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Just a few weeks into Moulin Rouge!’s West End run, it seems that London’s theatregoers are already fully embracing the show’s decadent spirit. “Monday night is a really nice sober audience and it gets progressively wild from then on,” says Jamie Bogyo, who makes his professional stage debut as Christian, the penniless poet played by Ewan McGregor in Baz Luhrmann’s dazzling 2001 film.
Audience members, he notes, are turning up in full costume. “Maybe not a top hat, that might restrict someone’s view,” says his co-star Liisi LaFontaine, who plays Satine, the beautiful courtesan portrayed on screen by Nicole Kidman. She makes her entrance - via a dazzling swing suspended in mid air, no less - 15 minutes into the first act, “so I’m just up there waiting to come down, hearing the reaction… It’s such a crazy thing after the last two years we’ve had, just to know that all these people are in one room, experiencing this all together.”
Bogyo agrees. “I have seen shows all my life, but I’ve never seen a show that’s designed in a way to get people so amped… it’s such a party.” If Luhrmann’s colourful, camp “spectacular spectacular” has somehow eluded you in the 20 years since its cinematic release, you’re in for a treat - if you like your doomed romances soundtracked by giddy pop medleys, encompassing everything from Elton John to Madonna to Whitney, that is.
The pair hail from opposite sides of the US (Los Angeles for LaFontaine, New York for Bogyo) and took contrasting routes to (fictional) fin-de-siècle Paris. LaFontaine, who starred in the 2016 West End revival of Dreamgirls as Deena (the role taken by Beyoncé in the screen version), was on the lookout for a part that could bring her back to London when she went to see Moulin Rouge! on Broadway, where it opened in 2019. “When [Satine] was coming down on the swing” during her first song, “I was like, ‘I want to do that!’” she recalls. After a series of self-tapes and Zoom calls, the audition process ground to a pandemic-induced halt last March; she “kind of forgot about it for almost a year,” spending lockdown in LA with her family, until the producers got back in touch in February, when she “started the whole process again.”
Bogyo, meanwhile, graduated from Rada two years ago and “thought I was going to sail from drama school into my gilded career, but it wasn’t really happening” - though he has European citizenship, he struggled to find an acting agent in the UK. “My girlfriend’s agent tried to put me up for [the role of Christian] but I never got in the room,” he says. During the pandemic, while focusing on writing and doing some tutoring on the side, he eventually signed up with one -and Moulin Rouge! was his first in-person audition. “It was just a very surreal thing, to go from my identity being a writer who tutors to pay the bills, who went to drama school and hopefully will get to [act], to being a musical theatre performer,”he says.“There were a lot of leaps that happened very quickly.”
Now that transatlantic travel has fully opened up, they are looking forward to seeing some familiar faces in the audience. LaFontaine’s mum, a singer and actress, is currently performing on Broadway, and is “getting two days off to come and see the opening.” Bogyo, meanwhile, is “honestly worried about [his parents] coming to press night because I know how much they’re gonna cry - they’re very indulgent criers. They’re very excited, but you wouldn’t know it because all they do is weep.” (They’re unlikely to be the only ones sobbing in the stalls: the show’s finale is a notorious tearjerker.)
Both first encountered Luhrmann’s original film as impressionable youngsters (“I remember re-watching it in high school at one of those cool parties where everyone was making out,” LaFontaine laughs; “I didn’t go to those cool parties,” her co-star quips) but weren’t aware of the scale of its cult following. Their show is, as LaFontaine notes, not an exact scene-for-scene remake of the movie. “Alex [Timbers], our director, was saying it’s like a companion to the movie - it holds the movie’s hand,” she says. “That gives us more freedom to make it into something else, something a little more current.”
Her character has become “more grounded and forceful” for the stage version; in place of Kidman’s whimsical version of One Day I’ll Fly Away, she notes, her big Act One solo is a resolute rendition of Katy Perry’s Firework. “Nicole’s [portrayal] is very much of the time, you know?” she says. “The early 2000s were all about the damsel in distress, locked in her cage, needing a man to save her. Satine is [now] fully in control of everything… She wants to save this club, she feels a responsibility - it just feels more modern.”
All of “the songs that are super-crucial” to the plot are present and correct, with newer tracks like Sia’s Chandelier, Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance and Beyoncé’s Single Ladies seamlessly woven in. This musical refresh is in the spirit of the original film, which wrung comedy, tragedy and everything in between from the clash between its Belle Époque setting and the thoroughly modern soundtrack. “They’ll take a Rihanna song and have a man sing it in a very different context, but it still works - and the audience laughs,” LaFontaine adds. “It’s a surprised giggle, like ‘this is clever, I wouldn’t have put this here.’” As Bogyo puts it, “music’s moved on in 20 years - what Moulin Rouge! was to music when the film came out, the musical will be now for modern audiences.”
Even Elephant Love Medley, the joyful mash-up of classic love songs that galvanises Christian and Satine’s romance, has incorporated a handful of new tracks. Re-working one of the film’s most famous numbers is a bold move - and one that, to fans who grew up earnestly intoning both parts of McGregor and Kidman’s duet, might seem borderline sacrilegious - but for Bogyo it’s a gamble that pays off. “When I first heard it, because I listened to it all the time as a kid, I knew exactly what songs were in it, so I was like ‘Huh, why is he singing that?’” he says. The new version, he explains, has been re-imagined as more of a “war of wits” between the two characters. “To do that they’ve beefed up the back and forth… I love the original, it’s gorgeous, but I think in terms of how it plays live on stage, it does help to have this crescendo, then when you get to ‘love lifts us up where we belong’ and the really famous parts, everyone’s like ‘alright, we’re here!’”