Yesou have never seen so much red velvet. Crimson sheets on the ceiling of London’s Piccadilly Theater, in front of the crystal chandeliers, the illuminated windmill, the blue jeweled elephant and the neon sign that says: Moulin Rouge. On stage, we find fishnets, ruffled skirts, sequined bustiers and extravagant feather headdresses. Everything to make you feel like you’ve been transported to the miserable Pigalle in Paris around 1899. Rest assured, if you liked Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 film, the one with Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman singing Elton John in a collision of Belle Epoque and 20th Century Pop, you’ll get what you’re looking for here.

Red Mill! The Musical does not drastically reinvent its raw material. “We’ve all seen that adaptation where you’re like, ‘What did you do at ET? Why is ET a serial killer ?! “says director Alex Timbers.” Our goal is that within the first five minutes “- the show opens with a stunning take on Lady Marmalade -” your shoulders drop, phew, and you realize that everyone who did that loves the movie too. “

Karen Olivo as Satine and Aaron Tveit as Christian in the American production. Photograph: © Matthew Murphy, 2018

Luhrmann’s film, which cost $ 179 million at the box office, was the latest installment in his ‘Red Curtain Trilogy’ after Strictly Ballroom and Romeo + Juliet, and the most flamboyant of the three OTTs, a quick attack of glamor maximalist. A love story about penniless songwriter Christian and cabaret star / courtesan Satine, it’s an ode to theater dreamers, so no wonder she ended up on stage, winning 10 Tony Awards on Broadway and now opening in London and Melbourne.

The book, written by playwright John Logan, shares mostly the same plot as the film, but there are minor tweaks. “The demands of the theater are different,” explains Timbers. “We need protagonists with the agency who always make active choices. Thus, the courtesan Satine takes a little more weight and the love triangle between her, Christian and the duke is made more difficult. “All of this with Baz’s blessing,” adds Timbers.

The movie might be theatrical, but there are a lot of things that characterize its style that can only be done in the edit suite: stir-fry cuts, close-ups, whipped pans, and other effects. Getting the same feeling on stage was a challenge. For music supervisor, arranger, and songwriter Justin Levine – tasked with merging 70 songs from the past 120 years of popular music, plus original material, into a score crammed with medleys and mashups – music was a way to do it. “You can switch to one song, you can crossfade between songs, and sometimes hearing two songs at the same time gives you that kind of delicious, dizzying high that I find so exciting in the movie,” he says.

“The song is the close-up,” Timbers says – this is when we zoom in on how a character is feeling. “And I think your lighting designer [in this case Justin Townsend] is your editor, focusing your gaze: look over here! Look over here! “

Then there’s the choreography, created by Emmy-nominated Sonya Tayeh for her work on the American TV show So You Think You Can Dance, as well as choreographer for Kylie Minogue and Florence + the Machine. Her work utilizes the power and brilliance of commercial choreography alongside the rich lyrical possibilities of modern dance (Twyla Tharp is a major inspiration).

“I play a lot with momentum and suspension,” says Tayeh, describing his experiences with tempo and freezes; it can mimic a publisher’s tricks, like a “speed ramp,” with sudden acceleration, or reverse what the music is doing, braking when the song picks up speed. “You have a book that you follow and you have to bring it to life,” adds the choreographer. “Turn it into a pop-up book, elevate the words in a really colorful way.”

Red Mill!  Musical comedy
Red Mill! Musical comedy Photography: no credit

Tayeh, who spent his teens clubbing in Detroit, uses dance to stir emotions and drive the story, not just as a pretty decoration. “This casting has been so impatient,” she says. “They take such big bites, they have so much heat and energy.”

On stage, the actors prepare for a technical race, and Christian (played by American actor trained in Rada, Jamie Bogyo) and his bohemian friends Santiago and Toulouse-Lautrec rehearse a scene where they espouse a version of the series’ creed. in song – “Liberty, beauty, truth and love” – ​​before moving on to T Rex’s Children of the Revolution. It is typical of the musical variations that the show makes.

New musicals using existing pop songs are everywhere now, from Jersey Boys to & Juliet, but they weren’t so ubiquitous when the movie was released 20 years ago. It is a device that serves history well. Christian is said to be a gifted songwriter. “You’ve seen plays, haven’t you, where someone says he wrote the greatest poem, or book, or song,” says Timbers, “and at one point in the act II, they’re gonna have to read it and you’re like, hmm, I’m giving it a B +. The outrageous vanity here is that Christian wrote all the great songs you love.

The effect of familiar music, of course, is an instant connection with the audience (and all of their emotions and memories associated with those songs). “The earworm is immediate,” as Timbers puts it. Levine updated the soundtrack to include songs from the past 20 years, such as Firework by Katy Perry and Bad Romance by Lady Gaga. Rather than just stringing the hits together, he approached the songs as a material to compose with, changing the order of the lyrics to tell the story in hand, or cutting to another song when the premiere served its purpose. “Often great popular music is not a conversation,” he said, “it is a singular expression. I Can’t Get No Satisfaction – from the moment this song starts, you’re not going to learn much more.

There’s an argument that the jukebox approach is kind of dumb and it’s harder to create entirely original musicals. Levine says it’s hard to make a musical these days, yet, “I think shows like Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen prove there’s absolutely an appetite for original material.” There has always been a porous line between the stage and the world of pop music, he says, indicating when the pop stars of their time recorded Broadway songs by Cole Porter or the Gershwins. “There was a much more symbiotic relationship between popular music and musical theater back then,” he says, but it continues. “Jay-Z seems to be a huge fan of Annie,” Levine says, referring to the rapper’s version of Hard Knock Life. “And the last time I checked, Ariana Grande’s 7 Rings [based on My Favourite Things] had 1.5 billion streams on Spotify. When Luhrmann made Moulin Rouge, he was simply reversing that tradition.

Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor in Moulin Rouge by Baz Luhrmann!
20 years… Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor in Moulin Rouge by Baz Luhrmann! Photograph: 20th Century Fox / Allstar

Luhrmann himself was not involved in the initial creation of the musical. He and his wife, designer Catherine Martin, saw a first workshop and shared their thoughts. “And I was really touched by their constructive and courteous nature,” says Levine. Once on Broadway, however, Luhrmann co-produced the album with Levine and producer Matt Stine. “He’s a very musical person,” says Levine. “Baz hears and notices everything. He has an overactive thought process. There would be all these little references, some of which maybe were just for mine and Matt and Baz’s benefit would catch them.

“Working in the Piccadilly Theater which has this rich history, for two dorky Americans, it’s really neat,” says Timbers, watching Tayeh as we sit backstage on velvet chairs. And they’re sincere about their deep love for the show, more than you might expect for a raucous, entertaining kneel, which some New York critics have applauded more for its style than its substance. “It’s a beautiful message of family and community and pride in who you are and truly living for something you believe in,” Tayeh says. “It is a celebration of individuality and self-expression, sacrifices for art and sacrifices for love.”

They approach it from all angles with great passion. “It’s like a mixed version of Traviata, Bohemia, Romeo and Juliet and the myth of Orpheus, so you have to operate at that level,” explains Timbers. “It’s about daring big, believing boldly, and loving blindly.”



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