Liisi LaFontaine on introducing ‘Moulin Rouge! The Musical’ to a new generation and new audiences
Liisi LaFontaine never thought she would do musical theatre professionally. The Los Angeles native grew up in the shadow of Hollywood, where film and television rule, and she always gravitated toward pop and R&B music rather than show tunes.
She also never imagined her stage career would take shape in London, but after making her West End debut as Deena in Dreamgirls in 2018, she's back across the pond, this time starring as the sultry nightclub songstress Satine in Moulin Rouge! The Musical.
"Both Dreamgirls and Moulin Rouge! The Musical have music that's influenced by so many other genres and that feels like a better fit for me personally," says LaFontaine. "All of these different genres that are showing up a lot more in musical theatre is cool, and makes it more accessible for everybody."
Moulin Rouge! The Musical features an eargasm of popular music, with over 70 pop songs orchestrated and arranged by Tony winner Justin Levine, including hits from the 2001 Baz Luhrmann film as well as more modern tunes from artists like Sia and Lady Gaga. The mash-up of turn-of-the-century Paris with chart-topping hits is part of what catapulted the film, which starred Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor as the forbidden lovers Satine and Christian, to icon status, and now, the musical is leveling up from where the movie started.
"Obviously, you see the movie, and you think it's meant to be a musical. It's perfect for the stage, but I had no idea how it would feel or look adapted," says LaFontaine. "But when I saw it, I was just like, 'Well, that was one of the craziest theatre experiences I've had in a long time.' And so, it definitely made me want to do this version of the show. Just the updated songs and how current they made everything feel really, it was very exciting. It's introducing it to a new generation of people."
However, LaFontaine's journey back to the London stage has not been the smoothest one. She began auditioning for the production before Covid-19 hit in 2020, and the theatre shut down drew out the process with several starts and stops. Now, when the show was finally set to open in London in December, Omicron hit hard at the Piccadilly Theatre and she got Covid, along with most of her colleagues. However, after two postponed openings, Moulin Rouge! The Musical is finally set to open in London.
"There's so much hope for 2022, fingers crossed," she says. "If you contrast this to what was happening a year and a half ago, we're leaps and bounds ahead of where we thought we would be. So I just feel like you just can't take it for granted. Every moment up there is such a gift."
London Theatre spoke with LaFontaine about what it means to her to take on this iconic role, what she loves about the West End, and why representation is so important.
What does it mean to you to be bringing this role and this story to a new generation?
It's really exciting because all the Satines right now - in Australia, in New York and here - are all women of color. And so, I feel like we are all getting to put our own little spin on the story and make it accessible for everybody. I don't look like Nicole Kidman and neither do the other women who are playing her. So I think that automatically when you come into the show, you're going to be like, "Oh this is a different thing." Just visually. But I feel like the heart of the story is still the same.
What does that representation mean to you?
I feel like in the last five years, more than any other time, we've realized how important representation is and how valuable it is and how lucrative it is. It's not a gimmick. There are a lot of people who look like a lot of different things. And so, when we can represent everybody, you make it more accessible and fun and inviting.
And theatre already can feel a little indulgent, or a little exclusive. So I think that the more people can walk past a poster and see someone be like, "Oh, she kind of looks like me," that might encourage someone who's never seen a show to come and see a show that they wouldn't think that they would otherwise.
Particularly with movies adapted for the stage, there's so much expectation around it, especially for fans. Do you feel free from that expectation just by virtue of the fact that you don't look like Nicole Kidman, like you said? Or do you still feel the pressure?
Yes and no. There's always a fear of, "Oh no, this isn't going to be what people have held in their minds for 20 years, and so I don't know how everyone's going to react to that." But I feel like the whole show in general is just a two-decades step up from the movie. So I feel like it's not taking anything away from the film. It's just adding on things that we've learned, experiences that we've had collectively as a society. Our director [Alex Timbers] says it holds the film's hand, if you will. Yeah.
I know that some people will really want to hear those specific songs from the movie. Some people will really want to see those specific characters. For that I say, watch the movie. The show is just a slightly different thing. So it is freeing knowing that as soon as it starts, it's kind of like, "Oh, okay, I'm seeing something different than the film."
Satine is a performer, and a star. As an actor, do you feel like you're able to bring aspects of yourself to Satine?
Yeah, absolutely. I feel like we both find strength in our communities and in our friend groups and in the people we surround ourselves with. Satine is so die-hard for her people who work in the club. I feel very similarly for all the people that I've worked with and grown up with through the years, and I feel that sense of responsibility for my friends and my family.
Community is so important, particularly in 2022 when we're entering year three of a global pandemic, and it's something we didn't have for a long time. On the one hand, the show celebrates community, but on the other hand, Satine is also harbouring a distressing illness. How do those parallels to today feel to you?
I mean, I had Covid. Our whole cast has had Covid at this point. We all definitely understand the fear surrounding illnesses like that. I mean, we have vaccinations so none of us were scared we're going to die, but there is just a fear of getting sick that we've all felt for the last three years. We've all lost people...Every night someone is crying...It's just so close to home.
But there's such a redemption arc in the way that death happens and all of the beautiful things that it sparks, and how everyone still kind of comes together at the end and celebrates this space and the legacy. The whole show is Christian telling the story of this woman's life, so I feel like there's something so powerful in it and something that people I feel like who've just lost someone can find some relief in. It's definitely a tricky moment to be telling a story like this, but I feel like it's cathartic.
You were in the West End cast of Dreamgirls and now you're back for this. What keeps you coming back to the West End?
London is just such a special city and for me living in LA and New York, I feel like it's kind of like the grandma of both. It has the open space of LA. It has the nature and the parks of California. And then it has the hustle and the multiculturalism and the city feel of New York. Also, it has the history and the architecture of Europe. And so, it's just kind of like a beautiful melting pot of all the things that I love and working here is so amazing. The theatre community is so strong and hilarious and fun and colorful.
It feels like a very full circle moment, because it was this life experience I never thought I would have [with Dreamgirls] that was very life-changing for me that I wanted to experience again in a different way. Then I kind of got a glimpse of it, then Covid happened. And then it came back around and I was like, "Oh this is so amazing and ideal." I love London. I love working here. It's just a pleasure and honour to be back.
How do you hope shows like Moulin Rouge! The Musical continue to make theatre more accessible to a wider audience?
I also feel like theatre will become more diverse naturally when we have more diverse voices creating the content. When we have more young writers who are different races and when people know that that's a possibility, I feel like that's going to open it up to a lot of different types of people.
It's just such a life-affirming experience to be in a room with a bunch of strangers and you're all laughing at the same time. We're all clapping at the same time. Because we all feel so isolated these days. We're all on our phones. And so, I think to just go somewhere and witness something that's just extraordinary, because there's so many different talents that go into creating things like this, and being surrounded by people of all different colours and ages is the coolest thing that we could do right now.
Photo credit: Liisi LaFontaine in Moulin Rouge! The Musical (Photo by Johan Persson)
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