Even the most wholly original works of art can, in the service of story or character or heart, summon the stray memory, the whispery chill of déjà vu. They’ll switch on the bittersweet recall of better times or drip-drop echoey little splashes of the worst. Most, though, remember to turn the damn spigot off.
Watching Broadway’s truly lovely-looking, golden-oldie-stuffed Moulin Rouge! The Musical, opening tonight, I was reminded time and time (and time) again not only of life’s circumstances when this or that hit song first caught our shared attention, but of Moulin‘s spiritual predecessor. I thought of Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 movie, too, but the predecessor that never escaped my mind was Name That Tune, the old game show in which contestants vied to be the first to recognize a song in as few notes as possible.
Directed by Alex Timbers, whose stage credits include the transcendent (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Peter and the Starcatcher) and the okay (Beetlejuice), Moulin Rouge! both adheres to, and expands upon, Luhrmann’s dazzling, hyper-stylish film starring Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman. The plot and setting are the same: We’re in fin-de-siècle Paris (1899 and Montmartre to be exact), inside the legendary nightclub of the title.
Actually, legendary might be a tad premature – a mere 10 years into its extant existence, the tales of debauched, defiant Bohemians of many and varied stripes are just taking root. The club is hot hot hot, but broke.
Not that you’d know by looking at it. In the miracle-working hands of scenic designer Derek McLane, Broadway’s Al Hirschfeld Theatre is transformed into a red velvet heart-shaped fever dream, a gloriously naughty, gender-mucked Valentine from a last-gasp Victorian Era. Costume designer Catherine Zuber matches the mood with the sort of flashy divine decadence undergarments-as-outer that we’ve come to expect after so many Cabaret revivals, but few will begrudge the familiarity. Dazzle is dazzle, never more so than when Sonya Tayeh is choreographing with a kitchen sink approach that encompasses can-can, Fosse and Single Ladies.
We’ll take it on faith that this nightclub has to sell itself to a devilish Duke.
At least, that’s the plan dreamed up by Harold (a couldn’t be better Danny Burstein), the leering emcee of this cabaret, er, nightclub who conspires with his star performer/courtesan and longtime from-the-streets pal Satine (Karen Olivio) to give the rich and vicious-by-reputation Duke of Monroth (Tam Mutu) whatever he wants, and whenever he wants it.
The complication is Christian – sometimes the show is just that literal – a naive young and very poor composer from Ohio (where else? what else?) who has come for a slice of La Vie Boheme and finds it straight off. He meets artist Toulouse-Lautrec (Sahr Ngaujah) and Argentinian gigolo Santiago (Ricky Rojas) and, through them, the Moulin Rouge and Satine.
There’s a mix-up/meet-cute involving the Duke, Christian (Aaron Tveit) and Satine, but identities are sorted soon enough, and before you can say “my dad has a barn” the gang is planning a new musical that will save the club, revolutionize the art form, provide Christian with the recognition he deserves and make a star of Satine.
At least, that’s how it should go. But the Duke’s wallet comes with a string attached to Satine, who now must dump Christian lest he wind up face down in the Seine. Oh, and Satine only has a week or so to live, her countdown tick-tocked by the size of the rouge splotch on her white hanky.
Plotwise, that’s pretty much it. John Logan’s book adds no big (or small) surprises and little emotion – what genuine feeling graces Moulin Rouge comes via the likes of Elton John and Bernie Taupin, when a “Your Song” pushes the exact button intended. Both Tveit and Olivo are wonderful singers and fine actors, but neither can bring much depth to these stock stage musical characters. (And if you’re thinking that’s an absurd request, get yourself to Hadestown, Oklahoma! or Tootsie.)
Olivo makes a better go of it, partly because Timbers and Logan have given her a rawer Satine than Luhrmann gave Kidman. This survivor is no porcelain doll, and if her backstory of child prostitution and sisterhood of the streets seems a bit tacked on, well, a character needs notes to hit just as much as any singer does.
Still, even the best of these character flourishes begin to feel like also-ran ideas running to catch up with what must have been the founding concept for this adaptation: the cover songs. The term “jukebox musical” is often one of disparagement, but rarely has it felt more appropriate. What seemed like a clever little motif in the film – having late 19th Century bohos strutting to “Lady Marmalade” or jamming to T. Rex – here becomes the raison d’être. The movie’s original soundtrack lists 17 songs, nearly all cover versions of hits, and though a few numbers in the movie were left off the record, even the second volume couldn’t combine to match the 70 (!) songs of the stage version.
Granted, most of those are more snippet than song, which is either good or bad, I suppose, depending on whether your era of choice got much snipping. While the movie leaned, aurally at least, on ’70s nostalgia, the stage production updates with Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, OutKast, Britney Spears, Beyonce, the White Stripes, Florence and the Machine, Seal, Adele, Sia and whoever sang “Shut Up + Dance.”
Good, catchy songs, no disputing that, whether you favor “Bad Romance” or “What’s Love Got To Do With It,” “Chandelier” or “The Sound of Music.” And certainly the track listing itself can be fun in a guess-what’s-next, parlor-game sort of way, at least initially. Wears thin fast, though, certainly by the time we get to the end of the overlong first act where we’re met with what’s been called the “Elephant Love Medley” since the movie.
Performed by Satine and Christian in her elephant-shaped dressing room, the medley strings together what begins to feel like every love song ever written (Christian makes that joke earlier, when we didn’t know he’d follow through). Here’s the list, courtesy of Playbill: “All You Need is Love/Love is Just a Game/I Was Made for Loving You/Just One Night/Pride (In the Name of Love)/Can’t Help Falling In Love/Don’t You Want Me/Don’t Speak/I Love You Always Forever/It Ain’t Me Babe/Love Hurts/Love is a Battlefield/Play the Game/Such Great Heights/Torn/Take On Me/Fidelity/What’s Love Got To Do with It/Everlasting Love/Up Where We Belong/Heroes/I Will Always Love You).”
The something-for-everyone approach has its advantages – not least a steady stream of applause and recognition chuckles that make Moulin Rouge! feel like one of the liveliest shows on Broadway. With box office soaring), this reportedly $28 million enterprise will swat away any stray critical brickbats like so many gnats.
But I don’t think I’ll be the only one leaning more toward grimace than grin. There’s another bit of nostalgia detritus that drifted across my mind during
“Elephant Love Medley,” and if you can’t manage my recommended Hadestown or Tootsie to see musicals with genuine heart, take another route and search YouTube for the Cher and David Bowie duet from 1975’s The Cher Show. It’s a classic of its type called “Young Americans Medley,” featuring the two icons (one coked to his different-colored eyeballs) performing a musical daisy-chain. “Song sung blue/everybody knows one/Is the loneliest number…” You can fast-forward when you’ve had enough.