Within the “Moulin Rouge!” musical universe, the film has left an indelible impact.
Many of the Broadway cast members idolized the film. Members of the creative team had used it as inspiration throughout their careers. And the producer saw it as a launching off point for her company.
But now, as the musical approaches opening night on Broadway, the challenge is to break away from the film, while still appeasing its fans, in the hopes of creating a stage spectacular in its own right.
The development process for “Moulin Rouge!” began about 10 years ago, when Carmen Pavlovic, chief executive of the Sydney-based Global Creatures, had lunch with the film’s director and co-writer, Baz Luhrmann, a fellow Australian. Pavlovic saw her company, which would go on to produce “King Kong” on Broadway, as an ideal producer for the musical because of its international ambitions, and because she’s someone who likes to take on a little risk in her work.
“I really stand behind the big swings. That’s who I am. It’s the kind of work I enjoy producing,” Pavlovic said.
But once Lurhman signed on, Pavlovic still had to acquire the rights from the three other parties: Lurhman’s co-writer Craig Pearce, 20th Century Fox, whose theatrical titles have now been taken over by Disney, and the original Moulin Rouge cabaret in Paris, which has a trademark on the name. The process ultimately took six years.
With the rights secured, Pavlovic looked for a creative team composed of “today’s young rebels,” those people who would be willing to take on the same kind of risk Lurhmann took with the film. That led them to director Alex Timbers, choreographer Sonya Tayeh, book writer John Logan and orchestrator and music arranger Justin Levine.
When approaching this musical, Timbers found that he could call on the foundation laid by his direction of two other historical mashups, “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” and “Here Lies Love.” He himself had been inspired by the movie — ”Moulin Rouge is in my DNA” — and so his goal was to leave audiences with the same euphoria he felt when seeing the movie in 2001.
“You’ve left floating out of that movie theater on air and feeling like you wanted to dare greatly and that the most impossible love was possible,” Timbers said. “And I think that that’s kind of that same spirit.”
Tayeh focused on trying to capture the energy found in particular scenes in the film, particularly the moments of tension and flexion in dance-heavy scenes such as the tango number set to The Police’s “Roxanne.”
Still, one of the challenges for Timbers and the creative team was how to translate the cinematic style Lurhmann used in the movie, from sweeping crane shots of Paris to electric jump cuts, to the stage. The solution became an updated song list, jam-packed with 70 songs.
“It seemed clear to us that taking the ball and running with it, musically speaking, was a great way to translate his style,” Levine said.
The goal was to create a “maximalist” sound, with each song forming an eclectic collage of new pop music, including Katy Perry’s “Firework” and Sia’s “Chandelier,” and the well-known songs from the movie.
The idea of extravagance is matched by the set design, with heart-shaped backdrops, cafe-like tables set up in front of the stage, and, jutting out over the audience, a rotating windmill and a giant elephant.
In turn, a maximalist show comes with a maximalist budget — ”Moulin Rouge!” has a capitalization of up to $28 million.
This is the second large-scale musical Pavlovic has brought to Broadway, after “King Kong,” which had a capitalization of up to $36.5 million (with a final number of $35 million, according to the production) and recently announced a closing date of Aug. 18 after a season of low grosses.
Asked if she believes “Moulin Rouge!” can become a hit on Broadway, recouping its investment, Pavlovic pointed back to her maxim of “taking big swings.”
“Would we be able to raise those big budgets if people didn’t buy into the idea that they’re great titles, great teams and have the opportunity to recoup and then travel beyond Broadway and around the world?” Pavlovic asked. “It just certainly wouldn’t be possible to raise that kind of money.”