Canopied by red velvet, enveloped in ornate textures, and bathed in crimson light, a seat for Moulin Rouge! The Musical is a one-way ticket to the “summer of love” in 19th-century Paris.
The Tony Award-winning musical will run May 18 through June 5 at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis. The production’s immersive and elaborate set design places audiences right in the extravagant world of the Moulin Rouge cabaret, a place never shy of glitz, glam,
and overall grandeur.
The show revolves around a complicated romance between a young poet and the cabaret star. It’s set in Paris in 1899, a period that scenic designer Derek McLane says drew him to the project. “I had a real affinity for late 19th-century architecture, design, and ornament,” he says. “I felt very connected to that.”
As the scenic designer, McLane was responsible for designing the physical environment of the show, including scenery on stage, props, furniture, and other elements throughout
the auditorium. “If it’s not a costume, then I’m responsible for it,” he says.
The design process and set building started in 2017, prior to the show’s world premiere in Boston. McLane says it took a little over 15 months to complete, calling it the most elaborate set he has ever designed.
Although the production is an adaptation of Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 film, McLane says he wanted to approach the musical as its own entity. That being said, there were certainly some elements of the film that he wanted to honor on stage, including the movie’s energy, stylistic contrasts between scenes, and some of the set pieces.
“I recalled from the movie that there were some heart-shaped portals in the club and also a heart-shaped window in [main character] Satine’s apartment, so those were two things
that I kept,” he says.
The massive heart-shaped portals serve as an extravagant backdrop to the Moulin Rouge cabaret, where the show opens. The portals are intricately designed, lined with textures that McLane says were based on Victorian lace and delicate ironwork.
Illuminated by red and gold lights, this romantic and eye-catching set immediately sets the tone for the rest of the scene. McLane says the show’s writer, John Logan, had a distinct idea of what the club should embody: sex and smoke. “I thought that was a very evocative description, so this is the best way I could come up with to capture that,” McLane says.
The color red has a striking visual dominance in this scene, which certainly plays a role in bringing Logan and McLane’s vision to life.
Actor Austin Durant says that red has evolving connotations as the show progresses. “For me, it evokes this sensuality, carnality, and passionate sexuality. And then on the other side, there’s this sort of sweet Valentine’s card aspect to it,” he says. “Red is one of those colors that I think plays both sides of love.”
As soon as they enter the theater, audience members are transported directly into this sensual, romantic world through what they see around them and on stage.
A large, glistening windmill perches above the audience on one side of the theater, a visual representation of the show’s title (the English translation of “Moulin Rouge” is “Red Mill’’). On the opposite side sits a massive elephant peering over the crowd.
McLane says these elements were designed to suggest that “this show is taking over the auditorium, and that the audience is in the club.” Throw in the seductive music and lighting, and audiences can experience the certain “je ne sais quoi” of the Moulin Rouge cabaret for themselves.
Durant, who plays the hypertheatrical club owner Harold Zidler, says McLane’s immersive set design is the first thing audiences see when they walk into this production. “It’s something that you really feel,” he emphasizes. “It’s astounding.”
To him, the most stunning aspect of the show’s design is that it’s seemingly endless.
“You see this first set, the Moulin Rouge, and then there’s another location that’s equally designed and immersive, and another one, and another one, and it just keeps going,” Durant says. “The question that you start asking yourself is, ‘How did they do this?’ It feels like magic.”
Including the club, there are around 15 total locations in this show. McLane says this isn’t very many for a musical, which worked to his advantage in terms of each one’s elaborate design. “It gives you a little bit more luxury, because you’re actually able to idealize those a little more fully,” he says. “If there are 35 locations in the story, you’re not going to be able to do a whole lot for each one of them.”
Some of the other major set pieces in this show include the streets of Montmartre, an artist’s garret, and the main character’s apartment.
Besides the Moulin Rouge film, McLane credits much of his design inspiration to the work of French photographer Eugène Atget, who captured images of streetscapes in Paris around 1900. “It really captures what Paris felt like in that era on the streets,” he says.
The neighborhood depicted on stage is based closely on Atget’s photos, which were shot in black and white. This inspired McLane to render all of the neighborhood scenes in a similar black-and-white style, which he says marks an intentional contrast from the club’s red-and-gold interior.
“The streets of Paris are beautiful but sort of colorless,” McLane says. “They’re romantic in a very different way.”
Ultimately, the stylistic contrasts throughout the show might reflect the themes that lie at the heart of the production. “What comes out of the story is romance, which is a little bit of a contrast to the more carnal nature of the world,” McLane says.
To purchase tickets or to learn more about Moulin Rouge! The Musical, visit hennepintheatretrust.org