January 20, 2022

‘It’s like a fairground’: Inside the musical ride of the West End’s Moulin Rouge

Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 musical jukebox was an assault on the senses – but is the stage version really as extra as the film? Isobel Lewis goes behind the scenes…

Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 musical jukebox was an assault on the senses – but is the stage version really as extra as the film? Isobel Lewis goes behind the scenes…

When you walk into the auditorium at the Piccadilly Theatre, no standard stage setup greets you. Instead, there are neon concentric hearts, lavish velvet plumes, a windmill and brightly lit letters spelling out the words: “Moulin Rouge!” The audience has been transported to the legendary Parisian cabaret venue, to watch a tale of love, sex and consumption play out while “Lady Marmalade” blasts. There are no rose-tinted glasses needed here – everything is already so red, it makes your eyes hurt. That is, of course, apart from the garish blue elephant draping over the side of a royal box.

From the set to the songs, it’s a musical experience sure to be – to steal the name of Christian’s play within a play – spectacular, spectacular. “This isn’t a show that starts when the curtain goes up – as soon as you walk into the theatre, it’s immersive,” says Clive Carter, who plays showman-cum-pimp Harold Zidler and has more than a touch of the Jim Broadbent about him, even out of character. “It’s like a fairground.” As the final act in Luhrmann’s lavish Red Curtain Trilogy, the film already takes inspiration from the world of musical theatre. Now, it’s cinema that’s influencing the stage. “My reaction to the film the first time I watched it was, ‘Wow,’” says Olivier-nominated actor Jason Pennycooke, who plays Toulouse. “I just thought it was so explosive, and I watched it again immediately…” He reckons they’ve managed to capture the whizzes and bangs for the stage. “The lighting makes it quite cinematic when you’re watching the actual show. It almost feels like you’re watching the movie.”

Moulin Rouge! The Musical opens with a cover of Christina Aguilera, Pink, Mya and Lil’ Kim’s “Lady Marmalade” before crashing into “So Fresh/So Clean”, “Rhythm of the Night” and Fatboy Slim’s “Because We Can” in seven exhilarating, exhausting minutes. It’s enough to give you musical whiplash, but the show is full of these pop mash-ups, inspired by Kidman and McGregor’s “Elephant Love Medley” from the film, in which “Heroes”, “Your Song” and “I Will Always Love You” are among the tracks brought together.

In 2001, Luhrmann introduced the world to “Come What May” (one of the few original numbers on the soundtrack) and turned The Police’s “Roxanne” into an Argentine tango song regularly trotted out on Strictly Come Dancing. Set at the turn of the 20th century, Moulin Rouge was among the first films to recontextualise pop music in a period piece. Decades later, there are plenty more of what music supervisor Justin Levine calls “contemporary classics” to pull from for the stage version – your Katy Perrys, your Beyoncés, your Adeles. Just as the 2001 film brought together the pop diva quartet of Xtina and co (who among us wasn’t deeply affected by that live performance at the MTV Movie Awards?), it’s now the popstars of the 2010s who are being honoured in the show. Liisi LaFontaine, the West End’s Satine, says it’s their energy that’s being replicated too. “Whenever I have to tell people, I say it’s like being at an Ariana Grande concert – there’s just deafening screams at certain points,” says LaFontaine. “And obviously most of them wear masks but everyone’s faces are just like…” she puts on a look of wide-eyed, joyous awe.

LaFontaine and Jamie Bogyo, who’s making his professional debut as Christian, are convinced the Moulin Rouge! The Musical will win over even the biggest cynics. “There’s some things about the show that are, like, unarguably good,” Bogyo says. “The set is unarguably gorgeous, the ensemble and the dance numbers are unarguably amazing. Like, there really isn’t any way to argue. Maybe you think I’m a bad actor in the show… I’m not gonna lose sleep over that. But there’s enough stuff. It’s just so awesome.”

What it takes, they say, is for that suspension of disbelief required at musicals writ larger than it’s even been. “It’s a full-on journey, but we always say it’s like getting on a ride,” says LaFontaine. “Once you strap in, you’re on it, and if you surrender, it kind of just happens. If you fight against it, or if you take a moment to be like, ‘Oh my God, what’s happening?’ it’s very overwhelming.”

With audiences returning to theatres after a tense Christmas and even tenser year for the industry, though, the show feels like the greatest and most necessary escape. “Unless you’re really dead inside, you’re probably gonna have a good time,” Boygo says. There’s certainly a twinkle in his eye.

Isobel Lewis