“Normally such a strong reinterpretation of the work you’ve done happens after you’re dead,” Baz Luhrmann says, reclining on a couch as if engaging in a fabulous therapy session. We’re in a dusty lounge in midtown’s 3 West Club, discussing the stage adaptation of his 2001 film Moulin Rouge! — which is set in Montmartre in 1900 yet includes a tango version of “Roxanne” and the hit-filled cluster bomb that is the “Elephant Love Medley.” Luhrmann isn’t directing the stage version; he has handed it off to
Alex Timbers, who memorably (and maximally) mixed history and modern music for Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and the Imelda Marcos musical, Here Lies Love. (He also directed the Rocky and Beetlejuice adaptations.) In Moulin Rouge!’s Boston run, Timbers added samples from Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” and Sia’s “Chandelier,” among others. Expect more. “A lot of artists grew up loving this movie,” says Timbers, always respectful to Luhrmann and sticking to his talking points.
Why not direct this yourself, Baz?
Baz Luhrmann: I came to a place where I realized I didn’t want to do theatrical versions of my movies. I can’t be that 35-year-old trying to crack the code of a movie musical again, which is why I was so thrilled about finding Alex. He feels like a younger cousin of mine in terms of theatrical language and storytelling.
Alex Timbers: Baz and I met at a dinner party, and I think we ended up talking about Ken Russell movies?
BL: Probably. We might have had a couple of wines.
AT: Then I heard from Baz a day or two later: “I’m thinking of making Moulin Rouge! into a stage project. Would you want to talk?” I had a theater company [Les Freres Corbusier] whose work was taking historical subject matter and recasting it in an irreverent, contemporary manner.
The musical adds new songs and mash-ups. How did you decide what to include?
AT: Justin Levine, our music supervisor, and I holed up in a hotel room, and we went through every story moment and thought, How are we forwarding plot? I think the show has something like 78 licensed songs.
BL: When I tried to do it the first time, publishing was so different; they were terrified of you taking your song and misusing it. So the only way I got the music was to go to the artist. I became friends with all these rock icons because of Moulin Rouge! I bring it to Elton John, who I didn’t know, and he says, “Well, it absolutely has to happen.” Dolly Parton, I had to go and see her for “I Will Always Love You,” and she comes up and she says, “That song of mine has been a hit twice. Maybe you’ll make it three times.”
Do you think of Moulin Rouge! as camp?
BL: Camp’s quite a serious subject. It’s using over-the-topness, comedy, a sense of theatricality, but you use it — you weaponize that — discreetly because the underlying idea of this is impossible love between a street girl who becomes a [demi-mondaine] and a middle-class kid.
AT: I don’t really think of things in terms of camp or not camp. I think we’re looking for truthfulness and authenticity. We’re discussing a collision between things that’s more spectacle oriented and more presentational and performative. In a theater, we have the ability to cast the audience. To say, In this moment, you’re in the Moulin Rouge; you’re watching Harold Zidler and the cancan girls. In this moment, you’re at the duke’s apartment. We’re asking the people to lean in and, like in the Maxell ad, get blown back.
The film starred Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor. How did you go about casting Karen Olivo (a Tony winner for the 2009 bilingual West Side Story revival) and Aaron Tveit (of Next to Normal)?
BL: Nicole Kidman has the great gift of being a movie star and a great actress. If you went chasing that in the theatrical casting, you would fall on your face. The really brave idea was to cast Karen, who couldn’t be more the opposite of Nicole, and yet she is the sparkling diamond. She feels like an opera singer sometimes in the style of performance, as opposed to a musical heroine.
AT: Karen had a great gravitas, a complexity, a deep well of emotion, the ability to dance really well, sing really well, and she has to play comedy.
BL: It speaks well for Moulin Rouge! that in the first two iterations they’re so fundamentally different. In the time to come, we’ll see other interpretations of those characters, particularly Satine.
What have Baz’s notes on the musical been like?
BL: [Jokingly] “Where are the hits, Alex?”
AT: We did a workshop Baz saw us do, semi-staged, and we built our version of an 11 o’clock number, which was a mash-up between Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” and “Rolling in the Deep.” It was a moment where Baz was like, “Circle this, look at what works here.”
BL: In the first runs, I was like, Hmm, keep away, don’t overreact, because they were finding their language. Some of it was there, and a lot of it, to be honest, wasn’t quite. But I was emotional watching the run-through because I had flashbacks to Craig Pearce [the film’s co-writer] and I trying to solve something.
Pop music often triggers different memories on top of what you’re watching.
BL: Sia’s a great friend of mine. She’d played me this song called “Chandelier,” and she’d gone through some personal things. She said, “I’m probably gonna give it to Rihanna or someone.” I said, “Perform it.” Right in the middle of [the stage version], I’m looking at “Chandelier” and it all just comes back. You’re not just following the story; you’re having your own deep, visceral memories in the back of your head.
Moulin Rouge! begins previews at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre on June 28.
*This article appears in the June 24, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!