Remaking a popular production can be a tricky endeavor. If you remain too faithful to the original designs, the piece could turn stale, while too much experimentation can alienate audiences that might have been drawn to the show through a nostalgia-powered portal.
Moulin Rouge!, the stage adaptation of Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 glitzy and bawdy extravaganza set in fin de siècle Paris, cleverly avoids being both too derivative and too radical. To achieve that, costume designer Catherine Zuber and set designer Derek McLane took into account several elements: the revamped script, wherein Satine morphs from a frail beauty into an empowered leader, and where the bohemians openly loathe capitalism; Luhrmann’s and costumer Catherine Martin’s artistic legacy; and, naturally, their own artistic vision. The result transports audiences gloriously back to Paris 1899. Here’s how Zuber and McLane did it.
The Brilliance of the Belle Epoque
McLane set out to create a romantic, sexy, and decadent atmosphere starting with the theater itself. Audiences are greeted by a semi-immersive environment inside the Al Hirschfeld Theater. While the stage is still separated from the audience, set design elements are sprinkled all over the room, most notably a miniature Moulin Rouge and a royal blue elephant. “We wanted the audience to feel like they were a part of the club when they came in,” McLane told What Should We Do. “The show doesn’t just happen onstage; there are stairs and ramps all around the auditorium, and there’s a lot of action in the house.”
The opening set design is a series of filigreed heart-shaped archways, which are meant to portray the interior of the club. “It’s both romantic and sexy,” McLane elaborates. “It’s detailed and decadent in a way that reflects the period, I think.”
“We wanted the audience to feel like they were a part of the club when they came in,” says McLane.
The tribute to the late 19th century extends beyond the boudoirlike aesthetics of the Moulin Rouge, though. Several scenes take place inside Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s study, with its artful, atelier-appropriate clutter and expansive skylight windows. “It’s based on a couple of pieces of research,” McLane explains. One, of course, was Toulouse-Lautrec’s studio in Paris, but McLane expanded his reach when photographic evidence did not yield visually satisfying results. “Overall, it feels like the garret of Act I of La Bohème: The story of Moulin Rouge! has a lot of overlap with La Bohème, so that’s really meant to evoke [that opera’s] garret,” he says. (Even though there’s only a few details there that are strictly period, it could definitely be mistaken for a contemporary space—a Brooklyn loft, for instance.)
A Celebration of Theater and Meta-Theater
As for looks, Zuber envisioned a study of the showgirl figure and the theatrical world through the decades. “In a way, when you look at showgirls and cabaret style, it’s sort of timeless,” Zuber states. “It starts to take on the qualities of the time period it’s in, but it is its own master in terms of what the particulars are. What we wanted to do was pay homage to the musical genre.”
This can be seen in Satine’s opening act, a medley of songs referencing diamonds, which is very much inspired by Marlene Dietrich in Blue Angel. The second act opener, an ensemble number that sees the cast rehearse for the famed show-within-a-show that is supposed to save the club from financial doom, is a tribute to rehearsal-themed musicals and movies—A Chorus Line leaps to mind, with the cast wearing tight tights and jazz shoes—and all that drama happens in the rehearsal context. “In trying to establish what a rehearsal costume would be in the Belle Epoque, I looked at a lot of research [we culled from] ballet companies and what they wear in rehearsal,” Zuber says. “The first musical I did in New York was The Red Shoes, which was based on the film. It had a lot of ballet rehearsal scenes. I already had that amazing collection of research on ballet dancers from the Ballets Russes, the Royal Ballet. In looking in what they wore, the men seemed to be wearing swim trunks with loose shirts.”
The Precision of Palette
Where the movie Moulin Rouge! had virtuoso-like camera tricks to make the action really dynamic, the stage version relies on an ever-shifting palette to convey the kinetic energy of the source material.
“The club was where the color was—it was rich, red, gold,” says McLane. “The streets of Montmartre and Toulouse-Lautrec’s garret, that poor, bohemian Paris, are in all shades of gray. The third palette, when we go to the boulevards, is all pastel. It’s the only time in the show where you see pastel. That’s really meant to be upper-class Paris.”
“I was taking a cue from the 18th century when everybody wore powdered wigs. I thought it would be fun reinventing it,” says Zuber.
The clothes worn by the characters mirror and complement the palettes of the sets. For example, Zuber enlivened the red-heavy interior of the Moulin Rouge by having the can-can dancers wear rainbow-hued underskirts. “Our director has a great eye. Initially, he wanted to have a rainbow-hued infusion in that moment,” she explains. “Trying to control it, I used fabrics from the same vendor so they would pick up light in the same way and create cohesion. Even though there are so many colors, they operate as a group.”
Something similar happens in the boulevards when Satine gets acquainted with high society. The bourgeois citizens all wear pastel dresses, but the result is far from ethereal. Instead, by having them don bubblegum-colored wigs, they end up looking grotesque in a Blade Runner–meets–The Hunger Games way. “I was taking a cue from the 18th century when everybody wore powdered wigs. I thought it would be sort of fun reinventing it,” Zuber says. “It’s a tool to drive home the emotional feeling for Satine, wondering whether she wants to be part of the world the duke is offering.”
Referencing What Came First
Zuber refers to working on a production that has such an iconic precedent as “very scary.” “Catherine Martin and Baz Luhrmann are amazing artists, and there’s a connection in all the projects they do, whether it be Moulin Rouge!, Romeo+Juliet, or The Great Gatsby,” she says. “Their visuals have such an iconic excitement to them, and that really needed to be in the musical.”
McLane echoes this statement. “There were certain things in the movie that I loved and I believe audiences loved, that I wanted to pay homage to, because they deserved to be paid homage to,” he says. “I did not want fans of the movie to come away disappointed by not seeing their favorite references.”