Chaos reigns on stage at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre in the second act of Moulin Rouge!. Nearly a dozen winged doppelgangers dressed as Satine are taunting and tempting Christian as he loses his mind in an absinthe-fueled night of hedonism; nearby, Harold Zidler compels the poet, singing Sia’s familiar “One-two-three, one-two-three, drink / One-two-three, one-two-three, drink” from “Chandelier.”" How did these characters—and the audience—get here?
To fully understand, Playbill spoke to director Alex Timbers, who scored a 2020 Tony nomination for his work (one of 14 for the musical). As he takes us through the creation of “Chandelier” on stage, the visionary takes us through his own Moulin Rouge! origin story, how the musical changed from screen to stage, and why this beloved property was ripe for collaboration.
This is the story of how one of Moulin Rouge!’s crucial musical moments made it to the stage.
Alex Timbers got involved with Moulin Rouge! thanks to a fortuitous dinner party, where he sat next to Baz Luhrmann, the movie’s director. Together, they talked about their love for Ken Russell—The Who’s Tommy, Lisztomania, and Altered States—who loved combining music and story on film. The next day, Luhrmann emailed Timbers asking to meet about bringing Moulin Rouge! to the stage—and the rest is a Bohemian adventure where a Broadway bow is just one recent stop on a long journey (the musical is set to embark upon a national tour and open in London’s West End when theatres reopen).
Developing the musical, Luhrmann was fairly hands-off. The most important aspect for “Uncle Baz” (a term invented by auteur himself) was that the show be immersive. “It was a really lovely collaboration in terms of him being there for key important moments to give guidance, but not to be hovering or saying it has to be faithful to the film in this way or that,” says Timbers. “He sort of surprised me, saying he’d be disappointed if the fidelity [to the movie] was too strong.”
Timbers decided there was one key component that had to remain: the hook of using contemporary music to tell a story set in the Belle Époque of Paris. “In the film, it’s said that [Christian] is the greatest poet of the last century,” says the stage director. “It’s really hard to say, ‘this is the greatest song ever written’ or ‘this is the greatest novel,’ though. How do you depict that? And so [Luhrmann’s] genius, his vocabulary idea, was let’s put all the greatest pop songs—that we all have this emotional relationship to—into [Christian’s] voice and into that vernacular.”
With a go-ahead from Uncle Baz, Timbers holed up with book writer John Logan and music orchestrator Justine Levine to find music that would move the story forward. At the beginning, the trio didn’t even know where to begin with selecting songs so they went to a reliable source: the film’s music supervisor, Anton Monsted. Whenever the film team got to a spot that called for music, they’d collect ideas and then try them all (sometimes up to 15 different tracks) at the piano to see what works best lyrically. “What moves the character, what pushes the plot, as opposed to what we’ve seen sometimes, where the story can stop for a pop song in a show,” adds Timbers. Each character was re-examined, resulting in some small changes like Satine’s opening number with new music but the same vibe and others like the Duke getting an entirely new character song. “You start with that process of like, ‘okay, is it INXS? Is it this, is it that, is it this specific song?’ And then you get to the Rolling Stone medley [“Sympathy for the Duke”] way later in the process.”
Then, of course, there’s the rights issue. Thankfully, Chicago-based Janet Rich helped Levine and Global Creatures secure the songs needed for the show. “In some cases, artists were excited to be involved with Moulin Rouge! and, in other cases, they were working on their own musicals based on their catalog and didn’t want us to use those.” For the artists on the fence, Levine would demo for them, even sending a script to provide context of how the song was used. “Each situation was different, and we got a lot of ‘no’s, but I would say that without exception, every ‘no’ we got led us to an even stronger choice in the end.”
One song that the musical creator’s snagged early on was “Chandelier,” the hit 2014 song co-written by Sia (who sings the track on her album 1000 Forms of Fear) and Jesse Shatkin, which is used for a key moment in the second act.
The scene takes place in Lautrec’s attic and the stakes could not be higher in this moment. In the previous scene, Satine’s relationship with Christian has become public, and the Duke has found out about their affair and is threatening to close down the club, remove funding for the show, and put everyone out of work. To avert disaster, Satine tells Christian that she plans to reaffirm her love for the Duke. Time ticks by and with opening only days away, Christian, who’s supposed to be writing the show, can’t stop thinking about Satine. “He’s driven mad by her,” says Timbers. “He’s in a certain near-suicidal state, and his friends are telling him to get a hold of himself. He’s got this great monologue by John [Logan] that’s about how he closes his eyes at night and everywhere he looks, he sees Satine, and he tries to blot it out but he can’t. That’s foreshadowing what's about to happen in the number.”
In a last-ditch effort to save Christian, Zidler comes up with a plan: lots of absinthe. “Alcohol isn’t going to cut it,” Timbers says paraphrasing the club’s impresario. “You’ve got to burn her out of your system.” Lautrec and Santiago immediately sign on for a visit by the Green Fairy (a nickname for the spirit). “They talk about how absinthe is hallucinogenic and makes you a visionary,” says the director. “It’s a poet, but it’s also a demon. It’s lethal. It's very dangerous, what he’s about to do. People have lost their minds to this. And he basically says, ‘Well, I've already lost my mind. Let’s do it.’”
The objective? Coax Christian; distract him with something more powerful than alcohol. “The lyrics are, ‘Push it down, push it down.’ It’s like, suppress the emotion,” says Timbers. 1-2-3, 1-2-3 drink. 1-2-3, 1-2-3 drink. “Then it’s ‘throw them back till I lose count.’ It’s time to rage, party, forget, and live like tomorrow doesn't exist. And then Christian says, ‘Keep my glass full until morning light.’ So the way I see the song is it’s his friends trying to exorcise this demon from him—his obsession with Satine—that's destroying his life.”
With the lyric parallel set, it was time to consider what audiences would actually see in the moment. In the movie, Christian’s absinthe adventure is at the beginning of his stay in Paris. Pop star Kylie Minogue plays the Green Fairy on screen, but on stage, it’s quite different. “A lot of the things with these Easter eggs is figuring out how you deliver those exciting moments, but recalibrate them in a surprising way,” explains Timbers. “Making Satine the Green Fairy was something that was really interesting; Christian gets drunk and his friends are hoping that he’ll forget her, but instead it haunts his brain.” As the song continues, multiple Satines “visit him like sirens… taunting him, tempting him, beckoning him, in this whirling dervish of a hallucinogenic trip.”
As he sees her, he can’t grasp any of them. He’s trying to heal, but it’s far worse—it’s a bad trip. The scene becomes one of excessive ecstasy and pain, and the passion that unites these two star-crossed lovers. By the end of the song, Christian is done trying to forget. He’s going to find her. “We began the song in one place. He’s gone on this whole journey of erasing her and now he’s even more obsessed with her… he’s on this razor’s edge of sanity and insanity because he’s so lovestruck.” So, as the score fulcrums into “El Tango de Roxanne,” several edge-of-your-seat questions emerge: Is Christian going to kill the Duke? Is he going to profess his love for Satine again? Can he even win her back?
With the story and music locked, Timbers explains the collaborative structure that makes the song such a standout moment. “One of the reasons I love Moulin Rouge! is the idea of total theatre. What I mean is that every department—actors, props, lights, sets, music, choreograph—is firing at one idea. Everyone is building this thing together to create this fever dream.
In order to bring audiences inside Christian’s mind, the creative team relied on a lot of traditional techniques. Multiple performers “spill out like cockroaches,” says Timbers, from behind Derek McLane’s wing-and-drop sets. Justin Townsend’s lighting bathes the set in absinthe green, using moving lights to create a sense of disorienting movement mimicking drunkenness. Catherine Zuber’s costumes create an army of Satine doppelgangers with wings that focus the eye. Sonya Tayeh’s athletic choreography embodies Christian’s dialectic of trauma and joy. “Even in props—props doesn’t get a lot of shout outs, but props to props—they built these special glowing bottles. They light up and undulate green inside, so it’s like the absinthe is almost magical. We have this crate that opens up and it’s like the crate in The Goonies or the briefcase in Pulp Fiction.”
The moment is so important that “Chandelier” has become an important part of the audition process. “You’ve got a big kind of choral element of it, and then you’ve got the three-part harmony for our leads, those voices [have to] to blend and blow you away.”
Consider us [head-exploding emoji].