Does ‘Moulin Rouge!’ Deserve to Be on Broadway?

A classic story of star-crossed lovers set in late 19th-century France raises questions on whether the jukebox musical is necessary.

Famous for Nicole Kidman and Ewan Mcgregor, fearlessness, and undeniably catchy songs, “Moulin Rouge!” is a cinema classic. After finding its way to the stage of Broadway, it still managed to offer a fresh and engaging experience while remaining loyal to the film. (Staff photo by Alex Tran)

Imagine a burlesque night club that screams eroticism and intimacy. Lightbulbs line the edges of the theater while chandeliers and red drapes hang from the ceiling. All of the backdrops have ornate heart-shaped cutouts, each with unique lace-like etchings. On opposite sides of the stage, a life-size elephant and a giant, moving windmill reside. A couple of small tables with tablecloths and lamps towards the front of the theater the night club’s ambiance. What if this immersive world could be found at the Al Hirschfeld Theater? Well, when I walked into this famous Broadway venue, I also entered France’s most famous 19th-century club: the Moulin Rouge.  

With its famous cast, consisting of  Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor, fearlessness and undeniably catchy songs, “Moulin Rouge!” is a cinema classic. However, when “Moulin Rouge!” found its way to the Great White Way, many were skeptical about whether the story deserved to be on stage. After seeing the show, I believe the stage adaptation offered a fresh and engaging experience while remaining loyal to the film. From the costumes to arrangements, the performance granted the audience a chance to escape our hectic, malevolent world. 

The musical, originally written by Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce and adapted for the stage by John Logan, is about a songwriter named Christian who falls in love with a cabaret singer named Satine. Luhrmann found inspiration for the film from the Greek tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice. Orpheus is known as a musical genius whose talent was beyond everyone else’s, paralleling Christian’s musical aspirations in 1899. To maintain the movie’s integrity, the original score was combined with more current songs to give the show a refreshed feel. 

A pre-show experience welcomed the audience before the lights dimmed. As we awaited the start of the show, actors slowly came out, one at a time. The night club performers danced on poles and in bird cages while others swallowed swords. The Duke of Monroth, the villain, lurked around the stage while Harold Zidler, the club owner, busily orchestrated his performers’ movements. The experience drew audience members into 1899, enhancing the show’s immersiveness.

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The costumes were one of the most spectacular aspects — after all — an over-the-top show demands over-the-top outfits for each performer. The colors and designs accurately captured each character’s persona. The Duke of Monroth’s completely black ensemble, in its monochromatic, depressing presentation, echoed his immoral essence. Meanwhile, Harold Zidler’s suit was a show-stopper. The costume complemented the night club’s atmosphere, featuring a red velvet jacket with black and gold trim and gold-striped pants. Of course, his look would not have been complete without a crisp, black top hat.

“Moulin Rouge!,” while set in 1899 Paris, featured modern pop tunes. Typically, I loathe these intersections. If a piece of theatre is set in a specific period, shouldn’t all of the details match? Plus, jukebox musicals are never that concise because the genre feels like composers force songs to work with the plot. Yet, I found the disassociation from the period tasteful and the songs and scenes compatible. Each song was rearranged to feature lush harmonies and rhythmic variations. The score also featured several mashups. I particularly enjoyed the song “Shut Up and Raise Your Glass,” which effectively combined “Shut Up and Dance with Me” by Walk the Moon and “Raise Your Glass” by P!nk. While the composer found a way for the tunes to complement each other, these current pop songs were not as up-to-date as I was expecting, cluing us into the length of the production’s creative process.

I was most impressed by a song titled “Backstage Romance,” which featured “Bad Romance” by Lady Gaga, “Tainted Love” by Gloria Jones, “Seven Nation Army” by The White Stripes, “Toxic” by Britney Spears and “Sweet Dreams” by Eurythmics. Each melody varied in tempo and rhythm in a way that made them feel like original songs written for the musical. “Bad Romance” underwent a Spanish revamp through staccato melodies, a slow tempo and Santiago’s, one of Christian’s friends, accent. The song did not feel edgy, but rather playfully romantic until the ensemble entered with full brass and percussion accompaniment. It was at this point that the song switched to an almost heavy metal, techno mood between the integration of “Tainted Love,” “Sweet Dreams” and “Toxic.” This masterful arrangement demonstrates the great amount of control the composer has. I would see this show again solely for this one production number.

Aaron Tveit succeeded in portraying the American struggling artist Christian. His acting came across as genuine and his tenor voice never sounded irritating or nasally. He played opposite Karen Olivo, the actress playing Satine, their voices blending beautifully. Though in the blend, Olivio’s voice was dominant. She demonstrated the perfect balance between being a diva and being powerless by commanding the stage with her powerful presence, yet submitting when she was controlled by the manipulative Duke of Monroth. While Satine may be a powerhouse in the Moulin Rouge, the audience is forced to watch this powerhouse succumb to sickness and heartbreak, being torn away from Christia, her one true love. 

Now comes the biggest question of them all: is this musical worth seeing? Yes, though preferably in a cheaper seat. The show doesn’t warrant spending an absurd amount of money for a ticket. After all, the musical is still “Moulin Rouge!” which you can stream online. 

The show is escapism at its finest, but an audience member will not become a changed person after viewing. So if someone is looking to see a show overflowing with originality and meaning, this show is not the best selection. Conversely, not every musical needs to be overly complex. Shows can be mere entertainment. This show is for people who are looking for two hours of fun. “Moulin Rouge!” allows one to take a breather from the pressures of the outside world and just smile. The show’s energized music and dancing never made the performance feel stale or stagnant. To obtain the full experience, all people need to do is enter the theater with an open mind and allow themselves to be immersed in “Moulin Rouge’”s world.

Email Sasha Cohen at [email protected]

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