‘It’s like a fairground’: Inside the musical ride of the West End’s Moulin Rouge

Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 musical jukebox was an assault on the senses – but is the stage version really as extra as the film? Isobel Lewis goes behind the scenes of this lewd, lurid spectacular…

Thursday 20 January 2022 06:30
<p>Getting your kicks: the cast of ‘Moulin Rouge! The Musical’</p>

Getting your kicks: the cast of ‘Moulin Rouge! The Musical’

When you walk into the auditorium at the Piccadilly Theatre, no standard stage setup greets you. Instead, there are neon concentric hearts, lavish velvet plumes, a windmill and brightly lit letters spelling out the words: “Moulin Rouge!” The audience has been transported to the legendary Parisian cabaret venue, to watch a tale of love, sex and consumption play out while “Lady Marmalade” blasts. There are no rose-tinted glasses needed here – everything is already so red, it makes your eyes hurt. That is, of course, apart from the garish blue elephant draping over the side of a royal box.

As films go, you’ll struggle to find one more suited for the stage than Australian director Baz Luhrmann’s flashy 2001 jukebox musical, which starred Nicole Kidman as a breathy courtesan called Satine who falls in love with penniless young poet Christian (Ewan McGregor). That it took as long as it did is the real shock. Bursting onto Broadway in 2019, Moulin Rouge! The Musical won 10 Tony Awards (including Aaron Tveit in an uncontested Lead Actor category, thanks to the pandemic) and has finally hopped across to London’s West End with an all-new cast and a production that’s even more extravagant than the film. Maybe it’s the tradition of pantomime in the UK, the cast and crew tell me, but the British audience were dancing in their seats and shouting back in previews before the show was forced to close for a week over Christmas.

From the set to the songs, it’s a musical experience sure to be – to steal the name of Christian’s play within a play – spectacular, spectacular. “This isn’t a show that starts when the curtain goes up – as soon as you walk into the theatre, it’s immersive,” says Clive Carter, who plays showman-cum-pimp Harold Zidler and has more than a touch of the Jim Broadbent about him, even out of character. “It’s like a fairground.” As the final act in Luhrmann’s lavish Red Curtain Trilogy, the film already takes inspiration from the world of musical theatre. Now, it’s cinema that’s influencing the stage. “My reaction to the film the first time I watched it was, ‘Wow,’” says Olivier-nominated actor Jason Pennycooke, who plays Toulouse. “I just thought it was so explosive, and I watched it again immediately…” He reckons they’ve managed to capture the whizzes and bangs for the stage. “The lighting makes it quite cinematic when you’re watching the actual show. It almost feels like you’re watching the movie.”

But for all the fans of Luhrmann’s film, there are plenty who detest Moulin Rouge. When people claim they’re “not a fan of musicals”, theatre kids will often argue that there are far more nuanced, complex shows out there – your Hamiltons, your Come From Aways. But there are few moments of stillness to be found in Moulin Rouge (as there rarely is in Luhrmann’s films) – it’s all ruffles, slow-mo can-cans and Elton John covers. As musicals go, this is about as musical-y as it gets.

When the film came out, critics were equally divided. Some reviewers praised the show’s “daring” outlook, with one writing that it had been directed in the style of “a Hunter Thompson/Liberace acid trip” (references to psychedelics frequently appear in Moulin Rouge reviews). But for others, the whole thing was decidedly unconvincing. “Moulin Rouge is an assault on the senses,” wrote Jean Lowerison in the San Diego Metropolitan. “Everything here is over the top. You may find it pleasant, but you will almost certainly find it exhausting.” In Philadelphia Weekly, Sean Burns said that Luhrmann “rabidly hoovers up a century or so worth of pop culture detritus and then projectile vomits it all over the screen with a vengeance”. Ouch.

Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor as doomed lovers Satine and Christian in Luhrmann’s film

So how do you adapt a movie musical that elicits such a strong love-or-loathe response? You ramp it up to the nth degree. Moulin Rouge! The Musical opens with a cover of Christina Aguilera, Pink, Mya and Lil’ Kim’s “Lady Marmalade” before crashing into “So Fresh/So Clean”, “Rhythm of the Night” and Fatboy Slim’s “Because We Can” in seven exhilarating, exhausting minutes. It’s enough to give you musical whiplash, but the show is full of these pop mash-ups, inspired by Kidman and McGregor’s “Elephant Love Medley” from the film, in which “Heroes”, “Your Song” and “I Will Always Love You” are among the tracks brought together.

In 2001, Luhrmann introduced the world to “Come What May” (one of the few original numbers on the soundtrack) and turned The Police’s “Roxanne” into an Argentine tango song regularly trotted out on Strictly Come Dancing. Set at the turn of the 20th century, Moulin Rouge was among the first films to recontextualise pop music in a period piece. Decades later, there are plenty more of what music supervisor Justin Levine calls “contemporary classics” to pull from for the stage version – your Katy Perrys, your Beyoncés, your Adeles. Just as the 2001 film brought together the pop diva quartet of Xtina and co (who among us wasn’t deeply affected by that live performance at the MTV Movie Awards?), it’s now the popstars of the 2010s who are being honoured in the show. Liisi LaFontaine, the West End’s Satine, says it’s their energy that’s being replicated too. “Whenever I have to tell people, I say it’s like being at an Ariana Grande concert – there’s just deafening screams at certain points,” says LaFontaine. “And obviously most of them wear masks but everyone’s faces are just like…” she puts on a look of wide-eyed, joyous awe.

Clive Carter as Harold Zidler, the character played by Jim Broadbent in the film

LaFontaine and Jamie Bogyo, who’s making his professional debut as Christian, are convinced the Moulin Rouge! The Musical will win over even the biggest cynics. “There’s some things about the show that are, like, unarguably good,” Bogyo says. “The set is unarguably gorgeous, the ensemble and the dance numbers are unarguably amazing. Like, there really isn’t any way to argue. Maybe you think I’m a bad actor in the show... I’m not gonna lose sleep over that. But there’s enough stuff. It’s just so awesome.”

What it takes, they say, is for that suspension of disbelief required at musicals writ larger than it’s even been. “It’s a full-on journey, but we always say it’s like getting on a ride,” says LaFontaine. “Once you strap in, you’re on it, and if you surrender, it kind of just happens. If you fight against it, or if you take a moment to be like, ‘Oh my God, what’s happening?’ it’s very overwhelming.”

With audiences returning to theatres after a tense Christmas and even tenser year for the industry, though, the show feels like the greatest and most necessary escape. “Unless you’re really dead inside, you’re probably gonna have a good time,” Boygo says. There’s certainly a twinkle in his eye.

‘Moulin Rouge! The Musical’ runs at the Piccadilly Theatre

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