There is a very good reason Moulin Rouge! The Musical was called Broadway’s biggest karaoke night when it opened in New York in 2019. It’s bursting with tunes – 70 songs, credited to 160 writers, spanning 160 years of music.
It’s a lot. And it’s not like the original soundtrack from Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 film was any slouch in the song department – it spawned two albums and hit No. 1 on the Australian charts. It also gave the film’s stars Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor their one – and only – Golden Globe nomination for best original song for their rendition of Come What May (they lost to Sting).
So when Justin Levine was given the task of overhauling the soundtrack of the film for the stage, he knew it was going to be tricky. The first thing I said to [director Alex Timbers] was that if I do this right, I’m going to piss off as many people as I’m going to delight, says Levine, who and was nominated for a Grammy for his work on the show.
He was, after all, about to tinker with a very catchy piece of work, one that could set fingers snapping at the mere sound of, Hey sista, go sista, soul sista, flow sista. But it was also a soundtrack that was, at that stage, 15 years old. No Beyonce? Quelle horreur!
This is, hands down, the hardest job I’ve ever had, says Levine. Writing a musical, period, is a difficult task. But in a way, you think, well, you’re picking all these great songs, so that must just be really fun. You know, I get that a lot. And it is fun but it’s also incredibly stressful.
SOMETHING OLD, SOMETHING NEW
To make it hum for a new audience, Levine looked to modern-day superstars – think Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Britney Spears and Adele – as well as finally giving the Rolling Stones their moment.
I knew Baz wanted to put some Rolling Stones in the original film but couldn’t get the rights, says Levine. I really wanted to get some Rolling Stones in there. So, we went back and forth a bit, and it became apparent that the more we communicated, the more likely it was we were going to be able to use some things because they got to be more involved in the decision-making.
The only contemporary, big-name noticeably absent is Taylor Swift. Did she shake them off? There were some Taylor Swift songs we were contemplating, says Levine. A lot of it also has to do with the language of the songs and how they sit in the mouths of the characters. And I found that my top three Taylor Swift ideas, sitting in those particular characters’ mouths felt, maybe, a bit too cheeky or campy.
The result is a bumped-up soundtrack that retains the classics while revving up the action with Gnarls Barkley, Sia, Katy Perry and the White Stripes, to name a few. The Rolling Stones aren’t the only heritage act to score a spot or three – Stones’ songs Sympathy for the Devil, You Can’t Always Get Want You Want and Gimme Shelter – as Elvis Presley, Whitney Houston and Pat Benatar all get their turn in the red room.
It’s one thing to stitch the songs together like Levine does, but totally another to sing them. Take Katy Perry’s . In Perry’s hands, it’s a pitchy call to arms for teenage girls – Come on, show ’em what you’re worth. Make ’em go, ‘Oh, oh, oh. ’ But in the hands of Alinta Chidzey, who plays the doomed courtesan Satine, it’s turned into a song about a woman struggling under the weight of responsibility.
We’ve all heard Katy Perry’s version of it – it feels a little bit more generic, very poppy, says Chidzey. For Satine, the song is about belief and hope, and knowing that she can bring her inner strength through to rise above all the problems she’s been dealing with – the club, her illness, and all the love that she desires. It’s quite surprising how much it touches you.
The song lives in my life, too, with responsibility and making sure I’m good for the show, for home life, as a mum and wanting to set a standard. All those things that arise within her, I really feel for myself as well.
Of all the musical mash-ups in the 19-song soundtrack, is perhaps the most unexpected. Gone is the propulsive beat that kicks off Gnarls Barkley’s , instead it’s replaced with a gentler reflection by the lovelorn Christian. I remember when I lost my mind, he sings softly, wondering, Does that make me crazy? Probably. Cue the beat and we’re suddenly in Adele territory, as thunders through (There’s a fire starting in my heart).
It’s one of the biggest numbers in the show, says Dse Flanagan, who plays Christian. With all the scenes in between, the song goes for about 15 minutes and it’s really the turn of Christian. Satine has just hurt him very harshly and he’s trying to work out what he’s going to do – is he going to kill himself?
Crazy is quite an upbeat, funky song. To turn it on its head and provide the landscape that it does in this piece, of Christian going through the start of his turmoil, that’s my favourite reinterpretation in the show. Every now and then, people laugh when I start singing that song and I think the laugh is, ‘What? This just isn’t making sense. ’ It’s a bit of a shock that they’re hearing these lyrics they know so well in this context.
That’s quite the rollercoaster. It’s quite the emotional journey to take in 15 minutes, says Flanagan, laughing.
LOVE IS IN THE AIR
Of all the songs in Moulin Rouge! The Musical, the one that stands out the most is the film’s only original work, the duet Come What May. Written by David Baerwald and Kevin Gilbert, it was originally destined for Luhrmann’s 1996 film William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet but landed in Moulin Rouge! After no other song fitted Christian and Satine’s declaration of love.
We wanted a song with no baggage because it’s Satine and Christian’s secret code song, the film’s . It’s the device at the end that lets Christian know that, actually, Satine does love him and it resolves the film.
Levine had no need to tinker with it – the original had already been transformed by Luhrmann and the film’s music supervisor Anton Monsted from a country-tinged solo into a duet for the film – so all that was left for Flanagan and Chidzey was to find the chemistry.
For the first half, it’s just Des singing to me, which is the most glorious thing to sit and listen to, says Chidzey. And that’s the biggest challenge of always doing so many shows a week, and for such a long time, is you have got to keep present. Because without that, it’s dead in the water.
Flanagan agrees. It’s like kids falling in love again, he says I could paint Alinta’s eyes from this song.
And if that isn’t enough to make you go awww, Flanagan has more – well, the reprise that he sings at the end of the show, anyway.
It’s a celebration of life, he says. It’s not a sad song. It’s just carrying on love for that person. And I don’t think necessarily it’s always Satine in that number for me, it’s whoever it needs to be. And for anyone in the audience, that’s what that song is – it’s for anyone dear they have lost. I try so hard to put as much joy through it as I can – there’s so much pain at the same time, and it’s beautiful when those two things live side by side.
Moulin Rouge! The Musical is at the Capitol Theatre from May 28.
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