"Moulin Rouge" Cast
Photo: Bruce Glikas/WireImage
Inside The 'Moulin Rouge' Broadway Cast Recording, With Baz Luhrmann, Matt Stine & More
Baz Luhrmann's 2001 musical film Moulin Rouge seemed like it would be a natural fit for Broadway. It has a fresh pop music score, romantic chemistry between its stars, the glittery Green Fairy (Kylie Minogue) and dazzling scenery and cinematography. Then there is the ill-fated romantic triangle between a writer (Evan McGregor), a courtesan at the titular venue (Nicole Kidman), and the devious Duke of Monroth (Richard Roxburgh) who finances their new "Spectacular Spectacular" show and wants to bed her. Emotional chaos ensues.
While the Broadway show has become a hit, and its cast album is nominated for Best Musical Theater Album at this year's GRAMMY Awards, it took a lot of hard work and some artistic alterations to get it to the Al Hirschfeld Theatre last summer, and then into the studio for the cast recording. There are no grand tracking and overhead shots onstage, but scenic designer Derek McLane created some stunning interiors and impressive miniatures for outdoor backgrounds. The Fairy is gone, and The Duke is a more charismatic villain. But the story is still a crowd pleaser, and Luhrmann, the original film's director and co-screenwriter, is pleased as punch with his Oscar-winning tale's new incarnation.
"I am thrilled with it," Luhrmann tells the Recording Academy. "Look, it's the first time on any show of mine that I've not been at the center of it. I've been involved as artistic counsel. [Director] Alex [Timbers] and his fantastic young team have done the work. I would turn up as Uncle Baz, watch a run and give notes, and then go, 'Fantastic, kids, keep going. I'm off to have a gin and tonic.' That was about the best gig I've ever had. It's a bit like a grandparent, you know – all of the joy, none of the responsibility. Of course, it's just killing it on Broadway."
The Original Broadway Cast Recording for Moulin Rouge! The Musical – which includes star lovers Karen Olivo and Aaron Tveit, dastardly duke Tam Matu, and ebullient club emcee Danny Burstein – was produced by Luhrmann, musical director Justin Levine, music producer Matt Stine, and director Alex Timbers. It is available via Luhrmann’s label, House of Iona, and RCA Records, and last summer it debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Cast Albums Chart.
Luhrmann makes a distinction between working on the "epic" film soundtrack as album producer and then on the Broadway cast album, where he was part of a production team.
"Matt is great at a desk," says Luhrmann. "Justin is so brilliant at running in and out with artists. He really has an orchestra inside his head. He can sing anything, so he's got this great musical connection. The thing about cast albums is that you generally have to run in a room and record it in a day. We had a few days to record, but real constraints, and our whole philosophy was to really keep the experience of the show, but nonetheless move towards much more of a recording in its own right."
Luhrmann adds that the team's goal was to have "the spirit and the freedom of a live recording" but the "production value of a standalone record," which he feels Broadway cast albums do not tend to have.
Funnily enough, Stine, Levine, and the show's sound designer Peter Hylenski also aimed to have the polished sound of a studio album live in the Hirschfeld. "It's live theater," says Stine. "You're up against physics there, but I think we did all right."
Stine explains that the show has actual production elements since the orchestra plays to 32 channels of prerecorded track material. Almost every song is performed to a click track and time code, and their conductor and "fantastic music director" Cian McCarthy runs their Ableton digital work station while conducting the cast and the orchestra. "It's a big job," stresses Stine. The Moulin Rouge cast album expanded the show's sound by taking the 14-piece orchestra and adding 18 more string players to the existing four.
While many cast albums are recorded in a day or two, Moulin Rouge had closer to two weeks.
"We did a number of sessions with our core band as well as with our additional string section," elaborates musical director Levine. "Then the following week, the company of actors came in over two or three days and we recorded the rest. A cast album is like the reverse engineering of a record because all of the things that you think of as production on an album, particularly a pop album, are the orchestrations and the development of the music itself. You get into the studio with much more than you might on a pop record where you originally lay down scratch tracks, start adding beats, and maybe add strings. [For us] it was about figuring out where we needed to pull things back or what aspects of the mix to really punch up for the album."
Naturally, finding the balance of musical and book sequences on a cast album are important. Moulin Rouge focuses on the music with a few added elements.
"I think one of the big pluses of the stage show is the energy of that live performance," says Levine. "That was something that we often tried to address in the mix. In some cases, a cast album is just trying to capture what comes through the board and get a good mix of it. We did that for the most part, but then there were places where we had a little fun taking advantage of being an album, and in some places treating it a bit more like a concept album where we were using motifs and snippets from the book. About 80 percent of the show has music, both underscore and songs, so I think we were really trying to maintain a listening experience that was independent of the show itself."
"We all decided that it would be exciting to pursue a conceptual side to the cast album and to use Danny's character Zidler as almost like an emcee for the album in a sense, much like he does in the show in the opening number," says Stine. "But just to put in little snippets of him, little dreamlike voiceovers sprinkled through throughout to call back to certain story moments. That was really challenging and fun. A lot of the times with Broadway cast albums, it's just capture the show and capture it well. But this was fun to actually get to dig in, do a little extra production, and try some things and create a vibe."
Stine says that the idea of a music producer is a relatively new concept for Broadway and theater. He relishes the role because he creates a bridge between the music department and the sound departments.
"In this case, there isn't a composer – Justin is the closest thing we have to that," says Stine. "But I look at collaborating with the music supervisor, the music director, and our amazing sound designer Peter Hylenski very similarly to making a record in that when you're producing a record in the studio and coordinating between an engineer and the band, or the band leader or the songwriters, and you're helping to create the sound of that record. In the theater, I look it at the same way – you're just working with all the different departments to help create the sound of the show."
Song changes were necessitated not only by 18 years of newer pop music coming along after the movie's release, but by narrative alterations to the musical version. One prime example: In the film, Satine seeks to leave the club and resists the advances of The Duke who wants to make her his lover. On the stage, she wants to save the club and soon gives in to the sexual advances of this dark and sexy version of The Duke who ultimately wants to own her. (It has been argued that this newer version of Satine is viewed in a more modern and liberated light in her role as a sex worker.) Thus, Madonna's "Like A Virgin," which was featured prominently prior to the seduction scenario in the film, has been replaced by a three-song medley including "Material Girl," "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend," and Rihanna's "Only Girl (In the World)" as The Duke entices Satine with money and jewelry to try to bring her under his control.
Other songs were replaced because they could not be licensed for the film. Levine reveals that Queen's "The Show Must Go On" was a no-go with the biopic Bohemian Rhapsody being released, and Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was unattainable because it is being used in the development of a Kurt Cobain project. Throughout both the film and Broadway productions, issues with licensing kept some ideas and songs from being used, which made the whole process more complicated, but the creators adapted and at times came up with better selections.
Some songs received greater usage on stage. "Lady Marmalade," whose use was expanded in the musical, became a racy and successful music video for Christina Aguilera, Lil' Kim, Mya, and P!nk back in the day. Now, four young ladies appear more than once in the musical to replicate the sexy bravado of that performance. Levine notes that the Police's "Roxanne" runs longer, Nat King Cole's "Nature Boy" is featured more, and the film's love theme, "Come What May," is repeated a few times. Further, "The Elephant Love Medley" that closes out Act I has nearly two dozen songs rolling together into one giant mash-up.
Levine says that his personal goal was not to merely update the song catalog and take advantage of nearly 20 years of subsequent music, but also to expand on the different genres that the score would contain. "The show spans about 100 years of popular music and also delves more into R&B, soul music, hip-hop, and some different areas as well," says Levine.
"Justin found so many clever ways to use more and more songs that are familiar to people, call back certain emotions, and use them at just the right moments," says Stine, who also served as music producer on the recent "Beetlejuice" musical.
"The film has its own language, and we were breaking precedents in the film," recollects Luhrmann. "There was no language to latch on, breaking all those publishing rules. But I tell you what, the finesse and the craft and the way Justin and Matt have gone beyond the mash-up... I think about ''Crazy' and the way it goes into 'Rolling In The Deep'. It's a beautiful execution, and they've taken the finesse of the mash-up to another level."
Both Stine and Levine loved working with Luhrmann, who served as an artistic consultant during the production and had a great collaborative role in the cast recording due to his extensive past studio experience.
"Baz was really terrific in motivating the performers, whether it was the orchestra or the actors," recalls Stine. "He would just get on the mic and give them fun exercises and games to play that just kept them excited and engaged. He got great performances out of them. He was also just fun to have around. He had so many really creative and fun ideas to explore once we got into the mixing. Post production was great for me because I love a challenge. Anytime he had some crazy ideas, [we said] let's go for it, let's try it, let's see what happens."
"I was always very taken by how constructive and positive and generous he was," Levine says of Luhrmann. "I can't even imagine what it must've been like for him to watch his baby fall into these different hands and take on this very different shape. But he was always very supportive, and even when he didn't agree with choices we made, he always knew how to talk about it in a way that led us to a better place. He's got such a great ear, and he also really had a lot of faith in myself and Matt to get the thing to where it needed to go."
(GRAMMY.com contributor Bryan Reesman is the host of the podcast "Side Jams" and the author of "Bon Jovi: The Story".)