How 'Moulin Rouge!' Brought a Pop Revolution to Broadway

moulin rouge
Matthew Murphy

Aaron Tveit and Karen Olivo in "Moulin Rouge"

Plenty of new musicals purport to be bringing something utterly new to Broadway -- but very few can truly back up that claim. And then there's Moulin Rouge!, based on the lushly dramatic 2001 Baz Luhrmann film, and now playing to sold-out audiences at the Al Hirschfeld Theater.

As any confetti-drenched audience member will attest by its curtain call, it upends the idea of what a "jukebox" musical means; blazes new trails in the world of copyright, licensing and songwriting with its ambitious pop mash-up numbers; and creates a hyper-immersive environment that feels a world away from nearby Times Square. Its stars are just as floored by its many innovations as the stunned audiences leaving the theater each night, as actors Aaron Tveit (Christian), Karen Olivo (Satine) and Sahr Ngaujah (Toulouse Lautrec) reveal on this week's episode of the Billboard on Broadway podcast.

The trio of actors have all starred in original Broadway musicals and standards alike before (Tveit originated major roles in Next to Normal and Catch Me If You Can, Ngaujah was Tony-nominated for his title role in Fela!, and Olivo was in the original cast of In the Heights and won a Tony for West Side Story). But they agree that Moulin Rouge!'s score comprised of pop hits was a unique draw. "I'm kind of a pop music junkie," says Tveit, who often performs pop covers in his own solo concerts. "I knew all the songs, and as I was reading I imagined how they would fit in the story, and I couldn't believe how well they fit. I think they've done such a good job telling the story through these songs, that part of my brain isn't even thinking of them as pop songs [anymore]." Olivo, who wasn't as well-versed in current pop tunes, "went at it from an actor's perspective; I'd look at lyrics and think, is that what the character's supposed to be saying? In every single moment, it was. That's what sold me."

As the show veers between poignant romance, melodramatic tragedy and plenty of tongue-in-cheek humor, the actors have to negotiate sudden changes in tone, along with palpable audience reactions. "Tone is something we have to be hyper-aware of, or else things start to fall apart," says Olivo. "The recognition of a song, and how it's using the lyrics to forward the plot line, you start to see people understanding the movie and the show and how it all goes together. They're actually promoting the energy onstage with how they're receiving the material, and you can see it in us."

"You almost feel the audience reacting, so there's a glint or a wink you're able to do that's not out of bounds," adds Tveit. "You can go from tongue-in-cheek to a real serious realism." Ngaujah likens it to "a code" between the audience and actors each night.

In their chat with host Rebecca Milzoff, the trio reflect on the intricacies of performing the show's mash-ups in a narrative context, finding their senses of humor in character, and their favorite musical moments in the show.

#BillboardonBroadway is a weekly podcast devoted to all things musical theater and their overlap with pop music. Click here to subscribe to the #BillboardonBroadway podcast on iTunes, and let us know what you think on Twitter (@rebeccamilzoff) or by rating the podcast on iTunes.