A Design that CanCan! Set Designer Derek McLane brings us inside the Moulin Rouge

by Ellis Nassour
The Broadway musical Moulin Rouge!
The Broadway musical Moulin Rouge!

One thing that the ushers at NYC’s Al Hirschfeld Theatre can always count on when they open the orchestra doors at the new Broadway musical Moulin Rouge! is a volley of gasps and exclamations as ticketholders first glimpse the fully immersive set that encompasses much of the auditorium. Smartphones are out as patrons roam the aisles capturing snaps of the colorful stage with its depth of heart-shaped portals, the 14.6’ replica of the windmill that sits atop the Moulin Rouge in Paris, now mounted in the box at the left, and the 18’ high blue elephant in the box at right.

Moulin Rouge! is by far my largest and most elaborate production,” says Tony and Emmy-winning set designer Derek McLane, who has more than 350 design credits, including over 40 Broadway productions, six Academy Awards designs and four live musicals for NBC. “It’s even more elaborate than my sets for the Oscars. So, it’s really gratifying and wonderful to hear and get feedback on audience reaction to the design elements.”

Patrons haven’t been the only ones impressed. “I rather enjoyed standing there watching the reaction of the cast the first time they saw the finished set,” he added. “They were very, very excited. There were a lot of happy faces.” The wow factor extends throughout the theater. The house is a sea of red fabric, crystal chandeliers, bare-bulb festoon strings and cherubs. The latter are designed to look like cast plaster with gold leaf but are made of foam and plywood. In addition, McLane has covered the walls and exit doors with eight types of red velvet. There’s so much to absorb that almost overlooked except by the eagle-eyed are the golden cherub and windmill friezes that now overlay the Hirschfeld boxes. Regarding those friezes, McLane states, “I wanted to make them a lot more decadent, to reflect the seediness of Montmartre. In the end, I decided not to go that far.”

Filmmaker Baz Luhrmann and production/costume designer Catharine Martin, the force behind the Oscar-winning film Moulin Rouge!, were supportive the whole way through and are credited as Creative Consultants on the production. McLane considers the look of their blockbuster film one of the most stunning of the last 40 years, “so there was no way I wanted to disappoint fans. Our goal was to meet their expectations. There were certain things I riffed on and paid homage to, but I also wanted to surprise them in a number of ways.”

Cinematic Flow
The stage production is quite cinematic and moves very quickly. “It was important to have sets designed to be fast in and fast out,” says McLane. “Unlike on the Oscars, we don’t have commercial breaks to transition sets. Once the train leaves the station, it’s a non-stop express.” There are approximately 14 scenic locations in the show. One solution was using lots of drops, and McLane rose to the occasion. “There’s no space left in the Hirschfeld flies,” he laughs. “We’ve used it all! In addition to the 26 pieces descending onstage, there’s the Moulin Rouge neon sign and Satine’s trapeze.” Adding depth to the staging are three large heart portals. Including the flying automation, there are 44 axes of automation. 
Derek McLane looking over some of the many scenic details of his set for Moulin Roug

One of the drops is the 32-feet x 37-feet [the width of the proscenium] exterior of the elephant which fronts Satine’s elaborate apartment. The elephant in the room—rather in the box—has become quite the topic of conversation. McLane has often been asked why the elephant is blue. He responds, “I just thought it should be blue.” There’s nothing in the history books about a jumbo elephant ever being inside the Moulin Rouge, but there was a colossal gray one from the Paris’ Universal Exposition of 1899 that was moved to the garden park adjacent to the cabaret. It remained there about 10 years. It was large enough to be divided in two, with one side a private gentlemen’s opium and cocaine den; and the other, a dressing room for performers on the outdoor stage.
McLane’s rendering for the Satine apartment in Moulin Rouge.

Research and Collaboration
“The most important thing a designer needs to know when he or she is hired, points out McLane “is what the story is. At the very heart of Moulin Rouge! you have a passionate love story and cries of rebellion for artistic freedom. I didn’t want those moments to get lost upstage, so we built and blocked those moments as up close as possible to heighten their realism.”

Work began on the production in 2017, starting with a visit to Paris, where McLane had designed the Heitor Villa-Lobos operetta Magdalena at the Théâtre du Châtelet. “I knew the city fairly well and began delving into the origins of the famed cabaret in gritty, seedy Montmartre and the fashions of the late 1800s. “From the start,” he notes, it was a very close collaboration with Director Alex Timbers. “Alex is a wonderful director for a designer to work with because he’s interested in design. For a project this size, we knew it would take a lot of time. He was always there. We worked on models of the set, which helped figure out the scene transitions. There were many long nights going through what we could and could not do, making notes, and then making changes.”
McLane’s rendering for the Act One finale Love Medley in Moulin Rouge.

McLane, whose main associate on the show for the last two years has been Erica Hemminger, also noted, “One of the pleasures of working on Moulin Rouge! was collaborating with the brilliant costume designer Catherine Zuber. My old friend. Cathy and I have known each other a long time. We met in graduate school at Yale. We don’t always work together, but we share a studio, which in the case of Moulin Rouge! proved quite beneficial.” 

In addition to working with Zuber, McLane noted his collaboration with two-time Tony-nominated lighting designer Justin Townsend, who has Timbers’ Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson among his credits. The lighting elements, especially in the deep blue of the highly romantic Act One finale, are quite breathtaking. McLane’s secret to creating a balance between all the sparkling beads and crystals and the seediness of Montmartre was color. “To make a sharp distinction, I used two basic color palettes—reds and golds in the club and Satine’s apartment and shades of grey in the world of Montmartre and Toulouse-Lautrec’s artist garret.”

“When it comes to scenic shops,” states McLane, “we really have the best. A number of shops in the tri-state area did remarkable work on Moulin Rouge!” The shops included Scenic Arts Studio, Newburgh, NY; PRG Scenic Technologies, New Windsor, NY; Showman Fabricators, Bayonne, NJ; Proof Productions, Sewell, NJ; and Global Scenic Studios, Bridgeport, CT. Soft goods were also provided by iWeiss Theatrical Solutions. Since the major elements of the show were done with the Hirschfeld stage in mind, there weren’t major alterations. McLane noted that PRG built a majority of the scenery and did the automation for the show, “as well as an incredible job on the elephant placed in the right box.” Showman’s scope of work included the heart portals. Proof handled the miniature Montmartre buildings and Toulouse-Lautrec’s garret.
Sahr Ngaujah, Danny Burstein, Ricky Rojas, and Aaron Tveit in the Artist’s Garret. Derek McLane’s rendering for the Artist’s Garret in Moulin Rouge.

A wide range of scenic techniques were used to realize the set. “The shops used CNC routers and water-jet cutters for most of the patterned work,” explains McLane. “The cut-out filigree work of the heart portals was cut from steel on a water jet machine. Most of the neon in the heart portals is an LED neon replacement product. We also used a lot of incandescent light bulbs on the set—about 6,000 altogether.” For the various paint textures and effects chosen for the portals, he points out, “We used a combination of painted velour, enameled MDF, and steel along with molding with gold leaf. The variety of finishes, along with the cut-out filigree work, was important to get the complicated depth I hoped to achieve. Ultimately, it’s the cut-out patterns in the design that are the key. Looking through multiple layers of filigree gives them depth and complexity.”

In addition to the flying automation, McLane uses elevators to create other playing spaces like the set of the empty stage for rehearsals at the club. “There are two platforms that raise up and then lower flush with the stage floor, as well as three steps downstage of them that can raise up,” comments McLane. “They have a wrought iron design on their face, with incandescent light bulbs built into them.”

To realize the lush and lavish set designs and multiple locations McLane worked closely with his scenic team on the production. Along with associate scenic designer Erica Hemminger, there was also assistant scenic designer, Brandon McNeel and scenic assistant, Antonio DiBernardo.

Broadway Bound
Moulin Rouge! first did an out-of-town try-out in Boston where it premiered in July 2018 at the historic and newly renovated Emerson Colonial Theatre, now part of the Ambassador Theatre Group. After the well-received run the entire team and company began preparations to bring the production to Broadway’s Al Hirschfeld theater, a Jujamcyn house. The Moulin Rouge! team moved into the Hirschfeld on April 8, 2019, the day following the closing of the theater’s previous long running tenant Kinky Boots. “With all Alex had on his plate,” pointed out McLane, “he was willing to spend time working with me through the tech rehearsals. We started from scratch with a blank canvas,” says the designer. “It was a beehive of activity from morning to night. We built our stage and installed the elevators. It took the better part of two months before Alex could get the cast onstage.”

Moulin Rouge! has now opened, again to enthusiastic reviews, and McLane and his team have moved on to new projects, but he reflects on what elements of the musical were the most satisfying personally. “I’m particularly fond of the Montmartre street scene early in Act One, where Christian meets Lautrec and Santiago and they hatch their plot to get their musical up,” he states. “After the extreme color in the club, I liked the surprise of a completely different palette—all shades of grey. I worked hard to capture the sense of Montmartre’s winding streets and hilly topography to give a sense of the neighborhood where the Moulin Rouge is situated.”

One thing is certain, visually the overall design for Moulin Rouge!—sets, costumes, lights, sound, and props—is stunning work that overflows from the stage and fully embraces the audiences. All who enter the theater are transported into the world of Montmartre. No passport or plane ride needed, just a much in demand Broadway ticket to Moulin Rouge!