How Can ‘Moulin Rouge! The Musical’ Upstage the Movie? With 70 Songs

How Can ‘Moulin Rouge! The Musical’ Upstage the Movie? With 70 Songs

If Baz Luhrmann had his way, the music of the Rolling Stones would have been featured in his 2001 movie, the cult favorite “Moulin Rouge,” alongside David Bowie, Sting and Madonna.

But Mr. Luhrmann couldn’t get the rights.

The film, starring Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor, did mighty fine anyway. It grossed $180 million and racked up eight Oscar nominations, including best picture. It spawned a Stones-less soundtrack that went double platinum, and a risqué music video that gave cancan a pop culture makeover. Just try to get through this piece without singing “Giuchie, giuchie, ya-ya, da-da” to yourself.

Roughly 15 years later, Justin Levine, the 33-year-old music supervisor for the lush new Broadway adaptation of the movie, wanted to try again. He had to solve a creative problem: how the villainous Duke of Monroth, played by Tam Mutu, would meet the heroine, Satine, portrayed here by Karen Olivo.

Mr. Levine made obtaining the rights a personal point of pride. While on a trip to Germany, Mr. Levine set up his GarageBand editing software in a closet and recorded himself singing and playing demos of how the music might be used in the show, before sending them off to the Rolling Stones’ management. Carmen Pavlovic, the production’s lead producer, had already brought on board a former music executive with Stones connections to help with the whole process.

This time the answer was yes. The Duke now greets Satine with “Sympathy for the Devil,” a new addition to a very crowded song list in “Moulin Rouge! The Musical,” the larger-than-life stage version of Mr. Luhrmann’s film.

If it all works right — and based on a tryout run in Boston and hot-selling early Broadway previews at the Hirschfeld Theater, the odds look good — the musical adaptation of Mr. Luhrmann’s film will give audiences the same rush as the movie did.

But the giddiness onstage is in contrast to the arduous negotiations it took getting there. “I have tried to come up with another example that is as complex and I can’t,” said Ms. Pavlovic.

And it started before a single word was written.

Supersizing the score

From the start, “Moulin Rouge” was a jukebox musical with a difference.

The Moulin Rouge itself is a storied Parisian venue that has gone through many incarnations — cabaret, theater, music hall — since its founding in the late-19th century. The movie’s master stroke was to tell a tragic turn-of-the-century love story through alternate renditions of anachronistic pop songs.

Ms. Pavlovic, who runs Global Creatures, a Sydney-based theatrical production company, spent about six years securing the stage rights to the film, part of her company’s major move into stage musicals. Along with getting Mr. Luhrmann, a fellow Australian, to sign off, she had to persuade another screenwriter and even the Moulin Rouge itself, which had licensed its name and imagery.

And while the $28 million musical, with a book by John Logan and direction by Alex Timbers, doesn’t stint on the film’s lavish visual style, it made one other big commitment: More music. Much more.

As in the film, sometimes it’s an entire song. In other moments, it’s just a line. More than a third of the songs are mashed-up in one number.

“Lady Marmalade,” the most famous song from the movie, is in the show of course, and now given even more prominence. So are many other core numbers. But much of the music debuted after the film, giving the production a fresher, more contemporary feel.

The grand total: 70 songs credited to 161 writers.

Which meant that along with its recognizable Broadway stars like Ms. Olivo, Aaron Tveit and Danny Burstein, the musical’s key players would include the team in charge of song rights and clearances.


A hotel room summit

First things first: How to retell the story of Christian, the wide-eyed writer, Satine, the dying courtesan, and their love-, sex- and absinthe-crazed bohemian world.

As filmmaker, Mr. Luhrmann had the luxury of quick cuts and dissolves to move things along. The musical has to tell a story in real time. And beyond that, the creators believed their production couldn’t simply mimic the movie — a common pitfall for the many shows adapted from beloved films.

“We felt very strongly that we had to create our own beast, with its own DNA,” said Mr. Logan, a Tony-winning playwright and screenwriter. “We couldn’t slavishly ape the movie because that would be very disappointing to everyone.”

In 2016, he and Mr. Levine gathered for a three-day summit in a Times Square hotel. Mr. Logan brought notecards outlining what he thought the story could look like. Mr. Levine brought a keyboard.

Both brought in songs they thought would serve the story and their characters.

That’s when the stage musical was born. But the question remained: Would they ever actually be able to use those songs?

Hire an expert

Using the wish list provided by Mr. Logan and Mr. Levine, Ms. Pavlovic set in motion the difficult work of getting to yes.

The source material on the list was vast and varied, from pop ballads like Elton John’s “Your Song” (featured in the film) to dance workouts written since, like OutKast’s “Hey Ya!” and Katy Perry’s “Firework.”

Ms. Pavlovic brought in Janet Billig Rich, a producer with a deep well of experience in the music industry, to help with the clearances. The show had to obtain what is called a “grand rights license” for each composition, which allows for music to be used in the context of a narrative. The permissions and costs vary depending on how much of an individual song is in the musical and for how long.

Contemporary pop songs are often written by committee, and many feature samples of material written by a whole other set of creators. “Moulin Rouge” had to get the approval of each of the composers and publishers who hold song rights — though not necessarily the performer who originated the material. For example, “Toxic,” a song recorded and released by Britney Spears on her 2003 album, “In the Zone,” did not require Ms. Spears’s permission to use in the show, but four songwriters had to give the thumbs up.

If that’s not confusing enough, sometimes a song might have multiple writers and publishers and the mix of publishers controlling the song is often different outside of the United States.

Each night the cast takes the stage, the 161 composers receive a royalty payment, which is proportional to how long a given song is in the show and based on a cut of revenue.

If a composer or a publisher demanded an exorbitant sum, the creative team was willing to improvise.

“Part of it was so much — coming into it — the producing team saying, ‘This is the deal: We’re willing to walk away. Not one song has to make the show,’ ” Ms. Billig Rich said. “And that to me was so badass.”

You can’t always get what you want

Near the beginning of the film, there’s a dance scene inside the club to a version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana. You won’t see that in the musical, because Courtney Love, who was married to the band’s frontman, Kurt Cobain, wouldn’t allow it. She’s been developing her own Nirvana stage musical and owns the majority of the rights to Nirvana’s music.

Queen’s “The Show Must Go On” was a no because “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the Freddie Mercury biopic, was moving along, and the team behind the band’s estate didn’t want there to be conflict.

And then there’s the case of “Uptown Funk,” one of the biggest hits of the last decade, performed by Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson.

This was a song with 11 credited songwriters, meaning Ms. Pavlovic had to obtain approval from each one of them.

She did. All except for one: Mr. Mars.

About that mash-up

If there’s any scene that captures the spirit of the “Moulin Rouge” movie, it’s the “Elephant Love Medley,” a duet in which Christian (Mr. McGregor) and Satine (Ms. Kidman) trade off lines about their romance. Each line is from a different pop song.

In the musical it’s placed at a different moment — we won’t spoil it here — and forced the creative trio to make an adjustment.

Mr. Levine holed himself in his office for several days, spreading lyric sheets on the floor to piece together songs that might work. (Or, as he put it, he “grabbed the football and ran with it.”)

About 25 of the show’s 70 songs are featured in this number, performed by Mr. Tveit and Ms. Olivo.

The solution, Mr. Levine found, was for Ms. Olivo to answer Mr. Tveit’s ardor with “anti-love” songs, allowing their relationship to warm up much more slowly. So if you happen to hear a bit of Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” that’s why.

Come what may

Even after “Moulin Rouge” opens on July 25, the musical challenges will continue.

A cast album seems inevitable, and Ms. Pavlovic and her team have already begun to clear a whole new set of hurdles. Each recorded track will be its own unique copyright — meaning the team is going back to all the individuals and publishers who own stakes in the music and asking permission to present the songs as they are specifically done in the show.

And if the show is produced internationally, song rights will have to be cleared for these territories. But no matter how complex, the 161 songwriters have every incentive to sign off.

“If this wins, you’re getting checks for the next couple decades,” Ms. Billig Rich said. “On a loss, if the show fails, you don’t have any association with it. The producers are the ones who lose millions.”

Sopan Deb is a culture reporter, writing about the intersection of politics and culture, among other topics. He covered Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign for CBS News, and his work has appeared on NBC, Al Jazeera America and elsewhere. @sopandeb

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