A Tale in Two Interviews: Behind the Scenes of Moulin Rouge! The Musical

Truth, Beauty, Freedom, and Love. Four Bohemian values underlying the story of Moulin Rouge, a famous cabaret in France in the early 1900s that has since been dramatized on film and, more recently, on Broadway as a stage production called Moulin Rouge! The Musical.

In the Alex Timbers-directed musical, based off of Baz Luhrmann’s famous film Moulin Rouge!, the extravagant, circus-like atmosphere filled with dancing, wild colors, and a flair for the extraordinary, comes to life with new relevancy at once a tribute and a novelty.

And so the stage is set. The lights are bright and the music is synchronized perfectly. Two long-time collaborators and friends discuss, independently, their involvement with Moulin Rouge! The Musical and the musical ideas therein. Below are those two interviews.

The first is with the Moulin Rouge!’s music producer Matt Stine, and the second with the music supervisor, orchestrator, and arranger Justin Levine.

It’s also worth noting, before we begin, that while the musical is still playing on Broadway, the accompanying album — Moulin Rouge! The Musical (Original Broadway Cast Recording) — is nominated for the Grammy Best Musical Theater Album. You can listen to the album here.

Interview the First, with Matt Stine

Matt Stine (Music Producer for Moulin Rouge! the Musical) is a Sound Designer, Music Producer and composer for Broadway and Off-Broadway theater, dance, TV and film. He is also the co-writer of the children’s book Little Chef.

In our conversation below we talk Moulin Rouge!, adaptation to the stage, musical expression, and the beauty of friendship.

The company of Moulin Rouge! The Musical

Andrew Cheek: Could you describe your involvement with Moulin Rouge! The Musical as the music producer as well as what it has been like working on the production?

Matt Stine: Sure. Well, you know, I’ve worked in the capacity of music producer in musicals (which is a somewhat unusual title for a Broadway show) because of previous collaborations with our director, Alex Timbers, and with Justin Levine.

We first worked together on the show Here Lies Love, a David Byrne and Fatboy Slim show. And since then we’ve really connected and I’ve worked with Alex on a number of his shows since, most recently before Moulin Rouge, Beetlejuice. For the role of music producer in the theater there’s an expectation, especially with a show like Moulin Rouge! where we are working with all these really famous pop songs, (and obviously being based on a well known film where the music was so central to that film), there was kind of an expectation the audience has when they come in to the theater that what they’re going to hear is going to feel like a record in a lot of ways. And that it’s going to feel at times like a pop concert.

And so I think that Alex and Justin relied on me to help coordinate between their departments and the sound department to achieve that sound in the theater. I worked very closely between the music department and the sound department to help craft the sound of the show. And of course the other element of it is that there’s so much prerecorded track material running alongside the live band. And I produce, along with Justin, all of that material as well and create those beats and all that stuff… and that’s what really helps give the show that kind of pop sheen when it needs to have it.

So that’s the role, in brief, as music producer in the theater itself. Having done all of that, once it’s time to record the album and get into the studio, it’s kind of like all of that has become pre-production for the album in the end.

Moulin Rouge! The Musical’s Grammy-nominated album, now on Spotify

And so my role more traditionally as a music producer in the recording studio, well it’s a lot easier to do that job once you know every inch of the score and you’ve come through it and you know where every sample is and where everything is, everything that needs to happen, the orchestration, and so on. It makes the job a lot easier once we get into actually making the record.

Of course for this one, you know, our approach to the recording brought its own challenges because we really wanted to try and capture the feeling of being at the show and not necessarily have just a recorded, direct carbon copy of what is performed at the show. So there’s a lot of extra production work that went into the album outside of the work that was done for the theater, for the theatrical production.

Andrew: Yeah, yeah… for the album to have that live feel so that when someone’s listening it reminds them of being at the show or what it would be like to be at the show. I like that.

Danny Burstein as Harold Zidler, in Moulin Rouge! The Musical

Matt: As a group we decided that we didn’t want to have a lot of what are called book scenes, like with a lot of dialogue, right on the record. We wanted to have it first and foremost be a musical listening experience.

So, how do we use little snippets of dialogue in creative ways to kind of create a mood while also delivering a little bit of story? I think that was part of the fun challenge of making this record… And also to do it in a cinematic way, and treat it in some ways like a film score. And having Baz Luhrmann, director of the Moulin Rouge! movie, there was terrific. Because, obviously, he has an extensive background and he’s a very musical director, a very sonically driven director. That was a lot of fun.

Andrew: That reminds of the Hamilton soundtrack because in Hamilton there’d be some bits where it was almost like they were talking, but it would be a very fluid transition right into song and into rapping. And it wasn’t at all like you’re listening to a narration or a scene so much as that was the style of the music.

So anyways. Generally speaking a live performance is much different from a movie or even the album that you’re talking about putting out because it’s not as curated. Obviously there’s a lot that goes on before the performance, right, but it’s still live. What are some of the ways in which the show has changed or evolved since the opening night?

Matt: Well, what we try to do in the theater and what is part of the process of building a big musical like this is that, you know, we workshop it for years. In this case, a couple of years. We do an out out of town production, which for this show we did in the Colonial Theater in Boston, where that’s the first time we’re really doing the show in front of an audience for the first time. But there’ve been so many drafts of the show leading up to the version that opens on Broadway. By the time you hit your opening night on Broadway the show has been set. That’s really what we’re presenting every night now, eight times a week at the Hirschfeld Theatre, the same show that we left on opening night.

Karen Olivo as Satine and Aaron Tveit as Christian

With different performers, and obviously being live, things do change. But I think one of the things that is not entirely unique to Moulin Rouge!, but maybe we take it a little bit farther than some other shows, is that so much of the score is set to basically a click track.

So many of the other departments, the lighting and sound, everything, the music is driving that. So everything is kind of linked to the music and the tempos don’t change and everything is kind of locked in to these tracks. What that does is it actually enables us to treat certain numbers almost as if they are film scores. Like an example of “Roxanne,” you know, almost every single time you see a dramatic light shift you hear a sound effect that goes along with the musical hit from the orchestra that is enhanced by an impact sound that’s coming from the track.

So everything is locked together each night happening at the same time, in the same way very much like how you would score a film. I think having that ability in the technology really allowed us to take it as far as we could in terms of the cinematic scope and really using the Baz Luhrmann aesthetic and then pushing towards that as much as we could. Because the film is just so iconic in so many ways, even just visually.

[Director] Alex Timbers is a genius at trying to recreate some of those iconic looks for the stage. But in order to do that all the other elements have to come with it, right. Sound and lights and everything else. That was a really fun part of the challenge for me was how far can we go with accenting every little thing that happens on stage while still making sure that yes, it is live. It’s not like you’re just watching some sort of machine happening. But really every night it’s consistent. Even though there are live performers and there is a live orchestra and all those things, they’re all playing basically to these tracks and everything is staying linked in synced up with that. It allows us to achieve us some really cool effects.

Andrew: Later today, I’ll be speaking with the show’s music supervisor and orchestrator, Justin Levine. In what ways did your work together overlap and kind of interplay?

Matt: Well, Justin is just such a brilliant musical mind and a terrific collaborator. I’ve been fortunate to have collaborated with Justin for years — we’ve created a lot of work together. Justin, when he has all these amazing ideas of how we’re going to create, for example, this incredible love medley with 20 love songs in it, he comes over to my place and starts playing it down on the piano… Basically, I’m just trying to keep up with him and record as much as I can and make his dreams happen because he has just a limitless well of musical ideas. I try to take everything that he’s giving and help him, you know, sort through that and help him create, ultimately, something that we know is the best version of whatever project that we’re working on.

We’re close friends and we have sort of a language that only close collaborators can have where he just starts playing, and I’m listening and I’m capturing it and we, you know, we bounce ideas off each other… it’s a pleasure. It’s such a pleasure to work with him. And I think that the reason why this show is getting the attention that it’s getting is largely due to the fact that Justin really came up with so many clever arrangements of so many, I mean over 70, pops songs, to tell an actual story using pop lyrics.

“Sometimes when you’re faced with those kinds of limitations it forces you to be a little bit more creative and work a little bit harder to try and achieve something that can beat the original idea. And I think Justin and I were always up to that challenge.” — Matt Stine

(L-R) Jacqueline B. Arnold as La Chocolat, Robyn Hurder as Nini, Holly James as Arabia, and Jeigh Madjus as Baby Doll

Andrew: What were some aspects, and this could speak not just to your individual role but to everyone else’s contributions, but, what were some aspects or elements that you wanted to bring to the musical that couldn’t make it into the final production?

Matt: I’m sure Justin will probably talk to you about some of the licensing stuff when you guys talk later but… I mean, obviously there were some songs that maybe we just ultimately weren’t able to get to and had been there in earlier drafts. But in those cases, I think, we always ended up finding a replacement that we think was better.

Sometimes when you’re faced with those kinds of limitations it forces you to be a little bit more creative and work a little bit harder to try and achieve something that can beat the original idea. And I think Justin and I were always up to that challenge. And, you know, the licensing stuff is so out of our control. Whatever came our way, we just tried. I think we did a good job of rolling with the punches though.

When I go see the show still, it having been open now and running now since July, there’s nothing where I feel, “Oh, man, I wish we could’ve had this or I wish we could’ve had that.” I’m just overwhelmed with how much fun it is to watch the incredible performances. I’m very, very happy with how it came out. And I’m very happy with the fact that the album exists and that everybody is happy with the album, that is gives really a pretty faithful representation of what it’s like to be at the Hirschfeld Theatre watching Moulin Rouge!… And of course, uh, you know, hearing Karen Olivo or Aaron Tveit saying how thrilled they are with their recordings of “Firework” or “The Sparkling Diamond” or “Roxanne”… that means the world to me because those are huge songs for them, and you get the one shot at it to record it in the studio and then you’re stuck with that performance forever and they trust you with it, you know? So yeah, it’s a big deal when they come back and say, wow, this sounds amazing.

Aaron Tveit as Christian and Karen Olivo as Satine

Andrew: Well, is there anything else you’d like to add?

Matt: Mmm, no… I mean, I’m glad that you’re talking to Justin later. I wish that you could talk to Baz. I think that Baz was such a… well, he was there almost every day in the studio and even though he wasn’t as involved in the show creating the show itself he was a fantastic influence on the recording.

Andrew: I read on the Moulin Rouge! The Musical website a letter written by Baz and in it he mentions working on the Moulin Rouge! movie, his involvement, transitioning to the musical, and so on. I thought it was funny he actually, he referred to himself as being like the uncle involved with the project, the musical.

Matt: Yeahh, we sometimes joked that Uncle Baz was stopping by, you know, that kind of thing. He’s a busy guy, obviously he’s not going to be with us every single day building the show. But I was really pleasantly surprised that he wanted to be involved in the album. Sitting side by side with him in the studio for that week, and the couple of weeks following for post-production, he just has terrific ears and he’s a wonderful person to collaborate with. And we had so much fun and laughed the whole time and really worked hard on it. I think that Baz was really crucial to the success of the record. So it was a really, really nice to have him on board.

Interview the Second, with Justin Levine

“You’re hearing a quote of a song and then building another song on top of that and often what you’re doing is you’re making the expression more complex because you’re saying multiple things at once. Oftentimes in theater a song has to do more than one thing at a time.”

Justin Levine is a New York-based composer, arranger, music director, and performer. His most recent project, and the focus of our interview, was the Broadway show Moulin Rouge! The Musical, as well as the accompanying musical album now nominated for a Grammy.

“I wear many hats for the show. I am, the music supervisor. I’m the lead orchestrator. I’m the arranger. I’m also co-dance arranger with Matt. I’ve also written additional lyrics and music for the show.”

Andrew: I read on the Moulin Rouge! The Musical website a letter by Baz Luhrmann, director of the movie from which the musical is derived. He writes, “This new theatrical production absolutely honors the movie, but finds a new life that is exciting and vital for this audience in this time.”

What are some of those ways that you gave the musical new life through the music?, and through the adaptation to the theatrical stage?

Justin: Well, in terms of approaching the music for today’s audience, one of the things we did was, as part of our adaptation of the score, we took advantage of the 17, 18 years since the film came out. And that’s including music, contemporary classics, from that period… we also added songs from much earlier in time. Our score spans I think about a hundred and maybe 40 years worth of popular music. I think part of it also is that since the movie came out, a lot of other artists and filmmakers and television makers have taken the ball and run with it in terms of how pop music can be used to tell a story on the screen. And as well as on the stage.

Even just the way in which we utilize music, in some cases almost like a DJ. “Girl Talk,” for example, where it’s not just about the lyrics, which were of course the most important thing in creating the score, but also grabbing hooks from famous songs that are also bringing up the same emotional ideas as these dramatic moments.

Andrew: It’s a common technique in literature, too, to make an allusion to something in a perhaps similar way as you mentioned. James Joyce does this heavily and the allusion or the song that’s playing in the background or the thing that’s quoted gives further context to the work at hand and also kind of relates to the audience to which the writer is writing. If that’s kind of what you were suggesting.

Justin: Yes, absolutely. It contextualizes. And what’s great about it is that you’re able to do it sometimes without words. So suddenly you’re hearing, you know, this tiny lick from a song about how tortuous love is, you hear that, and it immediately takes you back to that part of you that feels that song in your, in your soul.

Andrew: Yeah that’s true. It’s personal in that case. It’s not just related to the story. And I think that’s an interesting aspect of, I mean, of art as a whole, but also theater that’s a little bit self-aware. I watched part of an interview with Baz Luhrmann where he cites self-aware theater, which is a Brechtian idea where, you know, you’re aware that you’re at a theater or you’re aware that you’re watching something and that actually serves to heighten the drama and it makes it a little more personal and relatable.

Justin: Right. Absolutely.

Karen Olivo as Satine and Tam Mutu as The Duke of Monroth

Andrew: What were some of your musical or non-musical inspirations for your work on this production?

Justin: I would say my inspiration was, first and foremost, the work done on the film itself — the way they treat the score, the way that Baz and his team were mashing things up and mixing things together. I would say I’m heavily influenced by soul music. Partly because soul music is about break beats and hooks and licks and tropes that you see used over and over again. But recycled and sampled and moved around as well as, you know… what has been happening in pop music for the past several years and which is, well, very similar.

You’re hearing a quote of a song and then building another song on top of that and often what you’re doing is you’re making the expression more complex because you’re saying multiple things at once. Oftentimes in theater a song has to do more than one thing at a time. Whereas a pop song can live in a moment… you can live in a specific state of mind.

Andrew: Orson Welles said that “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.” What were some of the limitations, intentional or otherwise, with the Moulin Rouge! musical?

Justin, chuckling: ah!

Andrew: You don’t have to necessarily agree!

Justin: The only reason I’m laughing is because I feel like I both had no limitations and so many limitations at the same time because there was so many factors into going from the point of having an idea to being able to execute it all the way to the stage. But also I had a blank canvas from which I could pick from the entire popular cannon from the past, you know, more than a century.

Andrew: Yeah, there were situational limitations for the medium, in part because you’re doing an adaptation. And also those of licensing, which is something that Matt mentioned earlier as one of the challenge… getting proper licensing for the music being used. Were there any intentional limitations or constraints that you imposed on the music?

Justin: No. I think we set out to make sure that things didn’t feel too anachronistic and then… well, on its face it is anachronistic to use pop music in the setting, but at the same time we wanted it to sort of what I would call pass the smell test. The smell test is what I would say is like, is essentially, “I don’t know exactly what’s anachronistic. I just know when I see it.”

Andrew: Maybe that’s your artistic instinct, in that case. And I mean, looking at some of Baz Luhrmann’s past work, like, um, oh was the movie that was the Fitzgerald book…?

Justin: Oh. Um, uh, yeah. Uh, Jesus…

Andrew, drawing a blank: I don’t know, I’m drawing a blank. Oh, Great Gatsby.

Justin, with a sigh of relief: Great Gatsby thank you…

Andrew: What’s interesting is that it takes place in the past but then Baz, for the music, is using Jay-Z and other modern music and he’s doing that as a way to capture the spirit of the time. Because if you just used a bunch of jazz, it wouldn’t really relate to as many audience members and it wouldn’t feel as new and fresh as it did in Fitzgerald’s time. It might feel elegant. But using hip hop… which also, by the way, you know hip hop has that element of layering to it and sampling and things like that… using new music for an old setting is, there is that challenge of blending things together without being anachronistic yet bringing that relevancy to modern audiences.

Justin: Yeah, absolutely.

Andrew: What were some of the challenges you faced translating the movie to the stage?

Justin: I would say one of the biggest challenges, and this isn’t just specific to the music, this is sort of specific to the show itself, or to the medium itself, is that in a film you have so many things at your disposal. You can do jump cuts, you can do crane shots, zoom ins, you can cross fade… I think without those compositional tools one of the things that we managed to do was we managed to take advantage of how music do that in its own way.

Part of the idea of being able to do the mash up is it also represents the cinematographic style of Baz’s work. What’s also challenging about it is that, you know, when I was first hired to do this job, I said to Alex, our director, that every choice I make on this project is going to piss off as many people as it will delight. So that was also very much on my mind.

Andrew: Was that intentional at all or just the nature of the process?

Justin: I think it’s the fact that you’re working with adapting an already beloved work of art. As a result, you’re going to naturally disappoint some people and delight other people and all of that fun stuff. I think that was always just kind of part of it in a way, something that I always had to be mindful of that I needed to both simultaneously honor the original, but also be bold in how we adapt it and make something that both people who have seen the movie and who haven’t seen the movie can get behind.

*These interviews have been edited lightly for length and clarity

*All images and biographical information provided courtesy of Impact24 PR (unless otherwise noted)

Enjoy this interview and want to keep reading? (First of all, thank you.) Check out my interview with film composer and musician Rendra Zawawi on the techniques behind the Oscar-nominated documentary M for Malaysia.

Writer, runner, music enthusiast. Exploring connections between creativity + art, lifestyle, and entrepreneurship through a series of interviews.