Moulin Rouge! is one of the most instantly recognizable movies of the last 20 years. The red and gold, the 19th-century Parisian boudoir—the elephant! So when director Alex Timbers and book writer John Logan began the process of bringing the film to the stage, aesthetics were vital. And scenic designer Derek McLane and costume designer Catherine Zuber don’t disappoint.
From the opulent, immersive feel of the Moulin Rouge stage at the Al Hirschfeld to costumes that immediately convey character and place—including some extremely short shorts—the look and feel of the musical is of a piece with the rest of the show: a sumptuous, sexy, contemporary reworking of a beloved property. And if McLane and Zuber’s work seems particularly complementary given how elaborate the designs are, that’s because they were working extremely closely.
“I share a studio with Derek,” Zuber says, laughing. “We’ve been sharing a studio since the ’90s. My team would go to his team and say, ‘Can we have a swatch of the [upholstery] you’re using in the Duke’s apartment?’ It was great to have that kind of back and forth, over the backyard fence.”
“It’s exciting. It’s a lot of work,” McLane adds. “The set has a lot of color in it, obviously, so coordinating that was a job we really had to pay a lot of attention to. And with Justin [Townsend, the lighting designer], I worked very closely with him because I designed so many pieces of scenery to light up. There are light bulbs strewn throughout everything.”
McLane has also hidden a few Easter eggs for eagle-eyed audiences to spot in his set, including windmills and elephants. But his initial concept for the look of the show has changed very little over the years.
“I started with a couple of key ideas and basically just expanded from there,” he says. “There wasn’t that much I got rid of along the way, I just added more detail.”
And for Zuber, sketches and storyboards were the thrust of her work. “I did storyboards for each of the principals and how everyone hung together,” she says. “And I had a little picture of the set so we could see scene by scene in terms of the journey of the ensemble, as well.”
Including those shorts sported by ensemble members Max Clayton and Kyle Brown, which Zuber was particularly keen on. Though there was some hesitancy given their size and the dancers’ need to slide across the floor in one number, Zuber points to Clayton’s own enthusiasm. “God love Max, who said, ‘We can do it, we don’t mind!’ And I think after two performances everyone went crazy for those shorts. And they weren’t going anywhere.”