MOULIN ROUGE!: The Silly Smash Hit


Anyone who’s designing sets, costumes and lighting for a Broadway musical this season – and who isn’t connected with MOULIN ROUGE! — can forget about winning a Tony.

The 2019-2020 Antoinette Perry Awards in these categories are respectively going to Derek McLane, Catherine Zuber and Justin Townsend for their work on this new-ish musical at the Al Hirschfeld.

New-ish, you’ll notice, but not new — and not just because it had its world premiere a year ago at the Emerson Colonial in Boston.

That MOULIN ROUGE! is based on an existing film — the 2001 movie that Baz Luhrmann directed and co-wrote with Craig Pearce — is only one reason why it can only be termed new-ish.

The score isn’t new. The film took more than two dozen American and English songs from the late-20th-century and shoved them into late-19th-century Paris. The laughter heard in the local multiplex when each anachronistic and incongruous song began is now often being echoed in the Hirschfeld.

People are laughing far more frequently on Broadway, for the onstage version contains snippets to choruses of almost six dozen songs. Among them is “Up Where We Belong,” which doesn’t belong in this time and place any more than the others. So when either nightclub star Satine (the fine Karen Olivo) or admirer Christian (the equally adept Aaron Tveit) start an inappropriate ditty, many in the audience guffaw because each song is utterly unexpected.

Both iterations of MOULIN ROUGE! wind up insulting musicals. They essentially say “See how stupid musicals are when people stop talking and start singing?”

Good musicals don’t come across that way.

To be sure, audiences have been subjected to musicals where a song seems forced or wrong for the moment; they’ve often responded by giggling at the show’s expense.

Not as much, though, as they laugh at MOULIN ROUGE!.

At today’s Broadway prices, most audiences now don’t attend enough musicals to know that there can be ones that do justice to the art form and don’t seem idiotic when their characters sing.

They won’t be able to afford many other musicals if they buy the best seats for MOULIN ROUGE!; they’ve just been jacked up to $499.

And some will pay it to see the silliest smash-hit on Broadway.

Using only pop songs poses another problem. On recordings or in concert, they’re meant to showcase a singer and not a character, so the lyrics aren’t often specific. But strong characters who yield distinctive lyrics are what make musicals great.

Lurhmann, Pearce – and now bookwriter John Logan (who has won a Tony for RED) – also don’t much care about a freshly minted plot. Should Satine hook up with rich Duke of Monroth, whom she doesn’t love, or with Christian, to whom she’s attracted? But he’s a poor budding composer.

Tale as old as time. Christian’s observation on the subject seems equally antiquated: “The way he treats you,” he tells her “is like a possession.”

So Christian sings to Satine the first line of a Beatles hit with “All you need is love” – to which she replies “You’re being ridiculous.” She means that he’s naïve in assuming that love is a panacea, but one can consider the moment as ridiculous because he’s singing a song that wouldn’t be written for nearly 70 years.

After Satine delivers a very potent speech on why she shouldn’t get involved with a pauper, she returns to struggling with her dilemma – no: semi-struggles, really, the way Logan has written her and Alex (BEETLEJUICE) Timbers has directed her. The collaborators also have Satine appear in a play which “just happens” to comment on what’s going on in her life. It all plays out in a too-convenient way.

Timbers goes for the occasional broad joke. When Tveit is singing Elton John’s “Your Song” to Satine and gets to the lyric “I hope you don’t mind,” he blurts it out with such force that Olivo is blown onto the couch from his supposedly over-forceful burst of air.

When Satine and Christian are caught together by The Duke, Timbers has Olivo and Tveit adopt glassy smiles while they fib away. That all-too-transparent approach in real life would make any reasonably smart person say “You’re lying!” Because the plot isn’t ready for that – and because some audience members enjoy watching a person less smart than they not picking up on what they clearly see – the joke is included.

One of the great achievements of the MOULIN ROUGE! film was Donald McAlpine’s superb cinematography and Jill Bilcock’s equally impressive now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t editing. They provided more razzle-dazzle than Kander, Ebb and Fosse could have ever imagined. Taking away those two impressive ingredients ultimately makes MOULIN ROUGE! less impressive on stage.

Yet Boston theatergoers adored the show. They even laughed when Christian and Toulouse Lautrec (an unusually tall but deft Sahr Ngaujah) showed that they agreed by doing a fist-bump.

So the show hasn’t changed much. A comparison of songs from the tryout reveals that only “Burning down the House” along with David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” and “Rebel, Rebel” have been added. Perhaps “El Tango de Roxane” and “The Pitch Song,” on which Luhrmann and Pearce have their names, were there all along, but if they were, the Boston Playbill didn’t list them.

Some lyrics have been altered. When Satine sings “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” she doesn’t reference “the Automat” but instead mentions “a pussycat.” So the staff did think that some anachronisms should be eliminated. But why keep Leo Robin’s other lyric “It’s then that those louses go back to their spouses” which doesn’t sound right for an 1899 Parisian revue?

There are some solos where a chorus comes in, which would be fine if the song were a floor show in the nightclub where that would logically happen. That’s not the case; the creators just want back-up to fill out the sound.

Act Two begins with a number that takes place at a rehearsal, which does nothing for the plot. Perhaps choreographer Sonya Tayeh wanted to jazz up the proceedings, however unsuitable the situation. After all, theatergoers do like production numbers.

(However, they like them even more when they mean something …)

But audiences like spectacle, and who can blame them? One of the joys of Broadway is seeing the seemingly impossible put on stage.

“And Danny Burstein,” says the credits on the title page. In a way, that’s sadly accurate; MOULIN ROUGE! almost treats Burstein as an afterthought. Oh, he excels mightily as Moulin Rouge’s owner and Emcee Harold Zidler. He also does magnificently in a brass-tacks scene where he must take off the phony on-stage face and tell Satine the financial facts of life. But Harold Zidler is a role that provides Burstein with comparatively little stage time and a role unworthy of his talents.

This brings to mind what composer Jule Styne often said. First he’d mention that his “Three Coins in the Fountain” beat out “The Man That Got Away” for the Best Song Oscar and that his GYPSY lost the Best Musical Tony to THE SOUND OF MUSIC and FIORELLO! (they tied) — and that eight years had to pass before he’d finally emerge victorious with the less impressive HALLELUJAH, BABY!

Styne said “You always win for the wrong one.”

Burstein has been nominated for six Tonys in 11 seasons but has been forced to stay in his seat each time the winner has been announced. Watch; he’ll get it this time for the least compelling role he’s had in a while.

(And that’s fine, too. Whatever it takes to get Burstein on stage winning and spinning a Tony …)

However, McLean, Zuber and Townsend won’t win for the wrong one. MOULIN ROUGE! more than delivers on its $28 million production-value promises. These three have put a lot of frosting on very little cake.