Baz Luhrmann’s Film Moulin Rouge! Comes to Broadway in $28-million Musical Spectacle Directed by Alex Timbers
By: Ellis Nassour
July 25, 2019: Truth! Beauty! Freedom! Love!, the words of a Bohemian revolution in 1899, ring out again on Broadway, in two-time Tony winner Alex Timbers $28-million spectacular musical adaptation of Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 international blockbuster Moulin Rouge! Conceived brilliantly on film by Luhrmann, it has made numerous lists of iconic movie musicals. Now, it’s getting a new life in a “spectacular spectacular” production onstage, billed as “a feast for the eyes, ears, and soul.” The musical opens Thursday, July 25, at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre.
The setting is the legendary Latin Quarter cabaret of lust and decadence of the same name in Paris’ Montmartre where the rich and famous, even royals – top hats to berets, mix with the hoi polloi and denizens of opium and cocaine dens.
There are no boundaries, inhibition is unheard of. It’s all about excess. The host invites all, stating “No matter your sin, no matter your desire.” The main attractions are the can-can girls and worldly, entrancing chanteuse Satine, the toast of Paris two brags that diamonds are a girl’s best friend and does whatever she needs to do to get them. Trouble brews when fledgling, penniless Ohio composer arrives and falls head-over-heels with her. But there are many men in Satine’s life, and she’s hiding a devastating secret. And when jealously rears its ugly head, there’re dire results.
“In 1999, the Moulin Rouge granted Twentieth Century Fox and Baz Luhrmann the right to use the Moulin Rouge trademark, its image and realm for the production of the 2001 film,” says president and CEO of the Moulin Rouge Jean-Jacques Clerico. “The Moulin Rouge is confident that this exciting Broadway musical will meet the same great success as the film, which appealed to a wide international audience.”
In a show of support and congratulations, Clerico along with Claudine, one of the principal dancers of the Moulin Rouge, are attending the opening. Claudine will walk the red carpet in a spectacular Moulin Rouge costume created for the occasion. Also attending is the cabaret’s artistic director Janet Pharaoh.
Bringing this story of doomed lovers and dreamers to life onstage are Tony winner Karen Olivo (West Side Story, In the Heights) as Satine; Aaron Tveit (Next to Normal) as the composer Christian; six-time Tony nominee Danny Burstein (the 2016 Fiddler on the Roof , 2014 Cabaret, 2011 Follies, and 2008 South Pacific revivals), as you have never see him as Harold Zidler, the owner and impresario of the famed cabaret; Tony nominee Sahr Ngaujah (Fela) as artist Toulouse-Lautrec; Tam Mutu (Doctor Zhivago) as the sinister Duke of Monroth; Ricky Rojas (Burn the Floor) as Santiago, the Argentine tango master and gigolo; and Robyn Hurder (Nice Work if You Can Get It) as the hard-as-nails and hardest-working showgirl Nini. The 20-plus ensemble boasts some of the best dancers on Broadway.
Much credit for the fame of the Moulin Rouge must go to the can-can dancers and the posters and paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec. In the musical, he’s not having a very good run as a painter and has decided to write and stage a musical starring his long-time muse, Satine. Of course, he has no idea how to write a musical.
He concocts one but has a difficult time writing the lyrics. Christian comes to the rescue (with a little help from Rodgers and Hammerstein), and a meeting is arranged to present the show to Satine. Zidler, on the verge of bankruptcy and to prevent the cabaret’s family of showgirls and boys from being jobless, makes a deal with the Prince to produce the musical.
The trio claim the show is so exciting that audiences will stop and cheer; that it is so delightful, it will run for 50 years. The prince is not so sure, but realizes funding the show will keep him close to Satine, He reluctantly agrees, but only if he gets the deed to the Moulin Rouge, which would include ownership of Satine.
Christian states that “the greatest thing you’ll ever learn is to love and be loved in return.” But there are circumstances he’s not capable of overcoming. And will Satine, who has never found love before, give up having riches lavished upon her for a life of poverty.
Alongside Timbers (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Peter and the Starcatcher) bringing glitter and glitzare book writer Tony winner John Logan (Red); choreographer Sonya Tayeh; Tony and Emmy-winning set designer Derek McLane (Beautiful; 2011 Follies revival; set designer of six Oscar telecasts); nine-time Tony-winning costume designer Catherine Zuber (recent My Fair Lady, War Paint, The King and I revival, so many more; two-time Tony-nominee lighting designer Justin Townsend; and Tony-winning sound designer Peter Hylenski.
To Freedom! Beauty! Truth! and Love!, you must also add music. And this is where music supervisor, orchestrator, and arranger Justin Levine (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) steps center stage with the goods for a mindboggling 70 plus tunes, English and French, with about 15 holdovers from the 2001 film. The latter include “Children of the Revolution,” “Come What May,””Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” “Gimme Shelter,” “Heroes,” “Lady Marmalade,” “Material Girl,” “Nature Boy,” “Roxanne,” “The Sound of Music,” and “Your Song.” Contemporary pop hits include “Chandelier,” “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”
Many are used to excerpt one-liners and as abridged bits in huge medleys. Some of the tunes in extended medleys are also comic relief. No matter how you look at it, this was a gargantuan job.
Compositions are by Adele, Beyoncé, Florence and the Machine, Lady Gaga, Elton John, Patti LaBelle, Lorde, OutKast, Katy Perry, Pink, Sia, Britney Spears, and the Rolling Stones.
An original cast album is due in the Fall from RCA and Baz Luhrmann’s House of Iona. The recording will be produced by Luhrmann, Levine, Matt Stine,and Timbers.
Moulin Rouge! is produced Global Creatures (Carmen Pavlovic and Gerry Ryan) (King Kong). Bill Damaschke is executive producer.The number ofco-producers outnumber the size of the cast. Among them are Jujamcyn Theatres (Jordan Roth, president), which own and operate the Hirschfeld.
In a show of faith of the musical’s success, Jujamcyn began the first major renovation of the Hirschfeld lobby immediately on the closing of Kinky Boots. The theatre was opened in 1924, built by impresario Martin Beck, who managed it until his death in 1940. In 2003, the theatre was rechristened the Al Hircshfeld to honor the veteran theater caricaturist.
Architects created an additional entrance hall, in the same Rococo style. The box office treasurer’s office and a coat room were demolished to make way for a state of the art bar and concession area as well as a new handicap bathroom. On the mezzanine level, a lounge was created for visiting dignitaries and celebrities.
Tickets for Moulin Rouge! are available at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre box office, and through www.ticketmaster.com. Discounts are available for groups of 12 or more through Group Sales Box Office at www.Broadway.com or by calling (800) BROADWAY X. 2 or online at www.broadway.com/groups. There is a seat lottery (www.moulinrougemusical.com) for $29 plus a $5 service charge.
Welcome to the Moulin Rouge
The famed cabaret has gone through many iterations over the years. It was established in 1889 as “The palace of the dance and women” the cabaret in the heart of [now] seedy Montmartre, at 82 Rue de Clichy, and claimed to be “more luxurious, bigger, and more elegant” than those that existed, and with its huge red windmill, it became a beacon for locals for romantic rendezvous and a must for tourists. It’s where the scandalous can-can was invented.
In October, the Moulin Rouge turns 130 years old. The can-can is still is performed there in spectacular shows on its magnificent stage in the long-running revue Fèerie [20 years, costing nine-million euros to mount]by the Doriss Girls, which in its earliest days included Jane Avril, muse of Toulouse-Lautrec.
Fèerie features a cast of 100 global artists, which include singers, variety acts, and 60 women, performing twice every evening in the grand tradition of the French music-hall. Showgirls wear elaborate headdresses and hundreds of costumes of every imaginable kind of feathers, Swarovski crystals, and sequins [created in their own shops with a staff of 30].
According to public relations manager Fanny Rabasse, “We are the long-run champion, akin to Broadway’s Chicago, Les Miserables, Cats, and Phantom of the Opera. We keep the show fresh, and, with our large backstage staff, are always making new costumes when dry-cleaning is not enough. The costumes are the most important part of the show, not the lack of them. Some dancers are topless, but always with feathers and jewelry. So, it’s not shocking. From beginning to end, it’s the same show. Only the dancers, singers, and acts change.”
You might think that after so long a run, with no immediate plans for a new revue, Parisians don’t come. “The reverse is true,” says Mademoiselle Rabasse. “I recall when our audiences were 70% tourist. Now, it’s 50%. In 2015, which was a bad year for France, we had 60% French. Tourists were afraid, but the natives wanted to show resolve and were not afraid to go out.”
The show “pays a tribute to Parisian women throughout the years,” with various music genres. Music is no longer live, but the original score and cancan music was recorded by 80 musicians and a 60-member chorus. The stage is not exceptionally deep and because the building is almost 130 years old, the roof cannot be raised to accommodate flies.
Among centerpieces are a giant aquarium, pirate ship, a “Gorgon” [think Medusa] in her temple surrounded by pythons, and a circus that comes to life with clowns, tantalizing [human] tigresses, Siamese twins, acrobats, jugglers, and miniature horses. Then, of course, comes the most-anticipated moment: the cancan.
Shows have been created since the 60s by Doris Haug, a German woman who joined the company in 1957 and went on to become its first ballet mistress – thus, the Doriss Girls, and Ruggero Angeletti. Since 1997, Ms. Pharaoh, who hails from Leeds, England, travels the world to recruit dancers of both sexes. Choreography is by Bill Goodson, famed for his artistry throughout Europe and who’s worked with Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, and Gloria Estefan.
Dancer criteria include classical ballet training, with the height requirement for women at least 5’8”, and 6’3” for the men. Weight and hair length are carefully monitored.
Except for such occasions as the 2015 visit to New York for a performance in Times Square for a Best of France fashion event, the Moulin Rouge stays in Paris. It doesn’t tour because it would be impossible to duplicate the physical plant and staging. “The Moulin Rouge is the star,” says Mademoiselle Rabasse.
Because of tiers, there are no bad sightlines among the tables seating 900. As always, the closer and more expensive choices are best. Dinner is available, but optional. Show-only ticket holders are admitted an hour after doors opens. Attire: smart dress-casual to formal. There is dancing to a small orchestra until showtime. If you are in a Paris state-of-mind, don’t miss the Moulin Rouge. For more information, visit www.moulin-rouge.com.
The Moulin Rouge made a comeback in 1951 with a new auditorium decorated in Belle-Epoque style by Henri Mahé. Amidst a décor of small red lamps and surrounded by original posters, frescoes, and paintings by Toulouse-Lautrec, it quickly found favor again. It drew even larger audiences when began staging music hall-type revues. The first Frou-Frou show in 1963 was such a triumph that it was decided that the title of all subsequent reviews should start with the letter “F” – leading to an unbroken run of success!
It’s estimated that Féerie has been seen by more than 10.5-million spectators from across the world.
Among the concert artists who’ve played the great hall are Edith Piaf, Jean Gabin, Yves Montand, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Charles Trenet, Charles Aznavour, Liza Minnelli, Elton John, Ray Charles, and Ella Fitzgerald.
A Bit of Moulin Rouge History
Opening at the foot of Montmartre Hill in the Jardin de Paris in 1889, Moulin Rouge means “red mill.” Acting poor gave the bourgeois, men with money, a place where they could fashionably act like they’re in the slums.
The Moulin Rouge was the first electric building in the city of Paris, and it’s electric powered facade would become an iconic image of the city over the next century.
The earliest star, helped in her rise by being one of Toulouse-Lautrec’s favorite subjects, was singer/dancer La Goulue, who reigned as the Queen of Montmartre. Her real name was Louise Weber.
The can-can, just beginning to become popular, was her ticket to stardom. La Goulue’s high kicks and exposure of some skin drove men crazy. One of her famous moves was to swirl her dress around, show off a heart she had stitched into her panties, and then kick her legs up high in order knock off a man’s hat.
She became the highest paid entertainer in Paris. A famous conquest was Edward VII, the Prince of Wales. Her kick also served a practical purpose. She said she used it as a warning shot to men who were overstepping their boundaries and perhaps touching places where their hands should not have been wandering.
In 1895, at the height of her popularity, Weber decided to leave the Moulin Rouge and start her cabaret. Success was short lived. The business collapsed, her audience dried up, and she went down a spiral of depression and alcoholism, ending up selling peanuts and cigarettes as a street vendor.
Jane Avril became the cabaret’s new headliner. She had massive shoes to fill, but soon gained the nickname La Mélinite, the name of a kind of explosive. Her ability to wildly kick around, contorting her body into all manner of positions secuced the male audience. She became more widely adored than La Goulne.
The story of the Moulin Rouge has been the source of inspiration for artists over the years, and has been immortalized in film three times: Jean Renoir’s French Cancan (1954); John Huston’s Moulin Rouge (1952); and Luhrmann’s film. Avril was portrayed in the 1952 film by Zsa Zsa Gabor; and, in 2001, Nicole Kidman, though her character was heavily fictionalized. Avril became Satine.
One of the most famous entertainers of the 20th century was Jeanne Bourgeois, who took the stage name Mistinguett. She was a large part of the Moulin Rouge’s revival and success when it reopened after the 1915 fire. At the height of her popularity, she had her legs insured for 500,000 francs.
When you picture the Moulin Rouge, you are picturing Paris. The decadence, the sensuality, the class, the fun, and the lights are all part of what the Moulin Rouge is about. With such a storied history, there are some wild tales about the venue, so let’s take a look at some of the most interesting facts about this classic house of style and debauchery.
The Moulin Rouge seems ageless and is still the stuff of dreams. Not only has the it survived a catastrophic fire, it has also persevered through several economic crises and two world wars, and this year it’s celebrating 130 years.
If you want to see the Moulin Rouge through the eyes of the one and only Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, visit the Art Institute of Chicago to see his famous At the Moulin Rouge. Painted between the years of 1892-1895, it depicts La Goulue and customers hanging out drinking as mademoiselles prepare themselves for the evening. The painter also put himself in the picture.
Moulin Rouge production stills by Matthew Murphy