“It wasn’t a plan, but I always knew,” Baz Luhrmann, that great Australian muse of technicolor maximalism, said slyly on the red carpet of Broadway’s “Moulin Rouge! The Musical,” his 2001 cult-classic finally shepherded (or can-canned?) to the Broadway stage. Catherine Martin, his production designer (and wife) who put the rouge in the “Moulin Rouge” and won two Oscars for it, pushed a bit harder. “It’s been in his head for a long time,” she said.
More than a peculiar, beloved jewel beguiled instantly by theater folk, the 2001 film starring Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor belonged to a class of movie-musicals that, in the early 2000s, resurrected the medium in a burst of creativity. (Also released in 2001 was “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” followed the next year by “Chicago,” and the next by “School of Rock.”) “I like to think we smashed the door open with it, and smashed the door in a way in which you couldn’t close it again,” said Luhrmann.
Celebrated outside the Al Hirschfeld Theatre Thursday night wasn’t merely the opening of a dazzling new production. Feted was what Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge” meant for the genre, offstage and on
“It was the first time that we had seen our medium translated into a very modern capacity,” said Karen Olivo, the Tony-Award winning actress portraying showgirl and courtesan Satine. “With his [Baz’s] blessing, trying to bring it into a new generation, we all bore that weight and decided we wanted to make something beautiful and special, something as beautiful as what he did the first time, but for our medium.”
The film was “form defining, really,” said Broadway mogul-producer (and style icon; he wore a glittering cape designed by Zac Posen, embroidered with the show’s mantra: Truth, Beauty, Freedom and Love) Jordan Roth. “There’s a grand tradition of the movie-musicals, and one I think from which we’ve experienced a golden age, stepped away from and now are returning to with great creativity and an expanded canvas of possibility,” he told Variety on the red carpet. “Baz really led the way so many years ago in rethinking how music could function on the screen, how music could function in storytelling regardless of medium, and we’re all beneficiaries of that vision.”
Even for a beloved and seasoned actor like Aaron Tveit, who stars alongside Olivo as love-struck poet Christian, that legacy is a daunting one. “Baz and Catherine have wanted to do this for 10 years at least. It’s so special,” he said at the opening night afterparty. “I’ve been such a fan of this story since the movie came out, and to be the one to welcome people into this story every night is a very special thing, and I try to treat it with as much care and effort and work as I can because of that.”
Exactly how the Broadway adaptation of “Moulin Rouge” spins its audience in and out of euphoric bliss is a two-handed trick. Seduced by the operatic contrast of a love story set inside a world bursting with the temptations of sinful pleasure, the musical’s audience, like the movie’s, is lulled by the nostalgia of a familiar soundtrack.
The use of popular music — and, in this new Broadway adaptation, an updated jukebox of over 70 songs, including the appropriately seductive additions of numbers like “Single Ladies” and “Bad Romance” — to tell this 19th century Paris-bound tale was a genre-bending innovation of the 2001 film, and it hasn’t left this production.
“Baz’s amazing conceit is that the great popular songbook is the poetic genius of its main character,” said director Alex Timbers, whom Luhrmann entrusted whole-heartedly with the adaptation. “And all these songs are not only brilliant songs, but memories you have your own personal reaction to. You think: ’that’s the song I broke up to,’ or ‘I first heard that song in my dorm room in college.’ Everybody has an individualized experience in that way.”
“But, if you just wacked up a movie on stage, people would be incredibly disappointed,” Timbers, just off his Broadway adaptation of “Beetlejuice,” added.
Who audiences might find refreshingly reimagined is the character of Satine, a longtime Moulin Rouge showgirl compelled to save the club from financial ruin by submitting to a masochistic patron, and locked in a passionate affair with Christian, an American songwriter.
Braced by the songs of Marilyn Monroe, Beyoncé and Madonna, “Satine is the story of most women in our business,” said Olivo. “We’re most of the time objectified; we’re usually used for what we look like or what people will feel when they look at us. And so, I think Satine, in a very meta way, is flipping it right back around. She’s the object of desire to so many men, and it makes her the top of her field.”
That such a metaphor could live vibrantly within a 19th century love story told to a 21st century soundtrack, all beating to the hedonic, enticing and fantastical pleasures of a French cabaret, is, for the director of “Moulin Rouge!,” merely its allure. “The intimate and the epic are the two scales we’re nurturing,” he said.