Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! transcended moviegoers back in 2001 and received a Best Picture nomination at the 2002 Academy Awards. It didn’t win, but, knowing Luhrmann’s multi-platform reach across film, television, and the theater, you knew the production would eventually make its way to the stage. And so, Moulin Rouge! The Musical opened on Broadway on July 25 and has packed houses nearly every night since opening.
If you haven’t seen it, get yourself to New York City. It’s a fantastic show – full of infectious energy, astoundingly great choreography, beautiful sets, and wall-to-wall pop songs. I’ve personally seen the show twice now, once in its Boston pre-Broadway run and once in New York. Living the show in the theater, you’re consistently amazed and perhaps amused at the way the songs are integrated into the book. With the film, the songs told the story in coordination with scripted dialogue. But in the musical version, the 70-plus songs ARE the scripted dialogue. And, as such, the immediate challenge once the musical opens is to translate the live theatrical experience into an unique experience at home via the original cast album.
Produced by the creative team of Luhrmann, director Alex Timbers, music supervisor / orchestrator Justin Levine, and music producer Matt Stine, the Moulin Rouge! The Musical Original Broadway Cast Recording recently received a Grammy nomination for Best Musical Theater Album. The recording indeed stands on its own as a labor of love for the creative team and a gift for its listeners.
Just don’t call it a jukebox musical.
“It is essentially the exact opposite of a typical jukebox musical,” said music supervisor Justin Levine. “Normally, you start with a catalog and tailor a story around that catalog. We did the opposite. We adapted the film through an outline and spotted in the songs that already exist in the movie and also spotted moments where we felt there was more music to be added, much like creating a musical from scratch.”
Using a canvass of the past 100 years of pop songs, the team prioritized the lyrics to assemble what would become the musical score. One goal was to use popular, immediately recognizable songs, but they also had to fit the emotional needs of the characters.
The song “Elephant Love Medley,” an extended version originally produced for the film, serves as a perfect example of the musical puzzle the team had to solve. The stage version was re-orchestrated by Levine and team by stitching together the lyric piece by piece using popular songs. The result is not a Frankenstein version of a musical theater song but is instead an organic conversation between the two leads: Satine (Karen Olivo) and Christian (Aaron Tveit).
But how would that translate into a cast album?
“One of the things you want to do in a cast album is not necessarily replicate what’s happening on the stage but replicate the feeling of the live experience. The emotion and visuals are so huge when you’re in the theater, so how do you create that sense of richness and grandeur and intimacy on the album?” asked director Timbers.
Bringing the visceral theatrical experience of the show to the cast album meant creating a unique sound that could stand on its own. The tight collaborative process between Timbers, Levine, Stine and Luhrmann proved extensive. The complete stage version runs over 2.5 hours, but typical Broadway cast album run roughly an hour of listening time.
To interpret the show for the home audience, music required to accommodate cast or costume changes was eliminated. Condensed lines of dialogue were included to accentuate the narrative without the benefit of the full script. Lessons learned while mixing sound for the stage were also applied to the studio recording sessions, balancing the multiple channels of input across voice, orchestra, and additional effects to create a fully blended listening experience.
Recorded and produced over roughly two weeks, the resulting cast album has been warmly received across the board, including the Grammy nomination for Best Musical Album. It garnered praise for indeed capturing the live theater experience while sounding unlike other cast recordings. The biggest praise, though, came from the cast itself who felt their on-stage performances were perfectly captured in the recording.
“When Karen (Olivo) came to me and said ‘Diamonds’ just sounds so thrilling, and ‘Firework’ I’m just so happy with, that makes me happy,” music producer Stine shared. “You take so much on that there’s this bond between me and the performers. It’s nerve-wracking, and you want so badly to deliver something for them that they will be really happy with when listening to it 10 years from now.”
Moulin Rouge! The Musical Original Broadway Cast Album is now available to purchase or stream. The 62nd Annual Grammy Awards airs January 26 on CBS.