Broadway has shut down until at least April 12. But for those hoping to see Moulin Rouge, worry not. The film version, which you can enjoy from the coronavirus-free comfort of your home, is far superior.
It’s been 20 years since Baz Luhrmann’s famously over-the-top movie musical came to screens. Based on La Bohème, the story (cowritten by Luhrmann) is about a young English poet, Christian (played by Ewan McGregor), who falls in love with a French courtesan, Satine (Nicole Kidman) — the “sparkling diamond” of the famous Parisian cabaret the Moulin Rouge. This leads to a gripping, passionate affair that sadly ends in tears.
The film opens to Nat King Cole’s hit “Nature Boy” (“There was a boy, / A very strange, enchanted boy”) and a 30-year-old McGregor sitting bearded and depressed at his typewriter. Christian then mournfully relays that the woman he loves “is dead.” The rest of the movie is a flashback. We soon learn that Christian is an idealist who moved from London to Paris in 1899 to be part of the Bohemian movement. Soon after moving, he discovered an eccentric band of performers living in the apartment above him. They spotted his writing talent and enlisted his help in selling their show Spectacular Spectacular to Harold Zidler, the owner of the Moulin Rouge.
Zidler, meanwhile, has more-pressing concerns. The Moulin Rouge needs to secure the financial assistance of an investor, the Duke of Monroth. Zidler instructs Satine to win his influence through her powers of seduction. But there’s a case of mistaken identity: Satine confuses Christian for the duke. The couple fall hopelessly in love and have a secret affair. The duke grows suspicious. Both men grow jealous. Later (spoiler alert), Zidler discovers that Satine, who keeps collapsing and breaking into sweats, is dying of consumption. He discloses this fatal news — fairly late on, it ought to be added — to Satine, who, in turn, hides this information from both of her admirers until her untimely death in the arms of Christian, the man she truly loves.
The story is, on the face, melodramatic. But in the movie, this is undercut by an ironical use of anachronistic pop melodies, from Elton John to Rodgers and Hammerstein. The collection of songs is, at first, a bizarre mix. But the story, acting, and writing are strong enough that it works.
Christian wins the respect of the acting troupe by bursting into “The Sound of Music.” He also wins Satine’s heart by singing “Your Song.” As Christian, McGregor is impossibly genuine: an innocent and earnest artist, and a tragic idealist. Satine, meanwhile, played by Nicole Kidman (in a performance that won her Best Actress), is a tortured soul. There’s the person she’s pretending to be for the audiences of the Moulin Rouge, as encapsulated in her performance of Marilyn Monroe’s “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” Then, when she believes herself to be alone, there’s her heart-wrenching rendition of Randy Crawford’s stunning “One Day I’ll Fly Away.” She, too, is a good and likable person.
“All my life you’ve made me believe that I was only worth what someone would pay for me,” she tells Harold. “But Christian loves me.”
So, while the movie’s music and cinematography may be over the top — it works. The final scenes are genuinely moving. The same cannot be said of the musical at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre on Broadway, where soap opera meets jukebox.
In the musical, Christian (played by Aaron Tveit) arrives in Paris from Lima, Ohio. Rather than being earnest and innocent, he’s brainless and annoying. “Try to remember your first real love affair,” he tells the audience in one condescending aside.
In the movie Satine has depth; in the musical, she (played by Karen Olivo) is little more than a Barbie doll. In the film, she demonstrates integrity as she refuses to sleep with the duke because she loves Christian. But in the musical, she has sex with the duke within minutes of meeting him. And whereas Satine in the movie tries to protect Christian, Satine in the musical — implausibly — thinks death is a big joke. She tells Harold, “Sing a dirty song at my funeral.” To add to the irritation, this change may well be political, as indicated by Kenji Fujishima, a reviewer in Theater Mania:
Already perfectly satisfied with her life at the legendary Parisian nightclub, [Satine] doesn’t even have aspirations to be the “next Sarah Bernhardt” that Luhrmann’s Satine does. This tweak is more in line with progressive mores that no longer dictate that sex work is inherently demeaning. Instead of trying to delay the act of sleeping with the Duke of Monroth, Christian’s rival for Satine’s affections, she beds him without much hesitation, however unenthusiastically, in order to sustain his interest in the Moulin Rouge.
This review suggests that Satine has more “agency.” But she “unenthusiastically” sleeps with a man she doesn’t love in order to keep the institution for which she works financially afloat. And elsewhere we’re told that she has been “turning tricks” since she was 13 years old, which was when her father sold her into prostitution. If that isn’t demeaning, I don’t know what is.
In the absence of good writing and proper plot and character development, the focus becomes the songs themselves. This is unfortunate. There are roughly 70 chart-toppers in the musical, from Lady Gaga to Katie Perry, serving as a reminder of the banal and pointless state of modern pop.