guilty pleasures

I Hated Moulin Rouge! on Broadway But I Can’t Stop Listening to It

Photo: Matthew Murphy

I rolled my eyes a lot during Moulin Rouge! the Musical. Walk the Moon’s “Shut Up and Dance” mashed with Pink’s “Raise Your Glass”: I rolled. The nefarious and wealthy Duke getting introduced by bars of Nelly’s “Ride Wit Me” — Hey, must be the money! — I rolled again. By the time Aaron Tveit belted out an admittedly beautiful combination of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” and Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy,” I was concerned about vision damage — that if I rolled my eyes Offenbach (this is Moulin Rouge!; you should have been expecting a “Cancan” joke or twelve) much farther into my head they’d stick like that forever. My New York colleague Sara Holdren called the show “Broadway’s biggest karaoke night.” This is apt. It’s also not a compliment.

The thing about the show is that the songs zing past so quickly that you can’t fully process what you’re hearing. Sure, there are really easy ones to pick out. Karen Olivo sings Katy Perry’s “Firework” from start to finish, with only minor cuts. But a lot of the songs only appear for a few bars, or are sampled solely in the orchestral lines but never sung. Which meant a lot of sitting, listening, and internally saying, Oh wait … I think I know that, but not necessarily having enough time for your synapses to fire and fill in the blank. When the cast album dropped on Spotify, I popped in my earbuds and spent some time compiling a Vulture list of every song in the show. (There are roughly 70. I am still missing a few.)

That was when something weird happened. I started to like what I was hearing. “Such Great Heights” by the Postal Service, popping up in the iconic “Elephant Love Medley,” didn’t feel like a jarring and random addition. It felt creative. Musically smart. “Firework” was no longer intended to scream “Hello, we have updated this show since the movie came out in 2001!” When it didn’t have to serve as a plot-device shoehorn, “Crazy Rolling” sounded good. I got to enjoy Aaron Tveit’s perfect voice without suppressing the part of my brain that was ticking down the minutes until I could leave the theater. It’s the kind of mashup that my brain — raised on a diet of Glee, Pitch Perfect, and college a cappella performances — grooved with immediately.

You can always find the former a cappella kid at a party because they’re the one singing a different song, perfectly slotted into whatever pop tune is playing. (A cappella parties are a special kind of hell if you’re not into six-part harmony and at least one too-drunk someone in the corner crying incoherently.) The Moulin Rouge! album, which made its debut at No. 1 on the Billboard Broadway chart, works the same way. Start with Lorde’s “Royals.” (Picture this being sung onstage by, very literally, a motley cohort of bohemians who mean it when they say they’ve “never seen a diamond in the flesh.” Now picture me rolling my eyes.) Toss in “Children of the Revolution” by T. Rex. And then a healthy heaping of “We Are Young” by fun. It works seamlessly, and it’s fun — sorry — as hell to listen to.

The mashup of Walk the Moon’s “Shut Up and Dance” and Pink’s “Raise Your Glass” feels like it came out of a Ryan Murphy fever dream. (Actually, it might have. Darren Criss performed it on “Glee.”) I mean this in a good way: It’s the kind of perfect mashup that, in the hands of the right college a cappella group, could be an ICCA winner. (The ICCAs are the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella. Think of it like the World Series, but with college kids who’d prefer to wear tastefully coordinated but not matching black outfits and whose version of a home run is a well-deployed unison sforzando piano for dramatic effect.) Listening to “Crazy Rolling,” I was reminded of another “Crazy” mashup I love. This one from the USC SoCal Vocals, it’s “Crazy” tossed with “Natalie” by Bruno Mars. The song was part of the group’s ICCA-winning set in 2015 and is, frankly, a little more of a nuanced mashup than the one currently on Broadway. But, still, you get the idea.

It’s a foolproof format, mixing one hit into another, and, as anybody who knows even a little about music will tell you, it’s simple to replicate — at least in terms of the basic mechanics. You know that old viral video of the guy with the guitar ranting about how every song is just Pachabel’s “Canon in D?” This is the same idea. Pick a pop song with a basic four-chord structure, and smash it into another pop song with a basic four-chord structure. Rinse and repeat, ad nauseam. What’s difficult, and what Moulin Rouge! does right, is mashing songs you already recognize and, ideally, like. And it buries little gems, like the orchestra’s riff on Shakira and Wyclef Jean’s “Hips Don’t Lie,” for you to find upon second (or third) listen. There’s a few bars of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” right at the end of the Pink x Walk the Moon mashup. It’s incredibly satisfying when you hear it. Your brain recognizes that it had been hearing Whitney all along and you start to realize a bad jukebox musical can, at the very least, make for a good playlist.

I Hated Moulin Rouge! on Broadway. I Love the Cast Album.