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Everything We Know So Far About Moulin Rouge! on Broadway

The 2019-20 musical season opens with what is likely to be the biggest show of the year.

Karen Olivo and Aaron Tveit star in Moulin Rouge! The Musical.
(© Matthew Murphy)

Viewers of last Sunday's Tony Awards might have wondered why beloved showman Danny Burstein was riding on the back of the giant puppet from King Kong. Burstein is starring in Moulin Rouge! The Musical, which begins previews at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre on June 28 (and is being produced by the same company behind King Kong). Moulin Rouge! is the first musical of the 2019-20 season, and by all accounts, it's going to be a big one, with a reported budget of $28 million.

Story of the Week will review everything we know about the show and its ambitious Australian backers. Unlike its simian precursor, Moulin Rouge! could actually be the 800-pound gorilla of the upcoming Broadway season.

Is this the stage version of the 2001 Baz Luhrmann movie?
It sure is. Moulin Rouge! The Musical tells the story of a young writer named Christian (Aaron Tveit) who moves to the arty Montmartre neighborhood of fin de siècle Paris. That's where he meets bohemians like Toulouse-Lautrec (Sahr Ngaujah), who takes him to the Moulin Rouge, a nightclub presided over by impresario Harold Zidler (Burstein). The sparkling diamond in this tiara of Parisian nightlife is Satine (Karen Olivo). Naturally, she and Christian fall deeply in love, even though she is mistress to a powerful and sadistic Duke (Tam Mutu).

Like the film, the musical eschews Puccini and Verdi in favor of the popular music of our era, with songs by Elton John, David Bowie, and Madonna helping to drive the story. Since 18 years have passed since the film played in cinemas, songs by Lady Gaga and Beyoncé also make it into this new stage adaptation, which is being created by some of the most talented artists on Broadway.

Who's working on it?
Alex Timbers directs the considerable stage talent mentioned above. Since arriving on the New York theater scene 16 years ago with his company, Les Freres Corbusier, Timbers has established himself as one of the most exciting directors of new musicals, helming work like Here Lies Love (about Imelda Marcos), Here's Hoover! (about the 31st president), and Rocky (about the fictional pugilist). His most recent work on Broadway is Beetlejuice. Although his budgets have gotten much bigger, Timbers still brings a subversive downtown sensibility to everything he directs.

Derek McLane's set for Moulin Rouge! The Musical as seen for the run at Boston's Emerson Colonial Theatre.
(© Matthew Murphy)

He's working with some of the most accomplished designers on Broadway: Tony winner Derek McLane has designed the lavish set (seen above in a photo from the out-of-town production at Boston's Emerson Colonial Theatre), while seven-time Tony winner Catherine Zuber has designed the costumes.

The book is by John Logan (The Last Ship), and the giant song catalogue is arranged and orchestrated by longtime Timbers collaborator Justin Levine, who has worked with the director since their mutual Broadway debut in 2010 with Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (an underrated musical that is screaming for a revival in the Trump era).

Undergirding it all is the producer, Australia-based theatrical firm Global Creatures.

A baby Tyrannosaurus rex appears in Times Square to promote Walking With Dinosaurs — The Arena Spectacular.
(© David Gordon)

What is Global Creatures?
Global Creatures is chaired by Gerry Ryan, a wealthy Australian who made his fortune selling recreational vehicles, but has since expanded his business interests to include wine, racehorses, and live events (in the form of Global Creatures). The name of the company is almost certainly related to the nature of its first big hit, the 2007 show Walking With Dinosaurs – The Arena Spectacular, which treats audiences to cutting-edge animatronic dinosaurs in an arena setting. The show has made hundreds of millions of dollars worldwide and is still touring.

Under the direction of CEO Carmen Pavlovic, Global Creatures has embarked on several musical ventures, including Strictly Ballroom on the West End and Muriel's Wedding in Sydney. King Kong, a new musical that showcased the company's technical wizardry, represented the Broadway debut for Global Creatures. Moulin Rouge! will be the company's sophomore production in New York.

It's always an indicator of clout when a producer is able to get their upcoming show onto the Tony Awards telecast, and Pavlovic did it this year by introducing the star of her last show to one of the stars of her next (hence, Burstein riding ape-back). It was an important show of resolve when the universally panned King Kong faces disappointing grosses ($688,827 this week, out of a potential $1,433,272) heading into the high tourist season. Pavlovic and Global Creatures have proved their ability to bring unprecedented stagecraft to Broadway, but when it comes to the basics of creating a solid book musical, they've managed to wow neither Broadway critics nor audiences — but that could change this summer.

Will Moulin Rouge be any good?
Early signs are encouraging. The production photos suggest an explosion of color and theatricality, while the out-of-town tryout in Boston earned a coveted "critic's pick" designation from The New York Times. Still, I've also heard some negative word of mouth from fans of the movie who felt that the stage version was unable to capture the film's joyous marriage of bohemian love and popular music.

Dancers surround Karen Olivo and Aaron Tveit in Moulin Rouge! The Musical.
(© Matthew Murphy)

I've written about the taxonomy of so-called jukebox musicals before, and Moulin Rouge! undoubtedly belongs in the "true jukebox musical" category: It incorporates music from a variety of sources to tell a contrived story about love and art. Following almost two decades of single-artist bio-musicals pushed by opportunistic record labels and royalty-hungry estates, such unbound creativity feels like a breath of fresh air — even if there aren't any new songs in the show. So I'm optimistically looking forward to seeing Moulin Rouge! for myself.

How can I see Moulin Rouge?
Tickets are on sale now. It was announced this week that high rollers will be able to buy stageside "Can Can! Table Seating" (starting at $349) that places audience members at tables in an area that would typically be the orchestra pit, with the action of the musical happening all around them. The less well-heeled will be able to enter a daily lottery for $29 tickets, so this is a show that can fit into any Broadway budget.

Danny Burstein plays Harold Zidler in Moulin Rouge!
(© Matthew Murphy)

Somewhat unconventionally, Moulin Rouge! will play Thursday matinees starting in August, rather than the Wednesday matinees that are typical on Broadway. It will also perform Sunday evenings, instead of afternoons. By being the only major musical running at certain times, Moulin Rouge! may be making a play for tourists whose itineraries don't mesh well with a standard Broadway performance schedule.

The next Broadway musical after Moulin Rouge! doesn't begin performances until October (that's Tina — The Tina Turner Musical), so it's the show that everyone is going to be talking about this summer — and perhaps the whole next season. This time next year, it may even be a Tony Award winner.