'Moulin Rouge!' Stars Aaron Tveit and Karen Olivo Go Deeper and Darker on Stage

Courtesy of Matthew Murphy
Karen Olivo, Aaron Tveit and company in 'Moulin Rouge! The Musical'

The Baz Luhrmann film comes to Broadway in Alex Timbers' elaborate production, updated for the theatre with an expanded song score and more complex character backstories.

Fans of Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge! have been clamoring for the film about star-crossed lovers at the turn of the century in the eponymous Parisian nightclub since the movie premiered in 2001. The film was nominated for eight Oscars, including Best Picture, winning two for its design elements, and now the musical is finally making its theatrical debut on Broadway.

While almost two decades of anticipation is a lot to put on a new musical, the show's romantic leads, Aaron Tveit and Karen Olivo, are not feeling the pressure. Tveit plays the lovesick writer Christian, who falls for the club's leading lady and courtesan Satine, played by Tony Award winner Karen Olivo, and the actors are just as excited as everyone else that the musical has finally arrived. They're not here to mess this up. 

"If we weren't doing it, we would show up to see it and be like, 'Don't ruin this movie!'" says Olivo, sitting backstage with Tveit in her dressing room at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, where the musical, now in previews, opens July 25. "No one wants it to be anything other than to make everyone's dreams come true."

Olivo calls Satine her "dream role" — she had the movie poster on her dining room wall. The film's original song, "Come What May," was one of Tveit's first performances as a musical theater major in college. 

"They were really pushing the envelope when movie musicals or musical performance weren't as mainstream as they are now," Tveit says. "I just remember being very struck by the fact that they were doing it in such a big-budget way."

The theatrical adaptation premiered to rave reviews and sold-out houses at Boston's Emerson Colonial Theatre last summer. Unlike most movies translated to the stage, Moulin Rouge! was already a musical with inherent theatrical elements and an eclectic score of popular songs from across the decades. Director Alex Timbers, along with book writer John Logan, wanted to deepen and expand the story for the stage by incorporating more complicated character backstories and an expanded catalog of music.  

Timbers cites Luhrmann as an influence on his directing work with his theater company Les Freres Corbusier. He's helmed several historical and contemporary mashups, like the satirical political musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and the dance-club musical about Imelda Marcos, Here Lies Love, with a score by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim.

"Moulin Rouge! is such an immersive experience when you watch it in the movie theater, and I wanted to see how we can convey that in a theater setting itself," says Timbers, explaining that the show opens at the club, rather than incorporating the film's prologue. He also wanted to maintain a lot of the fantasy of the film while keeping the story grounded in the reality of the time period. "When you dig into world creation you have to create your own rules and consistencies no matter how stylized it is. There has to be a rigor about what you're pursuing," explains the director. 

Timbers met Luhrmann at a dinner party in 2013, and the two quickly began talking about bringing Moulin Rouge! to the stage. Luhrmann has sat in on workshops and run-throughs and even shot the cast for Vogue. Timbers calls him the project's "uncle," while Tveit refers to him affectionately as the "fairy godfather."

While Timbers took cues from Luhrmann, Tveit and Olivo took notes from their onscreen counterparts, Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman. There are elements that are inherently different for the stage, but there were aspects of the movie's performances they wanted to preserve. 

"She has an elegant grace, an ethereal quality that I'm trying to embody in myself because I'm very casual and tomboyish," says Olivo of Kidman, who was nominated for an Oscar for the film. "I remember when I was a fan looking at her, I was like, that's like what a goddess is. Oh, I get it. And so those are some of the things I try to take with me."

Tveit admires McGregor's ability to convey pure optimism and genuine amazement. In the film, Christian's unfettered desire for Satine awakens her pessimism and doubt, and while the story has shifted, this essential point about their connection remains. Olivo and Tveit refer to Satine as the lock and Christian as the key.

"As an actor, it's easy to play really dark and brooding, but when you have to be open and warm, that can be a little more difficult. He does it masterfully in the film," Tveit says of McGregor.

Another way the story has been expanded is through the score. Timbers says there are almost 80 licensed songs in the musical, from artists like Katy Perry and Adele to Cab Calloway and OutKast. Musical supervisor Justin Levine worked with Timbers to build a soundscape that captured the movie's original spirit and the characters' emotions by incorporating popular music from the years since the film was released alongside classic songs. (Don't worry: Fan favorites like "Your Song," "Come What May," "Roxanne," and elements of "The Elephant Love Medley" are still in the show.)

In the musical, the characters have more life experience, as Tveit, 35, and Olivo, 42, are older than Kidman and McGregor were in the film, with the additional perspective bringing a different dimension to the story.

"I'm very proud to be a woman that is no longer an ingenue's age and is wiser and experienced, having to fall in love like an ingenue would and doing it through someone who is just full of hope," says Olivo. 

The love triangle is also more complicated onstage. Onscreen, the Duke, played by Richard Roxburgh, is a bit of a foppish joke and his attempts to steal Satine are played largely for comedy. Timbers wanted the Duke, played by Tam Mutu in the show, to be a real temptation for Satine, offering wealth and power and an escape from the poverty she knows. Therefore the Duke becomes more dangerous and enticing for the courtesan, who is exploring her options as she faces aging out of the profession. 

Satine also comes from a troubled background, and Olivo spoke with Logan about her own life, drawing from her history to create the character. "Sadly or happily, I have a pretty dark past," Olivo admits, adding that she cast people from Satine's life with some from her own.

The backstory between Satine and club owner Harold Zidler, played by six-time Tony nominee Danny Burstein, has also been further developed, and Olivo says that while in the movie Satine's motivation is to become a "real actress," her intentions onstage are more altruistic.  

"The show is much more about community and the Moulin Rouge and the people that live within it are her family, the only family she's ever cobbled together," Olivo says. "And so keeping the doors open is the only thing she wants to do."

While Christian is still a wide-eyed optimist in the musical, he's changed slightly for the stage, namely that the character is American instead of an Englishman. A self-proclaimed "nerd," Tveit researched Industrial Revolution American (Christian is from Lima, Ohio), and what Christian might have been escaping in search of bohemian ideals. Tveit has also drawn parallels with his own experience, likening Christian's bohemian immersion to his own experience of joining the national tour of Rent at age 20.

"I had no idea what I was doing and no idea who I was or anything, no idea that I was any good," he confesses. "And all of sudden, somebody was like, OK, learn how to swim. So that's the only thing I can relate to — that this guy just shows up at this mythical land of bohemians and artists.”

While the musical is still a period piece set in fin de siècle Paris, many of the themes — truth, beauty, freedom, love — play differently and perhaps resonate more deeply in 2019. The team hopes audiences will leave inspired and on an emotional high. 

"It's even more important now," Tveit says. "Great theater is escapism, so you can come in and be transported but at the same time it's not just a fluff thing. These bohemian ideals we're all striving for are even more important in 2019. Hopefully that's something people will latch onto as well, not just the great music and fun that you have, we kind of hit you with these other things, too."