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Aaron Tveit on How ‘Moulin Rouge!’ Brought Him Back to Broadway

As a college student, Aaron Tveit camped outside the stage door of his favorite Broadway musicals like any other fan. When he saw 2002’s “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” he stuck around with the crowds to ask Sutton Foster for an autograph. “And I remember being struck that all these people were going crazy for her,” Tveit says. But he noticed that they stopped clamoring for her attention after she stepped out of the lights. “As soon as she turned the corner and put on a hat, she was gone.”

Every night, Tveit doesn’t hail a cab or call an Uber to “Moulin Rouge! The Musical,” where he plays the naive American writer Christian, who falls in love with the divine French courtesan Satine (Karen Olivo). Instead, Tveit rides the subway from his apartment in Astoria to the Al Hirschfeld Theatre in Times Square. “New York is constantly reinventing itself,” he says on a recent afternoon, as he puts up his feet up on a couch in his dressing room. “But at the same time, it stays the same. People just have so much going on. There’s an anonymity here, because people are just trying to get on with their lives. And I’ve always liked that.”

“Moulin Rouge!,” which honors the spirit and excess of the 2001 Baz Luhrmann movie, is the most over-the-top production of the fall season. And that’s not just because there’s an elephant residing in the theater. (PETA can rest assured; it’s only a towering statue.) Not all stage versions of popular movies turn out to be smash hits — just ask the producers of “Carrie” or “Big.” But “Moulin Rouge!” has emerged as a feel-good hit of the season, attracting everyone from Ruth Bader Ginsburg to Nicole Kidman (who played the original Satine in the movie) to Lin-Manuel Miranda. The show has raked in more than $60 million since it entered previews in June, and it consistently ranks as the second-most-packed house in town after “Hamilton.”

A big part of the production’s success comes from its soundtrack. “Moulin Rouge!” reimagines some of the movie’s greatest hit ditties — from “Lady Marmalade” to “Come What May” — but it also stays current with a mind-boggling array of pop songs from contemporary radio. In the stage version, Tveit’s Christian summons his 19th-century bohemian angst through the lyrics of Gnarls Barkley, Rihanna, Adele, Lorde, Britney Spears and Lady Gaga, whose “Bad Romance” is a sizzling showstopper that opens the second act. “I’ve sung a bunch of Taylor Swift in concerts,” says Tveit, who has staged his own shows at Irving Plaza and other venues across the country. “I’ve done some Demi Lovato. But no, I’ve never done any Lady Gaga.”

Tveit, who is 35, grew up in upstate New York and moved to Manhattan shortly after graduating from Ithaca College. His one-bedroom starter apartment was on 54th and Ninth, a two-block stroll to “Hairspray,” his first Broadway job as Link Larkin. In 2009, he opened to rave reviews in the rock musical “Next to Normal,” as the teenage son of a woman with bipolar disorder, and he landed a recurring role as Chace Crawford’s cousin on “Gossip Girl,” which shot throughout New York, in the hip neighborhoods and restaurants of the late ’00s. He followed that up with the 2011 musical adaptation of “Catch Me If You Can,” taking over the con-man role played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the Steven Spielberg movie.

Aaron Tveit

He says that when he’s recognized, 50% of the time it’s from his “Gossip Girl” days. “It was a really cool thing to be part of, living in New York City as a 25-year-old kid at the time,” Tveit says. “My first day on set, I remember I finished and wrapped. Chace and Penn [Badgley] were going to barbecue, and they invited me to lunch with them. I never forgot that, how great they were welcoming me. And I always remembered that, when I was a series regular on shows.”

Tveit didn’t intend to take an eight-year break from Broadway. He has spent his 30s in movies (such as Tom Hooper’s “Les Misérables”) and TV (from “Graceland” to “Grease Live!”), not to mention a stint as John Wilkes Booth in a 2014 London production of “Assassins.” He considered a few other Broadway roles, but those productions didn’t come together in a timely manner. “When you’re not in a musical but you still live in New York, you’re still always seeing theater,” Tveit says. “I used to have the experience where I’d be in the audience and I just wanted nothing else but to jump up onstage.”

Enter “Moulin Rouge!” The show’s director, Alex Timbers, auditioned Tveit early on, as he was getting ready to stage workshops in 2017 in the Lower East Side, working with a book based on the movie. He was impressed by Tveit’s vocal range, and how he put his own twists on a wide-ranging collection of covers. “Aaron was involved in the development in really exciting ways,” Timbers says. “And even more specifically, the keys of the songs got moved up because of Aaron’s virtuosic vocal range.” Timbers points to Tveit’s performance of the Police ballad “Roxanne” as a highlight of the show. “It’s a tour de force moment,” Timbers says. “I really feel like the success of that song is this emotional exorcism that he goes through when he delivers it every night.”

Aaron Tveit

Between traveling to and from Manhattan’s own version of the Parisian cabaret, Tveit tries to keep a low profile. He’s usually watching TV on his laptop — from a golf tournament to the Netflix series “Dark” — right before his curtain call. “The name of the game of this is recovery,” says Tveit, who finds ways to wind down from performing until 10 p.m. six nights a week. “It’s a constant battle of trying to go to sleep, so you can get back some hours of sleep. But that’s the nature of live theater. You’re just so jazzed.”

When he’s finally ready to head home, he stops to take an estimated 150 selfies a night with fans. “There’s probably a couple hundred people out there,” Tveit says. “I would say 75% of them are asking for a picture if you’re doing it.” And like Elizabeth Warren on the campaign trail, he says yes to almost everyone. “It’s a lot, but it’s great,” he says. “They’re so supportive of the show and to me personally. So many people have said to me that they’re happy that I’m back on Broadway, and that’s been surprising. I’m so grateful to them for that.”

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