Moulin Rouge! Set Designer Derek McLane Knows How to Make Theatergoers Gasp
By: Ellis Nassour
August 2, 2019: One thing that the Hirschfeld Theatre ushers can always count on at Moulin Rouge! when they open the orchestra doors a volley of gasps and exclamations as ticketholders first grasp the set. Smart Phones are out as they roam the aisles capturing snaps of the colorful stage with its depth of heart-shaped portals, the 14.6’ replica of the windmill that sits atop the Moulin Rouge in Paris and that’s mounted in the box at the left, and the 18’ high blue elephant in the box at right.
“It’s really gratifying and wonderful to hear and get feedback on audience reaction to the design elements,”saysTony and Emmy-winning set designer Derek McLane.
In the musical, Moulin Rouge owner and impresario Harold Zidler, played by six-time Tony nominee Danny Burstein, channels Simon Legree, barking “Welcome, you gorgeous collection of reprobates and rascals, artistes and arrivistes, soubrettes and sodomites. No matter your sin, you are welcome here.”
The welcome begins before the show starts, so get there early. Female cast members and maybe even a couple of males prowl in corsets and all manner of exotic costumes exuding sensuality to tempt patrons, especially those in the close-as-close-can-be “can-can tables” and those adjacent to the runway that juts from the stage. There’s even a tall hunk in a Tarzan loincloth, and let’s not overlook the sword swallowers.
When Aaron Tveit as Christian enters stage left and the lights dim and the music blasts, gasps continue as Tony-winner Karen Olivo as Satine, the star chanteuse of the Moulin Rouge described as the cabaret’s “sparkling diamond,” descends from the gods on a trapeze to hover over the first rows sumptuously attired in white and black and ablaze with hundreds of Swarovski crystals.
Though no one has yet done a gasp-count, they never stop in this over-the-top-and-then-some hot ticket. Following the high-energy finale, patrons linger in the glittering confetti that’s been rained upon them to take more photos. They can’t get enough. They don’t want to exit.
The orchestra is a sea of red fabric and cherubs. Almost overlooked except by the eagle-eyed are the golden cherub and windmill friezes that now overlay the Hirschfeld boxes. Regarding those friezes, McLane wanted to them a lot more decadent to reflect the seediness of Montmartre. “In the end, I decided not to go that far.”
Derek McLane made his Broadway debut in 1994 with the short-lived comedy What’s Wrong with This Picture? (39 performances). He estimates he’s designed 350 shows since: 42 on Broadway; 118 Off Broadway, where he began his career age 28 in 1986, which include the recent Merrily We Roll Along revival; and international productions.
That number also includes six Oscar telecasts and the live TV adaptations of Hairspray, The Wiz, Peter Pan, and The Sound of Music.
Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, Nice Work If You Can Get It (2012), Follies (2011 revival), How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying (2011 revival), and Ragtime (2009 revival) are among his Broadway designs, but, he states, “Moulin Rouge! is by far my largest and most elaborate production — even more elaborate than my sets for the Oscars.”
Baz Luhrmann and production and costume designer Catharine Martin [his wife] were supportive the whole way through, even offering their counsel on occasion. McLane considers the look of their blockbuster film one of the most stunning of the last 40 years, “so there was no way I wanted to disappoint fans. I wanted to meet their expectations. There were certain things I riffed on and paid homage to, but I also wanted to surprise them in a number of ways.”
The stage production is quite cinematic and moves very quickly. “It was important to have sets designed to be fast in and fast out. Unlike on the Oscars, we don’t have commercial breaks to transition sets. Once the train leaves the station, it’s a non-stop express.”
One solution was using lots of drops, and McLane rose to the occasion. “There’s no space left in the Hirschfeld flies,” he laughs. “We’ve used it all! In addition to the 26 pieces descending onstage, there’s the Moulin Rouge neon sign and Satin’s trapeze.”
One of the drops is the 32’ x 37’ [the width of the proscenium] exterior of the elephant which fronts Satine’s elaborate apartment. McLane says he’s been asked many times why the elephant is blue. He responds, “Well, I just thought it should be blue.” He explained that all materials onstage and throughout the Hirschfeld are fire-retardant.
McLane began work on Moulin Rouge! in 2017, starting with a visit to Paris, where he had designed the Hietor Villa-Lobos operetta Magdalena at the Chatelet, delving into the history of the origins of the famed cabaret in gritty, seedy Montmartre [not as bad then as it is now with several blocks of peep shows and porn shops], and the fashions of the late 1800s.
“From the start,” he notes, “it was a very close collaboration with two-time Tony-winning director Alex Timbers (Beetlejuice, Peter and the Starcatcher, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Here Lies Love). “Alex is a wonderful director for a designer to work with because he’s interested in design. For a project this size, we knew it would take a lot of time. He was always there. We worked on models of the set, which helped figure out the scene transitions. There were many long nights going through what we could and could not do, making notes, and then making changes.”
McLane, whose main associate on the show for the last two years has been Erica Hemminger, told of closely collaborating with nine-time Tony-winning costume designer Catherine Zuber (the recent My Fair Lady and The King and I revivals, War Paint). “Cathy and I have known each other a long time. We met in graduate school at Yale. We don’t always work together, but we share a studio, which in the case of Moulin Rouge! proved quite beneficial.”
Shows they worked on together include Little Women (2005), How to Succeed…, and Gigi (2015).
Zuber found inspiration in the many depictions of the Moulin Rouge and its stars and can-can dancers in the paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec. There’s lace and feathers galore, billowing taffeta skirts, velvet glamour gowns, stunning hats, and corsets especially designed with stretch fabric to accommodate movement for the female dancers [though the corsets appear to be the lace-up type, they’re zippered for the upcoming quick change]; and, especially for the prince, portrayed by the sinister Tam Muto, formal wear that includes top hat and cane.
No two of the can-can dancers colorful and heavily ruffled costumes are the same. When the women begin their high-energy swirling and the skirts flare up, Zuber’s design brings to mind bouquets of peonies. Santine sings that diamonds are a girl’s best friend, and since the show wasn’t able to allow Zuber all the diamonds she desired, she fell back on some 30,000 Swarovski crystals on the 200-plus costumes.
In addition to working with Zuber, McLane noted his collaboration with two-time Tony-nominated lighting designer Justin Townsend, who has Timbers’ Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson among his credits. The lighting elements are breathtaking, especially in the deep blue of the highly romantic Act One finale.
There was the regional premiere in July at the Ambassador Theatre Group’s Emerson [College] Colonial Theatre in Boston, where some major changes took place. McLane’s scenic elements for Moulin Rouge! were built throughout the tri-state area: Upstate New York [Newburgh], Connecticut, and New Jersey. Since the major elements of the show were done with the Hirschfeld stage in mind, there won’t major alterations.
The team moved into the Hirschfeld on April 8, the day following Kinky Boots closing. “With all Alex had on his plate,” pointed out McLane, “he was willing to spend time working with me through the tech rehearsals.” As is the custom on Broadway, load-in was into a blank space. All stage elements, lights, and sound equipment were removed. “We started from scratch with a blank canvas,” says the designer. “It was a beehive of activity from morning to night. We built our stage and installed the elevator panels. It took the better part of two months before Alex could get the cast onstage.”
The most important thing a designer needs to know when he or she is hired, points out McLane “is what the story is. At the very heart of Moulin Rouge!, you have a passionate love story and cries of rebellion for artistic freedom. I didn’t want those moments to get lost upstage, so we built and blocked those moments as up close as possible to heighten their realism.”