When the stage musical adaptation of Baz Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge!” was first announced, the idea seemed like a home run. The beloved 2001 movie is inherently theatrical, a colorful, eye-popping extravaganza rife with dazzling costumes, exuberant production numbers, and ingenious pop song mash-ups (including selections from Madonna, Nirvana, T. Rex, and David Bowie). And not only does the story take place inside a theater — the decadent Moulin Rouge nightclub in Paris — but the film helped resurrect Hollywood’s long-dormant movie-musical genre.
But take a step back, and the challenges are clear. How do you translate a movie that’s so specifically cinematic — with its manic jump cuts, whooshing camera pans, and Steadicam shots racing through the streets of the Montmartre — into a piece of theater?
“A lot of that was about creating a visceral quality and high energy. But we don’t need to worry about that because that’s the nature of live theater,” says the show’s director, Alex Timbers. Besides, he adds, “There are analogues and theatrical vocabulary for a lot of the stuff Baz was doing. We can kick down the fourth wall and do direct-address any time we want.”
Theatergoers will get to see the result when the curtain rises on a highly anticipated pre-Broadway tryout of “Moulin Rouge! The Musical” on Tuesday at the newly reopened Emerson Colonial Theatre, which has been dormant since 2015. (Running through Aug. 19, the show had its debut pushed back nearly two weeks after a support beam in the venue’s new steel grid failed and forced a delay in technical rehearsals.)
Both the extravagant show and the opulent, historic Colonial seem to fit together like hand in glove. The Colonial’s new operator, Ambassador Theatre Group, has painstakingly restored the venue to its former grandeur and plans to revive the theater’s rich legacy of mounting new musicals bound for Broadway (shows from “Oklahoma!” to “Follies” had started their journeys there).
“It was pretty thrilling to walk in there on the first day and just feel the sense that I didn’t really know where the set began and the venue ended,” says Carmen Pavlovic, whose company Global Creatures is producing “Moulin Rouge!” “They really meld together in this seamless fashion.”
Still, “Moulin Rouge!” is a high-stakes proposition. The film, starring Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor, has an ardent fan base. It grossed $180 million worldwide, was nominated for eight Academy Awards (winning two), and won three Golden Globes (including best picture, musical or comedy). “It’s such a high-profile brand and a beloved title, and the expectations around it are really big,” Pavlovic says.
Set among the decadence and degradation of the Bohemian Montmarte quarter of Paris in 1899, the film tells the tragic love story of an aspiring young writer, Christian, and a beautiful courtesan, Satine, the star chanteuse of the Moulin Rouge, while their cohort of Bohemian friends, including famed French artist Toulouse-Lautrec, swirl around them.
“The reason it’s such a landmark movie is because it does something inspired that hadn’t really been done before,” says the show’s book writer, John Logan, a Tony Award winning playwright (for “Red”) and a three-time Oscar nominee. “It took popular songs and put them inside a classic, ‘La Boheme’-style love story.”
Luhrmann and Pavlovic eyed Timbers as their director-of-choice early on because of his ability to create environmental, immersive theater experiences (his previous musicals include David Byrne’s “Here Lies Love,” “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” and an adaptation of “Rocky.”) “I think this piece needed re-imagining in some way,” Pavlovic says, “and we felt he wouldn’t fall into the trap of methodically re-creating the film onstage, but would instead make something that felt as fresh and contemporary for 2018.”
Timbers praises Luhrmann as being influential on his own directing style. “Baz is a hero of mine,” he says. “I particularly love musicals that involve world creation and take you to an exotic and intoxicating place.”
For Timbers and scenic designer Derek McLane, that meant fashioning a set that flows past the proscenium arch, with a passerelle, runways that flare out from the sides of the stage, cafe tables and chairs, and theater club boxes where actors sit during the show-within-a-show sequences. All of those elements will be employed in the propulsive dances created by Obie-winning choreographer Sonya Tayeh (“So You Think You Can Dance”). “How do we push the boundaries as much as possible and create a fluidity between audience and performer?” Timbers says. “You should feel like you’re entering the world of the Moulin Rouge in 1899 Paris from the moment you enter the theater.”
McLane’s spectacular design features visual nods to iconic elements from the film, such as the famous red windmill crowning the Moulin Rouge, the giant elephant that houses Satine’s apartment, and the “L’Amour” sign perched atop a nearby building in the Montmartre.
Still, with its jump cuts and whip-pans, the original is decidedly a work of cinema. “Baz’s visuals have a kinetic, farcical, ebullient energy,” Logan says. “So where can we pay homage to and celebrate what’s unique about the movie — those pop songs and the classic melodramatic love story? And when do we need to do something different?”
After undertaking what Logan calls “a forensic examination” of the movie, the creative team focused on rejiggering the narrative, especially in the second act. “The demands of the stage meant that we needed character songs and we needed back story, and we needed a narrative that can fuel dance and song, because we can’t just cut from one thing to another,” Logan says. “Also, times have changed. Responses to sexuality and women’s issues have changed since the movie was made.”
Some of the alterations were bold. Logan built back stories that linked the friendship between Satine (Karen Olivo) and Toulouse-Lautrec (Sahr Ngaujah) and the father-daughter relationship between Satine and Moulin Rouge impresario Harold Zidler (six-time Tony nominee Danny Burstein). “The really compelling dynamic with Satine — and really about all dramatic characters — is when they’re torn in half,” Logan says.
To that end, Logan amped up the love triangle between Satine, Christian (Aaron Tveit), and the nefarious Duke (Tam Mutu). Instead of the farcical, pompous, mustache-twirling villain of the film, the Duke in the musical is a more charismatic figure. “He’s a more legitimate threat to Christian. He represents everything she’s ever dreamed of — financial stability, a chance to have a future that’s not singing and dancing, and an entree into society that she would never have otherwise,” Logan says. “So the triangle between those three characters is very vibrant and very active now. That was an important breakthrough for us.”
Still, Logan adds, “She passionately loves Christian. He represents an innocence that she has long since given up.” Indeed, Christian is the character the most changed from McGregor’s naive and wide-eyed film portrayal, Logan says. “As our plot changed in our second act, we realized he had to go on a very different, darker journey than the Christian in the movie.”
The stage version will feature touchstone song moments from the film, such as “Lady Marmalade,” “The Roxanne Tango,” Elton John’s “Your Song,” “Come What May,” and “The Elephant Love Medley” mash-up (with some new songs mixed in). About 50 percent of the score will be new selections, but the creators are being tight-lipped about what fans can expect to hear. Some of the artists bandied about during interviews include Lady Gaga, Beyonce, Sia, and even Cab Calloway.
“We’re very careful to pay homage to the iconic moments and iconic songs that people remember. We would be insane to change those,” Logan says. “But there’s been almost 20 more years of pop music since the movie came out. So let’s embrace that.”
While Olivo jokes that “there’s no danger of falling asleep in our show,” it’s the emotional impact that will ultimately determine whether “Moulin Rouge!” is a success.
Besides, Timbers says, it feels like an apt time to be celebrating the Bohemian ideals of truth, beauty, freedom, and love espoused in the story. “I don’t feel like I’ve ever lived in America in a cultural moment where those four notions were so completely under attack,” he says. “Emotionally I really want people to leave the theater walking out on this high and believing that love can conquer all and that daring to love in the face of adversity is worth it.”
Moulin Rouge! The MusicaL
Produced by Global Ceatures. Presented by Ambassador Theatre Group. At Emerson Colonial Theatre, July 10-Aug. 19. Tickets: From $55, 888-616-0272, www.EmersonColonialTheatre.com