When Stephen Sondheim died last month at the age of 91, the eulogies that hailed his achievements were almost always followed with a rider. “Mr. Sondheim was the theater’s most revered and influential composer-lyricist of the last half of the 20th century,” said The New York Times, “if not its most popular.” Sondheim’s material, opined Variety, “was not always to mass-audience tastes. But critics and musical theater devotees thrilled to it.” As The Guardian observed, “He never scored a true hit show.”
Sondheim represented a possibility that went beyond what Peter Brook once called “cosy entertainment for tired businessmen and their wives”. He considered himself a playwright as much as a composer, and brought a serious sensibility and a variety of influences to Broadway – Grand Guignol in his Kurt Weill-esque Sweeney Todd, Georges Seurat for Sunday in the Park with George, Ingmar Bergman with A Little Night Music, and so on through a career marked by an aversion to repeating himself.
He died the night after I saw Moulin Rouge: The Musical in Melbourne. Moulin Rouge is almost the antithesis of what Sondheim represented. Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 film reached back to 19th-century opera for its inspiration, cheerfully wrenching its paper-thin plot from Puccini’s La bohème – itself often derided for what Benjamin Britten called “the cheapness and emptiness of the music” – and vamping it up with a dash of Bollywood extravagance.
The film introduced a wealthy, moustache-twirling cad into La bohème’s love triangle and turned the consumptive seamstress, Mimi, into the charismatic but equally doomed cabaret star, Satine (played by Nicole Kidman). The impecunious poet Rodolfo became Christian (a young Ewan McGregor) and his and Satine’s undying love was expressed through medleys of contemporary hits. It was no doubt inevitable that Moulin Rouge would be turned into a stage musical.
And yet it’s hard to be cynical about the result. I liked the musical – directed by Alex Timbers, with a book by John Logan – much more than the film, although that’s probably because Luhrmann’s neurotic edits gave me a migraine. In fact, watching this reformation of the jukebox musical into something altogether more weird, I found myself seduced by its exuberant theatricality. It drags La bohème’s sentimentality into the 21st century, with just enough grit to scratch something like real feeling.
The seduction begins as soon as you walk into the Regent Theatre, which has been turned into an immersive experience à la Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Derek McLane’s design extends chandeliers and plush red curtaining over the whole auditorium, with the bars open at the back. You order your absinthe and enter the fantasy of 19th-century Paris as a Moulin Rouge audience member, the set already busy with posing showgirls and an impressive sword-swallowing act.
We’re plunged immediately into “Lady Marmalade” as the impresario Harold Zidler (played with effortless camp authority by Simon Burke) welcomes “reprobates and rascals, artistes and arrivistes, soubrettes and sodomites” to the theatre. “No matter your sin, you’re welcome here,” he declaims. “For this is more than a nightclub. The Moulin Rouge is a state of mind.”
If Moulin Rouge is a state of mind, it relies rather more on the ecstatic than the contemplative. The musical sweeps us along through set change after spectacular set change and depends – rather like Romantic opera – on the music to get us through its absurd plot, in which Zidler pimps out Satine (Alinta Chidzey) to a rich Duke (Andrew Cook) to save his theatre, just as Satine and Christian (Des Flanagan) fall in love.
The adaptation amps up Luhrmann’s postmodern musical bricolage, exemplified in the Elephant Love Medley where the lovers swap lyrics from 10 famous love songs. In total, it credits some 75 songs, with new additions ranging from a couple of songs from The Rolling Stones to Katy Perry’s “Firework”, Sia’s “Chandelier” and Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep”. The only original song – also the only one that comes close to a Broadway show tune and, not coincidentally, the weakest – is the lovers’ signature “Come What May” composed by David Baerwald and Kevin Gilbert.
The stagecraft is mindbogglingly good – again, I thought of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. It mimics the eclecticism of the music, drawing on everything from opera to cabaret to contemporary dance, but instead of inducing whiplash, the wit and sharpness of Timbers’ direction creates a coherent whole. Despite its extravagance, the stage never feels overdressed – every detail tells.
The first half is characterised by massive set changes – giant sparkling hearts, Day-glo views of Paris with “L’amour” strung across the sky. After interval the stage is suddenly bare, illuminated only by spotlights and a neon line running at the back – this for a highlight of Sonya Tayeh’s choreography, where Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” is mashed with Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love”, the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army”, Britney Spears’ “Toxic” and the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” into a genuinely hot tango between the alternative lovers Santiago (Ryan Gonzalez) and Nini (Samantha Dodemaide).
This scene highlights a central strength of the production – what makes Moulin Rouge really pop is the cast. There isn’t a weak link anywhere, and the consistent energy of the performances gives the show the emotional body it needs. As the lovelorn American songwriter channelling the next century’s greatest hits, Flanagan is an appealing romantic lead opposite Chidzey’s bravura turn as Satine, especially when they’re reminding us that Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s “Your Song” might be one of the best love songs ever written.
Andrew Cook invests the jealous Duke with enough dark, ironic charisma to bring some complexity to Satine’s choice between her two lovers, with their Rolling Stones duets – “Sympathy for the Devil” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” – another highlight. And I developed a very soft spot for the chorus line – Dodemaide, Kara Sims (standing in for Olivia Vásquez), Ruva Ngwenya and Christopher J Scalzo – whose various bodies bring substance to Zidler’s claim that everyone is welcome at Moulin Rouge.
It’s a show that winks at us – knowing it’s a fantasy, knowing it’s absurd – and poises its audience both inside and outside the narrative, rippling with laughter at the musical jokes but also drawn into its sentiment. Despite its superficiality – or perhaps because of its shameless and very stylish embrace of it – Moulin Rouge feels fresh. It’s not Sondheim, sure, but I wonder if its free play with form would be possible without him. It certainly feels destined to be a hit.
Moulin Rouge is at the Regent Theatre, Melbourne, until April 29 and opens at the Capitol Theatre, Sydney, on May 28, 2022.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 11, 2021 as "Lilting at windmills".
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