As careers in musical theater go, few have encompassed more diverse — or more purely theatrically-imaginative — subjects than that of director Alex Timbers.
He’s transformed a boxing ring into a musical centerpiece (Rocky); turned a giant theater into a spooky funhouse (Beetlejuice); moved viewers through a dance club to hear the story of Imelda Marcos through the music of David Byrne and Fatboy Slim (Here Lies Love); and even convincingly portrayed our seventh president as an emo-rock anti-hero (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson). On the eve of his latest ambitious undertaking — the musical adaptation of Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! — Timbers stopped by the Billboard on Broadway podcast to reflect on his journey through musicals thus far.
“I’m not someone with a big music background and know-how of the technical elements,” Timbers confesses, “but I’ve learned that on the job — and you kind of have to to become a musical theater director.” He’s been especially drawn to productions with the potential to be realized in a way that naturally invites the audience to engage with what’s happening onstage. “Where I begin on a lot of these shows is what role the audience plays,” he explains, noting that many of his shows have started with direct address to the audience, “acknowledging that we’re all in this together.”
That he’s had a direct hand in transforming a few iconic films into musicals is, he says, both a bit of a coincidence and an indicator of what he values going into a new project. “As we began the adaptation process [for these adaptations], the creators said we really had license to make it a different beast for the theater,” he says — for example, shifting the story’s focus to Lydia in Beetlejuice, or rethinking the characters and setting of Moulin Rouge.
In his chat with host Rebecca Milzoff, Timbers delves into precisely how directors shape the look and sound of big musicals, his own long path from downtown to Broadway, and the stories behind his buzziest shows, from Bloody Bloody to Oh Hello! on Broadway.