Watching from the audience of the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, the most satisfying moment of Moulin Rouge! The Musical! for director Alex Timbers happens at the top of the show: The Duke’s entrance. “I went to high school in Chicago in the ‘90s and I was thinking about how they used to introduce the Chicago Bulls, where they would take out all the lights and then spotlights would come up and they would all fly in and they would come through one of the voms,” says Timbers. “That’s what I wanted to do with The Duke.”
So as Harry Zidler introduces him, “he throws this large fuse box,” all the lights cut out, five spots ignite, and, on a rock 'n' roll fly-in, all the lights swing towards the stage to find The Duke inside the Moulin Rouge. After the pomp and circumstance, Tam Mutu’s Duke nonchalantly struts across the passerelle. “The Duke turns around and looks slyly at the audience, starts taking off his glove, and sings OutKast—in period clothes, in this lush 1899 club,” Timbers continues. “It feels to me like an exciting collision of theatricality and musicality and lighting that is modern, but a type of storytelling and scenic-costume vocabulary that feels like a throwback.”
And therein lies exactly what you need to know about Alex Timbers as a theatremaker.
He’s most excited by marrying spectacle and subtlety. He thrills to the juxtaposition of the contemporary and the historical. And he is a master of establishing vocabularies to combine all four in a singular way for each of his shows (of which he will have three on Broadway all opening in the span of six months). That’s what original filmmaker Baz Luhrmann recognized in him and why, six years ago, he asked Timbers to take on the musical stage adaptation of his iconoclastic film.
Opulent and substantive, explosive and intimate, escapist and provocative, Timbers’ vision is an exploration in contrasts.
Having officially opened July 25, the production comes from a lineage of this type of curiosity. For more than 10 years, Timbers’ theatre company, Les Freres Corbusier, specialized in crafting stories about historical figures in contemporary ways—a Hedda Gabler with live robots, the story of L. Ron Hubbard through the guise of the Scientologists children’s nativity pageant, and, the most well-known, Broadway’s Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson painting the seventh President as an emo rocker. The demands of this type of theatrical perspective fuels Timbers.
“It’s a challenge to make classic stories, historical tales, feel vital and visceral and kinetic,” he says. What better way to test himself next than to tackle “one of the grandfathers of that: Moulin Rouge”?
The clash of the 1899 French red light district sanctum set to pulsing to 21st-century pop songs renders a transportive new world built to maneuver the hybrid of high and lowbrow and its range of emotional beats and humor. “It’s so tonally exciting knowing one moment you’ll have high farce and the next moment you’ll have something intimate and pure and poetic.”
But Timbers says it’s the sharp sensibility at its core that generates the capacity for that range.
“Moulin Rouge traffics in wit,” says Timbers.
“If you look at ‘Elephant Love Medley’ where Christian and Satine are using these different pop selections—love and anti-love songs—to joust, it’s Beatrice and Benedict in Much Ado About Nothing,” he says. “It’s funny. It’s smart. What Baz conceived is very witty.”
To translate that quality to the stage, Timbers leaned into a theatrical brand of wit, building his show on embedded references to the musical theatre canon.
The opening number is inspired by Fiddler on the Roof’s “Tradition” (“where you introduce all the groups and the different antagonists and the different classes,” Timbers says); the Act 2 opener is based on Kiss Me, Kate’s “Too Darn Hot” (“that starts small and it’s a slow burn to something that’s a huge number with the ensemble,” he adds).
There’s the visual reference to My Fair Lady paired with OutKast’s “So Fresh and So Clean” to emphasize Satine’s fish-out-of-water feeling when The Duke escorts her to the high-class Boulevard. “It’s an ‘Ascot Gavotte’ moment, and they’re wearing clothes like My Fair Lady [by the same designer as Broadway’s most recent My Fair Lady] and they’re singing this awesome OutKast song where you’re hearing the lyrics in a new way,” says Timbers. “That’s a Baz Luhrmannn wit moment.”
What’s more, Moulin Rouge! is the apex of Timbers’ personal theatrical endeavors—to this point. “Within the pitch song [to The Duke] you see elements of Peter and the Starcatcher—the fabric becoming water, the story theatre of it,” he says. “Throughout the first half of the first act it does feel like Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, the punk rock storytelling with razor sharp shifts. The performers on runways and how you shift focus through lighting and performance feels just a little Here Lies Love. On a technical level, how you manage such scale comes from Rocky.”
With the scale of Moulin Rouge!, Timbers creates a version of the Paris landmark on steroids. “The Moulin Rouge exists, you can go visit that,” he says. “This is an idea of an idea.”
Timbers reached into his arsenal—along with scenic designer Derek McLane—to create a den of pleasure that’s active from the moment the audience steps inside. “If I’m an audience member coming to see Moulin Rouge!, I want to go to the Moulin Rouge,” he says. “Part of that felt like the space being alive.”
Dripping in red, draped in velvet, there’s an element of calculated danger as dancers writhe in cages, a devious clown draws on a cigarette, and corseted women swallow swords.
But what makes Moulin Rouge! resonate past the theatre doors is its aching love story. Timbers captures the gravitational pull of Aaron Tveit’s Christian and Karen Olivo’s Satine to anchor the show. “Beyond all the whizbangery of the cinematic techniques and the beautiful production design, there’s something hugely emotional underlying,” he says.
And that is credit to their performances and the emotional mining in the musical’s jukebox song list. It would be easy to think of the score—made up of everything from Rihanna to The Rolling Stones—as a sugar rush, but the recontextualization renders it more substantial. “The lyrics to ‘Bad Romance,’” for example, says Timbers, “are fantastic and I don’t think I ever truly clocked them when I was just listening to the radio version.”
Hearing Ricky Rojas spout “I want your ugly, I want your disease” might elicit giggles at first, but now conceived as a song that Christian wrote for his musical—a thinly-veiled tale of his own forbidden relationship with Satine—we’re forced to reconcile Christian’s dangerous desperation in this love.
With the help of book writer John Logan and music supervisor Justin Levine, “we treated the musical as if we were creating a brand new musical where any song was possible,” says Timbers.
Yet on Broadway, what Timbers invented feels like its own genre and he achieved a spectacle that feels real, as eye-popping as it is heart-wrenching. Without remounting the movie, he created something solely theatrical: Christian’s “living memory.”
Maybe that’s the balanced paradox Timbers sought all along.