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‘Beetlejuice,’ ‘Moulin Rouge!’ Director Alex Timbers on Creating Worlds on Broadway

In the past year, Alex Timbers has directed the Tony-nominated “Beetlejuice” and the stage adaptation of “Moulin Rouge!” (which begins previews June 28 at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre). Here, he reflects on his most recent projects and the challenges of bringing two iconic movie musicals to Broadway within a year. 

Both your musicals live in elaborate worlds. How do you start creating a “Moulin Rouge” world, for example?

I find world-creation shows challenging but really satisfying. A lot of it’s fun and dreaming big, but a lot of it’s about being rigorous with rules of design and the period’s elements, shapes and costumes — but those things are juxtaposed in ways that feel surprising. You’d never have a baseball cap onstage in that time, but at the same time, the lighting and the sound are incredibly contemporary, like a pop concert. You have to be consistent and rigorous with yourself, where the rules feel effortless for an audience.

How do you work on character development?

You start asking questions: How do you raise the stakes for these characters? How do you make their choices more complicated? What can the character onstage do versus the character in the film?

What’s the hardest part about directing a musical where people know the material?

It’s important for the creative team to love the source material as much as the audience does. What theater does well is very different from what a movie does well. You’ll see little Easter eggs in the theater to let the audience know that the creators embrace the source material in the same way you do, but you’ll see them in ways that are rearranged or surprising. You want to honor [the material] but not be beholden to it.

How did out-of-town runs influence your direction?

The out-of-town feedback is very, very helpful. I think it would be foolhardy — if you’re realizing that certain things aren’t working or aren’t connecting with an audience — to dig in your heels and say, “My art is more important than the audience’s opinion.” I’ve never come from that — I consider myself a populist theater maker. Every time you have an opportunity to make a show better, that’s really exciting. 

Can you talk about the logistics and licensing for a jukebox musical?

Justin [Levine, music supervisor, orchestrator and arranger], John [Logan, book writer] and I spent a lot of time in hotel rooms going beat by beat through the show and thinking: “If we could have any song for this moment, what is the most central emotional need? What do we need to convey through story, and what is specific to this character?” That’s where it began. And then the process became trying to find what was actually possible. In general, we’ve been lucky that a lot of artists were excited about participating. … There’s something like 75 licensed songs within the show, and it’s unique in the way that Justin has blended it all together. It’s extraordinary.

There’s been criticism that Broadway is filled with jukebox musicals and movie adaptations.

If you go back, so many great musicals — “Oklahoma!,” “My Fair Lady” — were based on preexisting source material. The shows that do really well are the ones that establish themselves on their own theatrical terms. You look at “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” or “The Band’s Visit” — those things feel re-invented for the stage from their source material. 

Things You Didn’t Know About Alex Timbers

Age: 40 Hometown: New York City Broadway Show He Most Wants To See: “Kiss Me, Kate” Dream Audience Member: Someone who’s never been to the theater Favorite Song in “Moulin Rouge!”: “Such Great Heights,” by the Postal Service Where He Was During the Tony Announcements: On vacation in Santa Fe, N.M. Next Project: “American Utopia”

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