'Moulin Rouge': So Many Love Songs, So Little Romance

While watching the first frantic twenty minutes of Baz Luhrmann’s film Moulin Rouge, I would have traded both my shoes for two Excedrin. But by the movie’s end, when Nicole Kidman lay dying cradled in Ewan MacGregor’s arms, I was sobbing into my sleeve.   

As I entered The Al Hirschfield Theater the other night, I felt a fevered rush to dive headlong into set designer Derek McLane’s infinite corridor of gloriously baroque rose and vermillion Valentines. But at the end of Moulin Rouge!, the Broadway musical, I stood dry-eyed as I spit silver confetti from my mouth while singing along to the show’s third reprise of “Lady Marmalade.” 

Was I entertained by this Moulin Rouge!?  Yeah, I was, in the same way I relish being in Las Vegas and getting sucked into the city’s patented blinding glitz of unabashed showmanship.  

But that’s not what all those hearts promised me. And it wasn’t what I was yearning for.   Every time the film’s climactic duet, “Come What May,” comes on Sirius XM’s Broadway channel. (I listen to it a lot and they play it a lot), I turn the volume way up and try to match McGregor’s full-throttled ecstasy at having fallen for Kidman’s ethereal, doomed beauty.  There’s no question that Adam Tveit is a far better singer than the cinema’s Christian. And it’s inconceivable anyone can resist Karen Olivo as Satine, the most dynamic woman in both In the Heights and the last revival of West Side Story.Then why, when this star-crossed couple harmonize their devotion, is my engagement compromised by my thinking, “I wonder what hit song comes next?”

Luhrmann has often and justifiably been derided for stylistic and melodramatic overkill.  HisRougesampled 40 pop songs.  Yet, for all his indulgent bravura, once Luhrmann hit his stride, the heavy dose of sampled music was easily integrated into the film’s all consuming, swooning view of romance. The songs advanced the story, commented on the action, and were always in service of a grandiose but affecting love story.


Twenty years later, stage director Alex Timbers ups the ante by flinging 70 pop songs—many very recent hits—at us with the speed and clatter of flying dishes at a Greek wedding.  With such an incessant melodic lineup, there is no time to develop character, intrigue, humor, and sadly, desire.  The never-ceasing playlist dominates with such deliberate distraction, that when Olivo, as the music hall’s aging and secretly ill star diva/courtesan, is about to be seduced by the show’s wealthy and dastardly  yet dashing, producer, any predatory danger he should brandish is neutered by an audience delighted when he surprisingly breaks into a cheeky rendition of the Rolling Stones  “Sympathy for the Devil.”  And this glee of recognition reignites the audience each time they recognize a favorite Rhianna, Lady Gaga, Pink, Sia, Lorde, Britney Spears or Katy Perry hit. I was too entrenched in an overwrought Belle Epoque Paris to sing along while watching the film   But the Broadway audience is kept at arm’s length from the lush if hoary plot, so one can’t be annoyed each time at least half the audience starts mouthing the lyrics. The singalong is the most engaging element of the show since you don’t learn enough about any character to root for them.  


It’s not the cast’s fault. Olivo, Tveit, Danny Burstein as the sleazy club owner, Tam Mutu as heartless producer and one strikingly handsome cast are knocking themselves out onstage and for twenty minutes in the second act, the show slows down just long enough for you to savor their commitment to the production, climaxing with Aaron Tveit’s smashing and impassioned rendition of “Rolling in the Deep,”  the highlight of his still young career.   And then, Timbers shifts back into high gear and we are back to playing Name That Tune, or for you millennials, Beat Shazam. Proof that the show is more invested in being appreciated as a jukebox musical, two minutes after Satine collapses and dies of consumption, the show transforms into a cheery, all-together-now confetti strewn Mama Mia-like singalong, with a suddenly resurrected Satine just in time for join in for that final chorus of “Marmalade.” There wasn’t a moist eye in the house. Good for them, but it made me want to cry.  

Moulin Rouge!

Al Hirschfeld Theater

302 West 45th Street

New York, N.Y. 10036

I am the author of 'The Looks of Love: 50 Moments in Fashion That Inspired Romance' and '100 Unforgettable Dresses.' I was fashion director at InStyle Magazine and the N...