Photo credit: Moulin Rouge! The Musical (Photos by Matt Crockett)

The ‘Moulin Rouge! The Musical’ cast and creative team on bringing the film to life onstage in London

Sophie Thomas
Sophie Thomas

Walk through the West End, and you'll see blockbuster film titles finding a new life on stage everywhere you look. Back to the Future, Pretty Woman, and Frozen are already introducing new audiences to London's theatres, and Moulin Rouge! The Musical at the Piccadilly Theatre is the latest show to bring a popular movie to life onstage.

Based on the 2001 Baz Luhrmann film of the same name, Moulin Rouge! The Musical follows Christian and Satine, star-crossed lovers in turn-of-the-century Paris. He's a lovesick American writer who's new to town, and she's a cabaret performer in the eponymous nightclub with a terrible secret. Add to that over 70 pop songs, and you've got an explosive spectacle, full of heart-stopping choreography, eye-popping set design, and a night at the theatre you'll never forget.

But how did Moulin Rouge! The Musical make it to London? We spoke to the Moulin Rouge! The Musical creative team and cast about bringing their vision to life onstage and what the show means to them. 

Moulin Rouge! The Musical is at the Piccadilly Theatre.

Moulin Rouge! The Musical tickets are on sale now. Book tickets to Moulin Rouge! The Musical on London Theatre.

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Moulin Rouge! The Musical brings the film to life onstage in new ways.

Moulin Rouge! The Musical's immersive nature means audiences step into another world. As soon as you set foot in the Piccadilly Theatre, you're immediately whisked away to 19th-century France. Dancers move around in the aisles, and neon-red lights provide a nightclub effect. For those looking to get into the heart of the action, can-can seating options are available for audiences looking to sit metres away from the stage.

For director Alex Timbers, it was crucial to immerse audiences into the Moulin Rouge! The Musical world from the moment they walk in the door. "We wanted the show itself to feel immersive and kick over the footlights," Timbers said. "We don't have overcranked steadicams and whip pans, so you have to direct the choreography, the sound, and the lighting to create that same kinetic feeling that Baz [Luhrmann] did with the camera."

Your ears are kept busy too, as you listen out for the first chord of "Lady Marmalade," which kicks off the show's eight-minute opening number. There's a lot of original material to work with — the Moulin Rouge! film features songs such as "Nature Boy" by David Bowie, and "Your Song" by Elton John, as well as "Come What May", which was the only original song written specifically for the film. All of these songs and more are included in the show's pop-fueled score.  

"The initial thought was to preserve as much of the film score as possible within our adaptation", said music supervisor, Justin Levine. "Any time that we didn't include something from the film, it was down to the narrative evolving in a way where the show was no longer functioning the same way." 

It's been 20 years since the Moulin Rouge! film came out, and the updated score reflects a changing musical landscape. Musical moments such as "El Tango de Roxane" and "Sparkling Diamond" remain, but songs like "Firework" by Katy Perry, "Chandelier" by Sia, and "Rolling In The Deep" by Adele have all been added into the musical. 

"Levine has combined styles with different periods, and there's something for everyone" said Clive Carter, who plays the club's master of ceremonies Harold Zidler. "The Moulin Rouge! score goes right through from the 50s right up to the present day to somebody called Adele? There's even Offenbach somewhere!"

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Every dance number in Moulin Rouge! The Musical is carefully choreographed and intentional.

Working with all the song styles made it challenging for choreographer Sonya Tayeh to create a cohesive world. In order to create the Moulin Rouge! The Musical dances, Tayeh broke down each song into separate lines or "phrases" to delve into what each song tried to convey. After this, movements for individual sections quickly begin to take shape.

"It's all about getting into a space and creating tons of phrase work without overanalysing it", says Tayeh. "Then it's about putting the sounds of top on the phrases, seeing what's generating and taking it from there. The moves just evolve naturally."

Tayeh's Moulin Rouge! The Musical choreography won the Tony Award for Best Choreography, and it's easy to see why. The juxtaposition of sharp movements and free-flowing dance steps makes for thrilling, high-energy routines that enrapture audiences. However, performing these challenging routines come with their own struggles, and dancing eight times a week is a daunting task. 

For Jason Pennycooke, who plays French painter and bohemian Toulouse-Lautrec who befriends Christian when he arrives in Paris, it's important to get physical off-stage too. "I find myself in more pain when I'm warming up," Pennycooke says. "I think it's because mentally I'm playing this character that wasn't just in pain but had afflictions, so it bares well in the show for me. It just kind of happens almost by osmosis."

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The Moulin Rouge! The Musical cast have a real chemistry, both on and off-stage. 

Many of the actors are bringing themselves to the role. Liisi LaFontaine, who plays Satine, sees a lot of her own journey in the troubled nightclub performer. During the rehearsal process, LaFontaine was able to make the role her own.

"The creative team is very open to us making our own choices and making it our own, so we're definitely not carbon copies of anywhere," says LaFontaine who identifies with Satine's love for her family and community. "Everyone brings their own thing to it, but the core of the characters are the same." 

Jamie Bogyo, who plays American writer Christian, didn't want to see anyone else playing Christian on stage before his first preview. Moulin Rouge! The Musical in the West End is the third production to open, following the original Broadway production and the Australian production, but Bogyo had never seen a production before taking on the role himself. 

 "I specifically didn't look for any clips, so I have no idea what I look like in terms of their performances," Bogyo said. "I didn't want people who loved the movie to be like, 'What the hell is this?' I just responded to what I saw on the page and trusted that if I went off the rails, [director] Alex (Timbers) would be like, 'No.'"

Then Bogyo looked to LaFontaine, who was standing next to him, with a smile, and simply said: "Let the reality of this relationship bring Christian and Satine to life." 

LaFontaine echoed his sentiment. Looking at Bogyo, she said: "The banter and the chemistry we have as friends really feeds off into the show," she added. "It's fun to create this really beautiful love story with Jamie, and also the whole cast, we just have a really nice chemistry as a collective."

For Bogyo, getting the chance to perform medleys made famous from the Moulin Rouge! film feels special every night. "There's moments I expected to love, like singing 'Just one night' to start 'Elephant Love Medley' and hearing 'Oh they're gonna start Elephant Love Medley' in the audience. I love the part in 'Elephant Love Medley' too when I switch to 'Open up your eyes' and I turn around and I see Liisi being like what the hell? I'm like, alright it's gonna be fine."

While Bogyo may brush off how "fine" the show, Moulin Rouge! The Musical does lives up to its "spectacular spectacular" hype. Justin Townsend's eye-popping lighting design shines bright in the Elephant Love Medley, and Catherine Zuber's can-can skirt costume design could be lifted out of a turn-of-the-century Parisian world. In fact, the Moulin Rouge! The Musical creative flair gives the production a uniquely British feel.

"[The musical] is so much more intimate here, so you really feel in the same room as those characters", said Timbers. "Because the show plays so much on English music hall, panto, French farce, Moulin Rouge! is more in people's DNA here."

Photo credit: Moulin Rouge! The Musical (Photos by Matt Crockett)

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