Rarely has the term “jukebox musical” been so literally executed. Moulin Rouge!, the Broadway musical adaptation of Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 movie, is—just like that film—a parade of pop and rock songs, mostly in medley-style, bitty snatches.
The musical, which opened Thursday night at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, is really just like standing beside a jukebox. The audience around me sighed or snickered with recognition when another familiar song popped up.
What else is Moulin Rouge! The Musical (booking to Feb. 2, 2020), which allegedly cost $28 million to mount? Well, it’s not the movie, but it seems to want to be—certainly more than it wants to be a musical in its own right.
Luhrmann—listed in the program with wife and collaborator Catherine Martin as a producer and for their “creative services”—is immediately present and extravagantly over the top. The first thing you see walking in is the handsomely mounted, giant title of the show in lights, emblazoned at the front of a stage of nesting red love hearts. There are lightbulbs upon lightbulbs, canopied and fringed all over the theater.
On the top left of the mezzanine, there is the spinning windmill. On the top right there is the blue elephant. As you take your seats, dancers in bondage gear, corsets, and burlesque getups gyrate and pose. You will not hear any command not to take pictures or even to turn your phone off. This is a production welcoming as much social media it can generate, and people snap and selfie away.
This production, directed by Alex Timbers with a book by John Logan, is as near as theater could hope to ape the movie, with all its exaggeration, safe raunch, and oh-I-love-that-song medleys, beginning with a full-on stockings, suspenders, ass-baring belt of “Lady Marmalade” by La Chocolat (Jacqueline P. Arnold), Nini (Robyn Hurder), Arabia (Holly James), and Baby Doll (Jeigh Madjus).
Sonya Tayeh’s dazzling choreography means the ensemble is the hardest-working, most rapidly kicking one on Broadway; indeed, the dancing is the standout element in the show.
If you approach Moulin Rouge without having seen the movie, then you may indeed wonder why Satine (Karen Olivo) and Christian (Aaron Tveit) break into these medleys and mash-ups of rock and pop songs (there’s Whitney! there’s Katy Perry!), when they are in 1899 Paris.
The most famous modern songs in the film are all intact here, including the “Elephant Love Medley”—where Satine and Christian sing first lines of famous love standards at each other, including “Up Where We Belong”—and “El Tango de Roxane.”
Then there is the plaintive “Come What May,” Satine and Christian’s recurring love song, and “Nature Boy,” which is supposed to convey Christian’s pure creativity, for he is an artist—and everything, including Satine’s fate, as it turns out, is grist to that particular masculine mill.
The design (by Derek McLane) is fabulous, from all the frou-frou fin-de-siècle red and love hearts to a painted full-length curtain announcing the Champs-Élysées, and then, stripped back to convey backstage, the stark full-length back of the theater itself. Justin Townsend’s lighting is a feast of drama.
However, everything you can do on film—indeed, makes sense on film—does not translate on stage. You cannot film Olivo in ruby-red lip celebrating close up as Kidman is shot. You can’t capture McGregor’s exuberant impishness, and Tveit plays Christian as a much simpler, rosy-cheeked romantic idealist. Olivo is beautifully dressed by Catherine Zuber in a collection of showgirl and diva outfits, and sings well. And yet this couple just doesn’t fire our romantic synapses.
The film ranges this way and that with all manner of camera lenses, exaggerations, and people shot in close-up and flying into the night sky. On stage, with as much energy as the performers manage, a narrative flatness pervades, and a dislocation of tone.
The willful theatricality of Luhrmann’s movie—all those expressions and over-enunciations—has been directly transported to the stage and doesn’t sound right, especially when it comes to the villainous Duke of Monroth (Tam Mutu). All he needs is a mustache to twirl. He seems comic, not in any way menacing. The central coupling has a low-wattage charm, and everything that isn’t a famous song feels like well-dressed pantomime.
Without the insane visual switches of the film, the progression of Moulin Rouge becomes less what-will-happen-next, or what visual fever dream can be launched, and rather what familiar pop song is coming up.
The mash-ups are fun: “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” collides with “Material Girl.” Newer songs made famous since 2001 get orgiastic airplay, like Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies,” Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” (including a fun joke at the expense of its linguistically nutty opening phrasing), and Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.”
The singing is wonderful. But, as with any jukebox musical that uses broken-up bits of popular songs, it can be a bit calorific: You want more of that one, but you’re only going to get a few bars. Feed us, feed us.
Danny Burstein’s Moulin manager, Harold Zidler (Danny Burstein), has a rambunctious time presiding over the show, and then the show within the show. One of the best sequences on stage has Christian, Toulouse-Lautrec (Sahr Ngaujah), Pierre (Reed Laplau), and Santiago (Ricky Rojas) desperately mount their proposed show for the duke to cover for Christian and Satine. Ngaujah brings a mournful anger to Lautrec; his is the most resonant voice in favor of bohemian idealism and artistic resistance.
However, there is also something very traditional about Moulin Rouge, and who gets to revel in the “truth, beauty, freedom, and love” it proposes as central to living life.
Satine’s death by consumption is traditional Victorian punishment for a woman living outside the traditional boundaries of the era, and then her death, as Christian himself relays, merely provides inspiration for Christian’s art. The end of the Moulin Rouge is basically: Yeah, Satine’s death was a bummer, but everything’s OK because the cute young guy has found his artistic focus by meeting her.
In the end, Satine is just as used by Christian as she is by the duke. The former uses her for his art. The latter treats her as his property rather than partner. Both seek to possess her. One of these possessions is posited as romantic and the other oppressive, but both deny Satine her own agency. She is, for both men, a piece of fetishized decoration to be coveted.
Not that the thumping, pumping Moulin Rouge allows you to dwell on its misogyny. This is musical as spectacle, so if you don’t exactly feel the peril and passion of Christian and Satine’s doomed romance, then no matter, because another visual bonbon will be thrown at you soon enough.