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Moulin Rouge! on Broadway Is Bringing Aaron Tveit's College Self Full Circle

Tveit stars in the new stage version of the beloved Baz Luhrmann movie.

Aaron Tveit was a freshman in college when Moulin Rouge! first came out. He remembers being floored by Baz Luhrmann's lush, operatic romance, which underscored the ill-fated relationship between a poor writer and a stunning courtesan in 1899 Paris with contemporary pop songs written a generation later. The movie — particularly its music — ended up underscoring his own university experience. Originally a music major, one of the film's signature songs, "Come What May," became one of the first duets he ever sang with a partner after he switched to musical theater at Ithaca College.

It's safe to say that Tveit couldn't have expected his life to come full circle two decades later, but here we are in his dressing room at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, where Alex Timbers's stage version of Moulin Rouge! opens July 25. Tveit plays half of that ill-fated relationship, the expat writer Christian, who falls for the glamorous Satine (Karen Olivo).

It's a challenging role. Not only is Tveit onstage for most of the nearly three-hour running time, but he's also got to go on an emotional journey akin to Bobby in Company, a role he played two summers ago at Barrington Stage Company. But as Tveit points out, that's what makes it fun.

Aaron Tveit as Christian in the 2018 Boston run of Moulin Rouge!
(© Matthew Murphy)

What was your relationship to Moulin Rouge! when you landed this role?
The movie came out my freshman year. I remember going to multiple parties throughout college and the movie was always on. It's easy for us to forget that in 2001, musical theater wasn't in the popular vernacular as it is today. It's pre-Glee; it's before any of the TV musicals. So to see a musical done so well and translated so well to film back then, I was really blown away by it.

Did you ever think that almost 20 years later, we'd be here?
Absolutely not! Funnily enough, when I switched to musical theater in my second year of college, I knew the four musicals I had done in high school, and the five I had seen in New York. I had done Little Shop of Horrors, Damn Yankees, West Side Story, and Big River, and I had seen Jekyll & Hyde, Ragtime, Les Miz, Rent, and 42nd Street. That was basically the extent of my musical-theater knowledge in 2001.

So I remember, because we had a rep class in the theater program, there was a girl who asked me to sing a duet with her, and it was "Come What May." "Come What May" was one of the first songs that I ever sang as a theater student. To think now, 18 years later, that I'm doing it on Broadway…I could never have imagined that that would be the case.

Is Baz Luhrmann heavily involved with the production?
Baz and Catherine Martin have been around so much, and we're so blessed to have them. They've been like our fairy godparents, giving us all this love and inspiration. Baz said that when he made the movie, he took theater, which is such a fantastical art form, and put it into a realistic space. We're doing the opposite. He said that we're taking a fantastical story and making it real onstage. I think it's very bold. We're walking a tightrope of high drama and realism, and it feels like we're navigating that through the whole show.

But that's what people are responding to. We've been hearing from the people who know and love the story that they were nervous because they have a special tie to it, but that we totally do it justice. It's different, but it exceeds their expectations. And I've heard from a lot of people that they haven't seen anything like this before.

How hard is the music aspect, considering that there are 80-odd songs in the show, some of which are just a verse here and there?
Karen used to make fun of me. I know a lot of pop music, and I think I knew all the songs that I sing. So for me it wasn't hard. The trick was learning what you are singing and not singing within the song, and then there are very subtle lyric changes, which are difficult.

In terms of the acting challenge, where does Christian fall on the spectrum of roles that you've done over your career?
This is a tough one. There's a lot of complexity. The thing that I love about the film, and specifically Ewan McGregor in the film, is that he has an open, wide-eyed, joyous earnestness that is so difficult to make look truthful. That is a lot of work in itself.

Company at Barrington was one of the hardest eight-show weeks that I've ever done. Everything tumbles to the end of the play, emotionally, for Bobby in Company. That's similar to this. Except in Company, I sang three songs, and in Moulin Rouge!, I have the same emotional journey, but I sing for three hours. So it's a bear. But why do it if it's not?

Karen Olivo and Aaron Tveit in Moulin Rouge!
(© Matthew Murphy)