How Broadway's 'Moulin Rouge!' Got the Rights to 'Torn,' 'Don't Speak' & More Pop Smashes

ISSUE 20 2019 - PR PHOTO
Matthew Murphy
The Broadway musical Moulin Rouge! at the Al Hirschfeld Theater.

Toward the end of the first act of the new Broadway musical Moulin Rouge!, the audience’s jaws drop like a row of dominos when Aaron Tveit and Karen Olivo, playing the doomed lovers Christian and Satine, sing the “Elephant Love Medley” -- a he said/she said ode to romance that contains lyrics from 21 different pop songs, including “Torn,” “Don’t Speak” and “What’s Love Got to Do With It.”

Most “jukebox” musicals draw on the work of one singer-songwriter. But the score for Moulin Rouge!, based on the 2001 Baz Luhrmann film, incorporates parts of 70 pop tracks by a variety of different writers -- some of which are used in 13 original mashups created for the show.

“As far as rights and licensing, it was definitely a very fast education,” says Justin Levine, the show’s musical supervisor-arranger. Along with book writer John Logan and director Alex Timbers, Levine chose potential mashup pairings that fit the show’s narrative -- say, Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” and Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.” Since songs used in mashups need to be licensed, he worked with producer Carmen Pavlovic and music industry veteran Janet Billig Rich to clear rights from the relevant publishers -- in some cases recording demos to give the writers a sense of how he envisioned using their work.

When Luhrmann made the Moulin Rouge! movie nearly 20 years ago, he got permission to include some of its big songs -- “Pride (In the Name of Love),” “Your Song” -- thanks to his personal relationships with creators like Bono, Elton John and David Bowie. Now, says Luhrmann (who calls himself the musical’s “Uncle Baz”), “there’s an understanding that using songs outside their traditional form is really lucrative.”

Plenty of songwriters, like Lorde and David Byrne, immediately licensed grand rights, which allow songs to be performed in a dramatic work. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards took some convincing but ultimately signed off on an all-Rolling Stones mashup after hearing Levine’s demo. And while producers persuaded 10 of the 11 composers of “Uptown Funk!” to grant rights, Bruno Mars did not sign off -- so they couldn’t use the tune.

In the end, the creative team got approvals from 161 composers represented by roughly 30 publishers. (The compositions were licensed on a “most favored nations” basis, where all publishers received a standard deal based on the duration of song segments.)

That was only half the battle, though. RCA plans to release the cast recording this fall, in partnership with Luhrmann’s own label, House of Iona. So the show’s producers had to secure the mechanical rights they needed to distribute the recordings -- which is especially complicated for mashups, since licenses are required for the individual songs as well as the mashup itself.

Their success in doing so could open up a new avenue of business for cast recordings altogether. “We see a real market for mining pop culture and reinventing it,” says Karen Lamberton, RCA executive vp soundtracks, films and TV. “We want to hit the Broadway universe; we want to hit the folks who loved Glee and Pitch Perfect, and then the pop universe.”

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 24 issue of Billboard.


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