EXCLUSIVE: Moulin Rouge! The Musical, based on Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 luscious pop classic movie starring Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor and Jim Broadbent, has recouped its costs — not only the $28 million Broadway price tag, but it also recouped sizable sums in London’s West End and Australia.
Luhrmann tells me that it’s “so gratifying that breaking even is such a big deal in the theater.”
As an antipodean, he’s especially gratified with Moulin Rouge!’s hit status in Australia.
“Australia, the English one, the Broadway one — they’ve all done it,” and “that’s down to the relentless drive that Carmen and her team in Australia, New York and London had to fulfill the dictum that the show must go on,” he says with brio in referring to Carmen Pavlovic, CEO of Sydney-based Global Creatures, the principal production company behind Moulin Rouge! The Musical.
“Check with Carmen,” Luhrmann suggests.
On a recent morning (her nighttime) in Bondi Beach, where she resides with her husband and two children, I dutifully obeyed my namesake.
“We hit recoupment on Broadway whenever we did, a long time now,” Pavlovic confirms.
There was reluctance to shout about it because “I thought it feels a bit icky coming back from the pandemic. And I don’t know, I just thought it might look a bit arrogant or something,” she says, clearly still uncomfortable boasting.
But undermining that reticence is grit. And that’s what first attracted Luhrmann to Global Creatures, the live entertainment company co-founded by Pavovic and Gerry Ryan.
“The reason I went to them as opposed to many, many other offers and opportunities,” Luhrmann says. “is that Carmen and her partner Gerry had this show on, which was the dinosaur show Walking with Dinosaurs. And at first it ran into some difficulty, but they really stood by it until it worked. And I thought, ‘That’s great.’”
Also helped that they both are Australian. “They have the same philosophy as we do, which is: You can create in Australia but play the world. So that was great.”
Importantly, Luhrmann knew that directing the theater version was off the table. Several years before he had started to work on the stage adaptation of Strictly Ballroom, his first film, which inaugurated the filmmaker’s Red Curtain Trilogy — the others being Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! ”I realized that me trying to be me 21 years ago or 30 years ago, or whatever the number is, and do theatrical productions of my movies, it was just impossible for me because I can’t be who I was 21 years ago [when I made Moulin Rouge!]. I always want to be moving on “
Luhrmann says he had “this epiphany moment” when he was seated next to Alex Timbers (Beetlejuice, Here Lies Love) at a dinner party in NYC. “I thought, “Gee, Alex is just like me but 20 years ago” or a generation earlier. And I said to him, ”What about … you’d be amazing doing Moulin Rouge! And he went “You’re kidding for sure.” But that moment led to, I think, a philosophy from my point of view, which got tested during the recess, which is: I was an artistic adviser. I think that’s the credit, as well as having some underlying rights.
“But really. They would work on the show and then I would come in at different times with CM [Catherine Martin, his Oscar-winning designer wife] and sometimes Craig [Pearce, his longtime writing collaborator].”
”But really,” he continues, “I came in to give what I like to think of myself as Uncle Baz’s point of view.”
Luhrmann says that he happily accepted what Timbers and his creative spun from his creation.
“The good news story is that they did things I’m sure I wouldn’t have done. And I think that’s the rub,” he says. “Because there were times when they were doing things and a lot of people were going like, ‘Oh shoot, you had all that new music. Is that a good idea?’ So I went like, ‘You know what? I’m here not to impose my creative point of view. I’m here to support artists that we’ve engaged.
“And I was Alex at some point,” he adds wistfully.
Luhrmann admits though that he intervened “when they were really messy in the third act .”
At that point he came in and worked with book writer John Logan — his movies include Gladiator, Skyfall and Spectre, and plays include Red and I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers — and the team.
“I came and did some real work with them on helping him sort out just the structure of the third act,” he explains. “It’s about the biggest contribution I made.”
Outside of that, he says, “it’s like being a grandparent where you just come and hang with the kids and — isn’t it great? — bring them toys and go to opening nights and ‘Great, marvelous, keep going.’ That’s kind of me. But leaving now, the children need a horse.”
Recently, aside from popping up at Mick Jagger’s 80th birthday bash at Chelsea nightclub Embargos, Luhrmann has watched productions in Tokyo and this “giant crazily successful production” in Cologne, Germany.
“You just can’t get a ticket; it’s going to run for five years,” he says, elated.
It wasn’t always so.
I reminded Lurhmann — we refer to each other as Baz 1 and Baz 2; for now, I’m designated as the former — that when Moulin Rouge! world premiered at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, the initial reaction at the first press screening was lukewarm. It didn’t sizzle until its red carpet gala later that evening.
“I never go into these things going, ‘Gee,I expect everyone to love it,’” he shrugs.
He recalls being with Kidman “after this opening that went so well, the nighttime one, and then there was lot of just pistols at dawn and ‘how crazy’ and ‘what a crazy idea’ and ‘he’s at it again’ from the press.
“And Nicole was amazing in that moment actually. And she was just so strong, which I wasn’t, and just said, ‘Look, we know we’ve made something special, right? Just play some music.’”
Actually, I was present when Kidman uttered those words. And I happened to be in Sydney with my family when the movie was shooting there. We kept bumping into Kidman, McGregor and Broadbent. I tracked both the film and stage show from soup to nuts for over two decades, which is why I wanted to examine the anatomy of a hit.
Moulin Rouge! gave Luhrmann a foothold in America, where it did well. But the film went gangbusters internationally.
What he’s getting at, he says, is that “here we are twenty-odd years later … if you looked at the critical response, it’s always remembered differently. There was this argument that it was too theatrical. … No matter how I go on about the fact that the language – old movies that were theatrical cinema – and there’s a kind of like, ‘Yes, but you’re transgressing the currency of cinema.’”
“This was 20-odd years ago,” he says laughing.
And, look, Moulin Rouge! The Musical has sold in excess of a half-billion dollars worth of tickets 22 years after the film was released — $560 million as of last Friday.
“I’m not comparing myself to Shakespeare, but I think that anything that is built to move through time and spaces … so I try and make my pieces not dateable. Like, there’s no technology in Romeo + Juliet that you can date it from,” he says as he argues — successfully, in my view — that “it would not surprise me that in another 20 years you could take Moulin Rouge! The Musical and re-look at the music. It’s designed so that you could absolutely do another run of the music in 20 years for a new generation.”
Such a prospect appeals to him because “subconsciously, and to a certain degree consciously, but back then I knew I wanted to make my films in a way in which they had relevance for the future.”
Luhrmann confesses that he wasn’t able to be as supportive as he’d had liked to Pavlovic and her colleagues when they were struggling on all fronts to put on three productions thousands of miles apart.
Luhrmann was in Queensland trying to shoot Elvis at a time when it was “disappearing in front of my eyes with Covid shutdowns. So that was my battle.”
Pavolvic had her own theater of war to contend with.
Quick timeline: Moulin Rouge! opened outta town in Boston in July of 2018, a year later it premiered at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre in NYC. Then in March 2020, as they were full on planning its Tony Award campaign, theaters shut. Plans to launch the U.S. tour in November 2020 were in abeyance until the following June. Dates for the West End came and went.
Elsewhere auditions were being held on Zoom for iterations in Korea, Japan and Germany, in three different languages.
Over in Oz, the drama offstage was so intense that nerves were jangling.
Pavlovic and Ryan had to decide whether or not to commit by the end of 2020 to a run in Australia to open in 2021, “and the world was properly shut down,” Pavlovic recalls.
“We didn’t know if we could travel in Australia, even over borders, because all the borders shut between the states.”
Stakes were high. Pavlovic knew production costs would hover around AUS$20 million [US$13.3 million], an absolutely astounding number. “I mean, it is for any show, but for the Australian market, it’s really a lot.”
The gamble “could be the worst decision we ever made,” but she knew that Ryan felt strongly that he wanted the show to be part of the recovery. “A show like this could help the city of Melbourne to recover,” they reasoned.
Without being, as she put it, “overly sentimental,” Pavlovic thought of Moulin Rouge! as a “show about show people, and it’s about show people fighting to save their theater. And that sort of became our story onstage and offstage. And I’d always hoped Moulin Rouge! would have a leadership role around the world both in terms of as a show and what we aspired for but also then in the context of the pandemic, being part of the recovery.”
They really didn’t have a choice, she tells me. They decided to go ahead and officially book Melbourne — a move Pavolvic believes “is the sort of spirit and value of the show.”
People in the office were in tears and declared to her office, ”We’re going ahead with the show.”
She remembers warning that “it’s going to be hard and we might lose everything. I just said, ‘We’ve just got to try.’”
That’s the tenacity Luhrmann recognized in Global Creatures from the get-go. It’s a quality that would be tested to the limit in coming days, weeks and months.
In June 2021, rehearsals began in Sydney in readiness to open in Melbourne.
The sets were being loaded into the city’s Regent Theatre. Cast and all the production staff and international creative team were in Sydney with one week left to go in the rehearsal room.
They could see Covid cases climbing everywhere. The Delta outbreak was running rampant.
An urgent call came in. “Look, the borders will close and you can’t wait a week to get down here. … If you don’t get down here,” the caller told them.
Border applications went in instantly.
The company gathered at 5 o’clock on a Monday afternoon to be updated. Four hours later, a hundred people were rung. “Pack your bags, we have to fly you across the border,” Pavlovic says, recalling a flurry of such calls.
Teams were dispatched to assist with the cascade of issues that had to be dealt with such as cleaning rental apartments, freighting luggage and equipment and keeping count of partners and children.
Pavlovic remembers quarantining with her daughter Millie, then 12, along with executive producer Angela Dalton and her son Hamish. ”We grabbed a kid each,” Pavlovic says, raising an eyebrow.
They both have two children. The ones that remained stayed with their daddies.
The CEO has a memory of walking to the theater on her allotted day and police barricades were everywhere. Permits were demanded at every turn. “And then these riots started. We were walking from the theater back to the hotel through riots and police choppers everywhere,” she says.
The two women “got two desks for our kids and tried to homeschool them. Right, you two, go and start your online lessons.” And five minutes later we’d hear the pool table. And she and I sat in the kitchen drinking martinis and working out what the hell are we going to do now?”
To start with, 500 costumes needed to be moved from Sydney to Melbourne, but all the wardrobe staff were in Sydney. And for a lot of them, the borders had closed. When, finally, they did cross over, they were banged up for a fortnight.
The costumes were fitted over Zoom. Outfits were dropped to the doors of hotel rooms occupied by 12 costume makers who would sit in their rooms cutting and sewing, having observed the fitting by Zoom.
“I love those costume makers sitting in their hotel rooms and finishing them off. It’s just incredible,” Pavlovic marvels.
The virus was far from done. Rehearsals shut down, and the creatives left and went back to New York.
The first preview was months later on November 12, 2021 — the same day as the often-delayed London production.
Bill Damaschke remembers that meetings during that period would start with, ”’OK, let’s just check in around the world — how is everybody and how are things going?’ Because you could come into the call with your list of all the things you needed to do. Burt [and] the people in Australia were having a completely different experience than we were in the U.S. and the team in London.
“If there was un-alignment, it was because there were different rules, laws, sensibilities, politics,” Damaschke observes. “All the things the whole world was experiencing we were experiencing on a bit of a minor level in our own ecosystem.”
The key to getting through it, he says, was in having to “ride this wave together at the same time and be as smart and as strategic as we can. And we made all the best choices.”
Everyone had been completely confident about the U.S. national tour launching in Chicago months into the future. Another wave of Omicron dashed that. Rehearsals were pushed another month, and the Windy City engagement was cut shorter. ”And it was smart to do that, but people were disappointed,” he adds. “The touring cast was disappointed to be delayed, but we would’ve all been in rehearsal and everyone would’ve gotten Covid again. And so, you make the best decisions you can. We all held hands, and then we pivoted frequently.”
The tour’s been on the road now since last year. The show recently played Philadelphia; upcoming stops in the open-ended tour include Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh, Hartford, CT, and Buffalo and Rochester, NY.
Both Damaschke and Pavlovic used the words “passion and commitment” as the watchwords that guided them.
It’s apparent in the “unbridled passion” of the way the story is told via all disciplines – actors, creatives, musicians, production, crew, backstage. “It’s underneath everything,” Damaschke adds.
The combined shutdown and remount costs for Broadway, the North American tour, West End and Australia exceeds US$50 million. In some countries, Pavlovic notes, “these costs were offset in differing degrees with government support,” though UK authorities offered the Belle Epoque extravaganza at the Piccadilly zero funds.
At one point during the pandemic, Pavlovic settled wages for Global Creatures staff out of her own pocket.
For all the good news with regards to recoupment, as with other first-class productions of shows, Moulin Rouge! has faced increased running costs associated with meeting daily Covid-testing regimes for hundreds of people connected to the seven productions enticing audiences in the U.S., UK, Germany, Korea, Japan and Australia.
“We continue to face other cost increases,” Pavlovic laments.
Such as the price of airfares and freight that went up and never came down. Fabric for costumes, plus timber and steel costs also have skyrocketed.
“What we can never quantify is the foregone box office income in our post-pandemic world where audiences have not fully returned to Broadway, in particular, and the cost of living impacting the shows running costs and, of course, potential ticket buyers.”
Covid remains the uninvited guest. “Even in July 2023, we continue to lose performances periodically,” most recently in London and Germany.
Pavlovic takes pride in the “crack” team she and Damaschke assembled. “It’s just a sophisticated group of people around the world who don’t wait to be asked to jump in when needed.”
Rocking back in her chair, the creative executive allows herself a smile.
”Look, for me, opening on Broadway was great because the show had a triumphant premiere and was a runaway hit at the box office,” she says. “It also was a great show in its own right. Also for us as a company, it was such a proud moment because we were the first Australian company to originate a new show on Broadway.
“And to do that from Australia, hits and misses along the way.”
Matter of factly, she tells me, “I mean, on the first preview day of Moulin Rouge! in New York, I had to tell the King Kong company we were closing.”
Muriel’s Wedding The Musical likely will be the next show that Global Creatures will bring over from the Lucky Country, so called after the title of Donald Horne’s 1964 novel. He saw his homeland as a lucky country but was doubtful whether it deserved it.
By the way, so far 1 million people have seen Moulin Rouge! in Australia.
Pretty good for nation with a population of 25 million.
By that measure alone, Moulin Rouge! The Musical deserves its good luck.