By SHARON EBERSON
The North American tour of Moulin Rouge! The Musical was delayed twice by COVID, once when we were all on hold during the pandemic, and again for the first wave of the Omicron variant. But if this show has proven one thing, you can’t keep a Tony Award-winning Broadway hit down.
The screen-to-stage production is, in fact, still on Broadway, now that it is on the touring road and touching down in Pittsburgh September 27-October 8.
In the New York production, Andrew Brewer understudied Tony-winner Aaron Tveit as Christian, the circa-1899 bohemian writer and star-crossed lover of Satine, a courtesan and singer at Paris’ infamous Moulin Rouge. Their affair is doomed from the start, as Satine has been promised to the wealthy Duke of Monroth, in exchange for him financing a spectacular show that will star Satine and secure the future for her and the show’s producer.
For the tour that visits the Benedum Center on September 27-October 8, Brewer has left behind the lovestruck Christian and gone to the dark side. He plays the Duke, with his songs taking a left turn from the likes of Elton John’s “Your Song” to the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.”
The 2001 Moulin Rouge! film starring Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman memorably used a handful of pop/rock songs, such as “Roxanne,” by The Police. For the stage, the expanded songlist numbers 70 titles – mostly snippets and mashups – covering 160 years of music. In one of the major departures from the film, few songs are sung-through in the well-stocked jukebox musical.
One of the show’s biggest changes is in the character of the Duke, now a more formidable threat in the show’s love triangle, and bearing little resemblance to the outlandish movie portrayal by Richard Roxburgh.
Brewer was in Washington, D.C., for a tour stop at the Kennedy Center when he talked about his journey from Broadway to the road, ahead of the Moulin Rouge! arrival in Pittsburgh.
QUESTION: On Broadway, in a more intimate theater, the atmospheric scenic design almost surrounded you. How has that changed for the tour?
BREWER: The tour is kind of its own thing, in the way that we do a proscenium. … That overwhelming spectacle from Broadway, it’s still there, but it’s a little more easy to watch and follow in a proscenium style, honestly.
Q: Your character takes my favorite turn from the movie, where the Duke was a sort of comic book villain. He’s this guy on a power trip who wields his wealth at everything and everyone, but he’s more realistic.
BREWER: The character is fleshed out a bit more, to provide more of a love triangle and to give Satine more of a choice. She’s getting the opportunity to save the Moulin Rouge and getting offered everything that her and [producer Harold Zidler] had dreamed of. This is their chance to have the Moulin Rouge, to have the big house, to have all the security that they have never had, and that the Duke can offer. But what he doesn’t offer is that sort of true love that Christian can give her. He sees her more as a possession that he can own and keep in his house as his mistress – to own her as opposed to love her.
Q: Playing the villain is usually the most fun, but he’s pretty cold …
BREWER: What has been great through the process is our directing team, both Alex [Timbers] and our associate director, Matt [DiCarlo], they’ve done a good job of letting us have our own version of the Duke. We keep the storyline the same, but for me, the power trip that he goes on is based more around his knowledge that he is kind of above everyone in this room when he’s in this place. He has the money to change all of their lives, and so there’s a feeling that everyone needs to make him happy. And so in that world, he can be so confident and so secure in the fact that what’s happening is his underlings serving his needs and his wants at all times. …
We always say the Duke isn’t a villain. His ideas and his actions may be villainous, but there is a level of humanity to him, that he can’t just be the bad guy. So I get to play the darker side of him, but also the duality, that he does want to be accepted in his own life, into his own worlds. We’ve talked about a backstory of, why is he coming to the Moulin Rouge, and why is he buying this place that is, to the upper crust, seen as the underbelly of Paris? He doesn’t have to be there, but he goes for the fun. So I think trying to make sure that that fun comes through in the character and in how I play him gives me a lot of free range to enjoy it.
Q: On Broadway, you understudied Christian. Having done both roles, what kind of perspective does that give you now, playing Christian’s nemesis?
BREWER: I have gotten to see both sides of the coin and play both sides of the love triangle. You get to experience what Christian is going through and the overwhelmed nature that he has when he comes into the Moulin Rouge. He steps into this world, coming across on a boat from America, to suddenly find himself in this place where he’s pitching his music for what is one of the most spectacular women he’s ever met. And he’s also living this life with the bohemians and experiencing all of that from a positive and naive place. And then to be playing the Duke, who is exactly the opposite, you see where their conflict is going to lie. I can feel his energy … and realize where he’s coming from a little bit more as an actor [who has done that role], than as someone who’s just watching the other person do it all the time.
Q: It speaks to your range that you would sing Christian’s songs, and now you get to have some fun with Rolling Stone songs. Can you talk a little bit about the dozens of song snippets and mashups in Moulin Rouge!?
BREWER: Oh, absolutely. Everything, every range, every category of music is touched. It’s everything from the Rolling Stones and Elton John all the way up to Katy Perry and Britney Spears and Beyonce … A lot of the score has obviously expanded from the movie, along with the songs we’ve kept. “Come What May,” “The Elephant Love Medley” are expanded but still there. …
The movie came out when I was in high school, so I remember enjoying it and being like, ‘Oh man, these are songs that I know.’ That recognition I think gives an audience a lot of fun because there are so many Easter egg moments within the songs, and some of the big medleys where just, it may be two lines, it may be just a horn section, an orchestral thing, but you hear it and it just brings on all those memories and emotions. I think that that helps us because it brings the audience to us as well. We’re trying to reach them, and they’re excited by the song, so they’re joining in on what we’re putting out there.
Q: Maybe because I saw Moulin Rouge! when it was on Broadway and followed it journey through the times when COVID hit your cast hard, and then it came out of the pandemic to win 10 Tony Awards, but I think of it as the show that tells the pandemic story of theater. What’s the journey been like for you to go through all of that, from Broadway to the national tour?
BREWER: For me, in the process of the tour, it was originally supposed to start in 2020, so there was a cast already kind of in place, and things shifted from the pandemic in a couple of years. And I came in about two months before the tour started. So I had seen the audition come out in 2019 and very politely turned it down, because it seemed out of my wheelhouse [to play the Duke]. And then coming back from the pandemic, a lot of us as actors, of course, because theater was gone, reevaluated a lot: Is this a career? Is this a living? Why do we do what we do? And for me personally, I started to look into other careers. Butt I kept coming back to it and I said, ‘If I’m going to walk away from theater, then I need to do a show first, to know that that’s why I’m going.
If the joy isn’t there, if my love of it isn’t there, then it is time.’
And then this was one of the first shows that I booked when we came back. And so joining this cast and getting to rebuild, like you said, through COVID, rehearsing in masks and tests every day and trying to keep the cast healthy. And then even when we got to previews, I made my Duke debut in the third preview, we lost our Satine and then we lost the rest of the principles about eight days later … And so it was a rotating thing, but it also brought us really together as a cast, with our swings and our understudies being onstage and really building out the world in a way that everyone felt a part of it at all times. We got to [tackle] that in a show that talks the bohemian values of truth, beauty, freedom and love.
Q: You said are bringing in new cast members during this time you’re at the Kennedy Center, before coming to Pittsburgh …
BREWER: We sat down and had a meeting with the new cast last week and discussed, ‘Hey, what do these things mean to you as an actor, as a person? What resonates with you?’ And the one [value] that resonated the most for me was love. And not even in a romantic way, but it was really my love of theater and my love of getting to do this. When I got onstage again, everything immediately clicked to, this is what I have to do. This is what I love to do. I love getting to be up there with an audience and getting to hear reactions again, laughing and applause and crying and doubting and yelling, whatever it is, all of that again. And getting to have a chance to provide an escape, joy, excitement, awe … an experience that we hadn’t got as really a country in years. … We were the first touring show in a few different places, so we got to fully welcome new audiences and hear what that meant to them and meant for us, it was really an honor.
Q: I remember, as an audience member, starting to count the songs represented in the show and giving up. Yet so many were familiar to me, and I could catch the audible recognition in the audience. Do people just start to sing along?
BREWER: Oh, it is all kinds of reactions. We get some people that sing along, we get some people that dance. It’ fun in some of the songs to get that recognition and to hear, even if it’s a giggle,mif it’s the excitement … My Duke song in the first act does start with the Rolling Stones [“Sympathy for the Duke” is a mashup of “Give Me Shelter,” “Sympathy for the Devil” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”], and as soon as it starts, everyone reacts. And that just sort of fills me up for the number. It’s so exciting.
We have monitors that look at our conductor that are backstage, but you can see the first couple of rows in them. And so we consistently are walking by and looking at them and watching audience reactions and seeing the smiles or seeing people wiping away tears at the end of the show. It is so fun for us.
Q: How long have you been on the road at this point?
BREWER: We started rehearsals in January of ’22, and then we started performances in March. So I’ve been out here for 16, 17 months, something like that.
Q: I know you’ve toured before [in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, in Pittsburgh in 2015], but that’s a long time. Living out of a suitcase, do you ever get to actually experience a town?
BREWER: It is like any other business, in a way, except we work nights. So we are in town for work, but our free time is generally our own. Understudies and swings have rehearsals during the week, but even then as groups, a lot of us people go hiking or we will go see the sights. Being in D.C., obviously we have been out to a few different things, and they’ve set up a tour of the Library of Congress. …
For me, I grew up in Indiana and went to college at Indiana State, in my hometown, and then transferred to Indiana University, which was 30 minutes from my hometown. So I hadn’t gone anywhere as a kid. So getting to travel and … to be in these different cities, with different feelings and characters, and to see in every town that thing they’re proud of … but then also, to see that there is a lot about this country that is the same, it is what makes our show feel special to us, to take this [message] to everyone that it is less about the politics and more about the love we are based down.
We are closer than we think we are, and to experience all that .. and to get paid to do it? I cannot complain.
Q: You’re coming here at an exciting time, opening the Broadway in Pittsburgh season, and also, our Cultural District is about to unveil a bunch of renovations, including to the hundred-year-old Benedum Center marquee. We’ve been behind scaffolding for a long time.
BREWER: That’s fantastic. We can’t wait. We’ve gotten to be a lot of firsts post-pandemic. And like I said, it is really an honor, and you can feel the audience when they’re coming in and how much people are so excited to be there and are just happy to have that opportunity to get to go see a show. We feed off of that. It really helps us. It is a really big show, and there are a lot of things going on. There is some very heavy dancing and heavy singing and people are working hard. And when you have an audience that is with you and enjoying it and excited and really present with us … like they say, you love your job, you never work a day in your life. So we get that opportunity eight times a week.
TICKETS AND DETAILS
PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh brings Moulin Rouge! The Musical to the Benedum Center September 22-October 8, 2023. For tickets, visit https://trustarts.org/production/86813/moulin-rouge-the-musical or call 412-456-4800.