and mash-ups and musical quotes, but some are full songs. When time came for Satine to sing her character song in the first act, I wrote the scene leading into the song, and then we considered various candidates. I don’t remember what was in the running because the minute Katy Perry’s song ‘Firework’ came along, the lyrics of it were so appropriate for the character that we just went with that. If we were adjudicating the songs, sometimes the lyrics led the way, and sometimes it would be the mood or the feel of the song.”

Logan says that a concerted effort was made to hit on all the iconic songs from the film—and some beyond that. The Broadway version comes with a musical update. “In the 18 years since the movie was released, Beyoncé happened, Adele happened, a whole new world of music has come along. The brilliant conceit Baz Luhrmann simply invented was using pop songs in a classical period setting, so we were able to use pop songs that are more recent.” Cue Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” and Sia’s “Chandelier.”

“Moulin Rouge! The Musical,” Al Hirschfeld Theatre, 302 W. 45th St., 877.250.2929, www.moulinrougemusical.com

Karen Olivo as Satine and Aaron Tveit as Christian in “Moulin Rouge! The Musical” on Broadway (©Matthew Murphy, 2019)