A spectacular (spectacular) new musical is born with the buzzy adaptation of Baz Luhrmann’s lush 2001 film Moulin Rouge, which calls on Broadway veterans Aaron Tveit and Karen Olivo to reinvent the Ewan McGregor-Nicole Kidman hit in a production bursting with truth, beauty, freedom, and love — as well as an expanded score featuring more than 80 beloved pop songs.
Justin Levine, the music supervisor for Moulin Rouge! The Musical, will never forget the first time he saw the film. “My school drama club had a sleepover and we all watched it,” he tells EW. “I just remember being completely blown away by the convention of using pop music to tell this story set in 1899.”
Levine set out to bring that same mind-blowing energy to the stage. Many of the film’s beloved tracks — such as “Elephant Love Medley” and “El Tango de Roxane” — are still intact on Broadway, but Levine has added new tunes including Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies,” and Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.” The updated score now boasts dozens of songs (some of which only feature for a few seconds) in a swirling array of medleys and mash-ups, capturing the breathless vibe of Luhrmann’s film.
“In translating Baz’s style to the stage, there were certain cinematic tools we didn’t have at our disposal, like jump cuts, zooming in, crane shots. We felt that music was a great way to translate that bombastic style,” says Levine, who collaborated with director Alex Timbers and book writer John Logan on a character- and lyric-driven approach to song selection. “We already had this iconic love story, and so in searching for the right music, we’re not starting so much from a place of style, but of content. It was about drilling down on the spirit of the film itself.”
Take for instance the lovers’ romantic centerpiece, the “Elephant Love Medley,” which famously mashes up songs like “I Will Always Love You,” “Heroes,” and “Silly Love Songs.” Levine aimed to keep as much of the original piece as possible, while taking it to new heights. Specifically, he wanted to give courtesan Satine (Olivo) more of a voice and point of view. “In the movie, she takes a song he gives her and changes the lyrics. We do that, but in addition to that, she turns around and has her own take on it; she also [brings] some anti-love songs into the mix,” Levine says. “I wanted to make sure it felt robust without feeling schizophrenic. Ultimately, the goal was you stop thinking of it as a medley of songs, but [instead], it’s this epic treatise on love.”
There was also the task of deciding which songs should stay or go from the original score. Satine’s ballad “One Day I’ll Fly Away” is gone, which Levine says was a function of where they needed an “I Want” song for her to take place within the action. “In our version, Satine is less concerned about leaving the club behind and more driven to save the club and to use her star power to actually save her family,” he says. “That moment became more about her having to amp herself up and psych herself up to basically come through for her loved ones and her family at the Moulin Rouge.” In that case, the somber tone and yearning for escape inherent to the onscreen ballad no longer jibed with the storytelling.
One number, though, unequivocally had to stay in the score: arguably the film’s most cinematic, sweeping track, “El Tango de Roxane.” As Levine says, “It’s one of the most iconic moments of the film. It’s brilliantly arranged and orchestrated in the film. It is so passionate, so visceral.” But they’ve also rounded things out with another tango number set to a new arrangement of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.”
That addition arose from needing to stay with Christian’s (Tveit) journey during “El Tango de Roxane” and wanting an equally passionate production number. “’Bad Romance’ feels like this wonderful opportunity to celebrate those feelings of passionate and painful, exquisite love,” Levin says, “while also it gives you a peek into the process of them building the show that Lautrec has created.”
It helps that he senses something ancient and cross-cultural in Gaga’s take on the song. “There is a folk, almost sort of an Eastern European or Slavic, underpinning. The top of that song sounds like a traditional Russian folk tune, and something I’m very fascinated by is the idea that music is very cross-cultural,” Levine says. “That moment just feels like a celebration of how universal those feelings are.”
Cherry-picking songs from a century’s worth of popular music was a massive task, but “one of the things Baz said that really resonated with me is that while the Moulin Rouge is about excess, it’s excess with purpose,” Levine says. “At any point where I felt intimidated by the task, I was reminded of that and thought, ‘If we’re not doing something crazy, then why do it at all?’” In the words of Harold Zidler, because we can can can.
Moulin Rouge! The Musical is now in previews and opens Thursday at New York’s Al Hirschfeld Theater.
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