Meet the ‘Moulin Rouge!’ designers who created its kinetic aesthetic

Derek McLane, the scenic designer for the Broadway musical “Moulin Rouge!,” and Catherine Zuber, his costume-crafting counterpart, took uncannily aligned paths to 1899 Paris.

Before moving stateside, both designers were born in the same London hospital. They studied together at Yale’s drama school, graduating in 1984. For years, they have worked out of a shared 38th Street studio in Midtown Manhattan. So when director Alex Timbers tapped McLane and Zuber to collaborate on the stage adaptation of the 2001 film “Moulin Rouge!” and reimagine Baz Luhrmann’s vibrant vision of belle epoque-era Montmartre, the longtime friends not only had a mutual history to lean on — they had a mutual space.

“We would just walk down the hall and show each other things,” McLane says. “She and I had to collaborate extra closely, so that we don’t hog all of the colors in one particular scene and leave room for each other — like, ‘I’m taking red for this scene.’”

For Zuber, getting early looks at McLane’s bold designs informed the grandeur of her costuming choices. “I went, ‘This is so intense. The colors are so vibrant and beautiful,’” she recalls. “So I kept pushing stronger, stronger, stronger tones and types of fabric.”

By the time “Moulin Rouge!” arrived on Broadway in 2019, the design team had crafted an eye-popping visual style in line with the jukebox musical’s kinetic catalogue of throwback hits and modern chart-toppers. At that season’s pandemic-affected Tony Awards, the show claimed a ceremony-high 10 wins — including prizes for Timbers, McLane and Zuber.

With the Broadway iteration still high-kicking, “Moulin Rouge!” has opened productions in England, Germany and Australia and launched a North American tour that is playing at the Kennedy Center through Sept. 24. Looking back on the design process, Timbers says the key to unlocking “Moulin Rouge!” for the stage was simple: Approach it not as a re-creation of the movie but as a companion piece.

“You don’t want the theater piece to be some kind of impoverished version of the film that makes you wish you had just rented the film instead,” says Timbers, who previously directed Broadway adaptations of “Rocky” and “Beetlejuice.” “So I thought to myself, ‘Okay, if I was coming to see “Moulin Rouge!” onstage, what would I want to feel like?’ And you want to feel like you stepped inside the Moulin Rouge club itself.”

Whether you’re seeing “Moulin Rouge!” at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre in New York or on tour at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House, the experience is immersive, as elements of McLane’s set spill beyond the stage and into the surrounding theater. Fans of the film will quickly recognize two historical details: a re-creation of the red windmill that still sits atop the real Moulin Rouge and the stucco elephant that existed at the nightclub at the turn of the 20th century.

“Really, the show starts as soon as you walk through those doors and the world of the club expands past the footlights,” Timbers says. “When I go to the theater, I want to be taken somewhere else. You want life reflected back to you and things that are recognizable, but for me, I want also to be taken in and transported somewhere.”

Once the musical begins, the audience is thrust into the flashing lights, heart-shaped iconography, and tawdry reds and golds of the Moulin Rouge itself. The surrounding streets of Montmartre, on the other hand, are largely drained of color. The story also heads to the pastel- and watercolor-influenced home of the Duke, whose eyes for the courtesan Satine threaten her romance with the bohemian songwriter Christian.

Those contrasting aesthetics, McLane says, are “deliberately inconsistent” in hopes of channeling the anarchic energy of Luhrmann’s film. Although no stage production can replicate the movie’s frantic editing and camera movements, McLane and lighting designer Justin Townsend worked together to embed the set with myriad lights that bathe the proceedings in radically shifting colors.

“Rather than trying to sort of emulate the look of the movie so much, what we wanted to try to capture was the energy of the movie, which has a very fast-paced, almost frenetic quality at times,” McLane says. “So one of the things I did was try to make it look like the scenery is moving.”

Zuber’s lavish costumes complemented the show’s anachronistic song list by putting a modern spin on period-appropriate garments. Since the “Moulin Rouge!” musical includes both music from the movie and recognizable hits from the intervening years — contributions from Katy Perry, Adele and Beyoncé, among them — Zuber followed suit, taking inspiration from Catherine Martin’s Oscar-winning costume design and riffing on it with more recent fashion references.

“I love to kind of think, ‘Well, what if history didn’t drift in the way it did and it went in another direction?’” Zuber says. “It’s a celebration of not just doing a strict period but demanding that I have a new interpretation.”

Taking such an ambitious endeavor across North America isn’t without its complications: McLane estimates that it took around two months to load the set into the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, whereas the tour gets about two days at every stop. That required the set to be re-created with materials that are lighter and easier to move than what’s seen on Broadway.

But Timbers never wanted to take a scaled-down version of “Moulin Rouge!” on the road. For all of the show’s chaotic energy, the director emphasizes that every design choice was painstakingly made while adhering to a strict set of rules and principles that defined the show’s anachronistic aesthetic.

“If you make a confident choice, the audience will never feel confused,” Timbers says. “They’ll never feel like the vision is muddled. They won’t question it at all. They’ll just go along for the ride.”

Moulin Rouge! The Musical

John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St. NW. 202-467-4600.

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *