This summer, a musical production of Baz Luhrmann’s Oscar-winning Moulin Rouge was adapted for the stage starring Karen Olivo and Aaron Tveit. The 2001 jukebox musical film with Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor took place in late 19th century France’s cabaret and bohemian scene. The story of Moulin Rouge centers on lovers Christian, an up and coming penniless writer, and Satine, the Moulin Rouge’s top headliner and courtesan, and their story of passion, jealousy, and love. I had the opportunity to see a preview of the staged musical spectacular for Broadway in Boston on July 12th, and here are my thoughts.
The musical features hit songs from the past decade, in the same way that the film used the most popular songs of the 20th century in order to feel the sense of how audiences in 1899 France felt in regards to Moulin Rouge’s vibe and magic.
Right at the show’s opening, cancan dancers known as The Diamond Dogs opened with “Lady Marmalade” by Labelle immediately drawing the audience in with energy before getting right into the story. Such a pleasure to have this song be an opening focal point rather than just a soundtrack piece played and sung so briefly in the original film.
The viewers are also able to witness how racially diverse Moulin Rouge’s cast is now, unlike the original, which had one black actor named Chocolat (sweet, Jesus), an able-bodied Latinx actor casted as a dwarf, an entire production for the Moulin Rouge set in India portrayed by predominantly white actors, and a Polish actor casted as an Argentinian.
The original film is beloved; I know it’s personally dear to my heart. However, there are obviously aspects of the film that are worthy of critique, and would not fly with our audiences in 2018. Moreover, ever since the success of Hamilton and its decision in having a consciously racially diverse cast to represent America now telling the story of America then, it makes sense the new Broadway shows afterwards have been following suit. Thanks Hamilton for making us feel seen.
Casting Karen Olivo as Satine gave her more layers that benefit feminine audience members. Casting a Latinx woman of color not only as one of the protagonists of the show, but a protagonist who essentially engages in sex work to survive is a reflection of underrepresented narratives. I believe this can start needed conversations about the structures in place for feminine people of color and how to make spaces more empowering for them. It’s great that more types of entertainment are doing that, such as shows like Pose and Star, which give space to characters who are trans black women in sex work.
Casting Sahr Ngaujah as Toulouse, giving him a richer backstory, and not giving him a character trait seen as ableist was a joy to witness. A black man holding his own as an artistic director for the Moulin Rouge and actively critiquing the inescapable bourgeois around him made me laugh and cry in one sitting. Especially in the end where they pay tribute to the original film of naming the Bohemian Revolutionary tenants of Truth, Beauty, Freedom, and Love, where specific main characters are assigned each word. Owner of the Moulin Rouge, Zidler, now written as an openly gay man in the stage production, was assigned “Truth” (and he is not the only openly gay character in the show either). Choreographer Santiago, now rightfully casted as Latinx actor Ricky Rojas was assigned “Beauty.” Toulouse was assigned “Freedom” (Cue my black girl tears). Christian, of course, was assigned “Love.”
The original song from the film “Come What May” becomes the staged production’s centerpiece in a way, and it is beautifully arranged. Other popular songs from the film, such as Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” were taken out for better reasons. Thanks for not perpetuating the virgin/whore dichotomy that was prevalent throughout the film.
Moreover, I am glad that they took away the “I’ve come to pay my bill” scene from the film. In that scene, Christian is attempting to pay Satine for her sex in their affair in spite towards her for saying she didn’t love him. It’s essentially the 1890s equivalent of the misogynistic “nice guys finish last” narrative.
On a random note, The Duke is hotter and more complex in his villainy than The Duke in the film, which is intriguing. However, they replaced it with Christian putting real bullets in a gun used as a prop as a way to threaten to shoot himself in front of Satine. Maybe the producers wrote this before the heightened news of gun shootings and mental health, but that doesn’t excuse that for our time right now, and, you know, maybe it’s just not best to sing Cee Lo Green’s “Crazy” as you’re putting real bullets in a prop gun. Gentle reminder: gun violence has no correlation with mental health issues.
Despite this, the Moulin Rouge stage adaptation was refreshing and enjoyable. My advice is to go see it!