Most musicals start the second act with a song that’s, well, somewhat of a shrug — a soundtrack for the shuffle of audiences putting away their phones, settling back into their seats and gradually reentering the story onstage.
But the stage adaptation of “Moulin Rouge!” — now on Broadway, London’s West End and on the road in North America — welcomes theatergoers back from intermission with a full-throated roar from the entire cast, dancing all out while belting hits by Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, Soft Cell, the White Stripes and Eurythmics. Titled “Backstage Romance,” it’s an ensemble-wide embodiment of the 2001 movie’s maximalism aesthetic.
The six-minute showstopper is largely considered the best Act 2 opener in recent memory and is regularly met with a mid-show standing ovation. TikTok users have been replicating the pulsing routine; the medley was used in Ukraine’s ice dancing program at the Winter Olympics.
The Times went behind the scenes of “Backstage Romance” to find out how the high-energy hit parade came to be and what it’s like to perform repeatedly at Hollywood’s Pantages Theatre, where the show is playing through Sept. 4.
John Logan (book writer): Our brief was to take Baz Luhrmann’s masterpiece of cinematic overkill and turn it into theatrical overkill, in a way. So, yes, starting the second act with a full-blast explosion is definitely risky in comparison to most musicals, but it always felt like the right thing to do.
Justin Levine (music supervisor and orchestrator): From the beginning, we all talked about opening Act 2 with a tribute to “Too Darn Hot” from “Kiss Me, Kate,” which is this backstage moment where you get to see performers in the middle of their process.
Logan: The sequence is a scene that wasn’t in the movie. It jumps forward in time to when our bohemians are rehearsing for the show-within-the-show, and the choreographer Santiago is working with the Moulin Rouge dancers. Theater people know there’s always that moment midway through the rehearsal process when people start having affairs, so Santiago and a dancer named Nini start getting involved, while our forbidden lovers Christian and Satine are continuing their clandestine romance.
Sonya Tayeh (choreographer): I love “Backstage Romance” because it truly celebrates the body in motion. The idea of unattainability in a secret affair is in the physical language of the piece: Christian keeps trying to get to Satine and misses her by an inch; with these swirling lifts like tornadoes that keep winding him up, he just can’t seem to get to her, knowing that the Duke is nearby and watching his every turn. We toss Christian as if he were being shot out of a rocket into flight, but even when he lands, there’s something in the way. It’s hot-blooded — there’s sexual tension and aggression and a real hyper-physicality in excess.
Levine: Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” is a song that’s not in the film but is absolutely at home with the canon Baz created. I then put together songs about the painful parts of relationships — Britney Spears’ “Toxic,” Soft Cell’s [cover of] “Tainted Love,” the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” and Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” — and made this anti-romance medley. There was a lot of playing around with the keys, instrumentations and tempos of these songs in trying to see how they could fit together.
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Gabe Martinez (actor): Christian first has a short monologue, which does the job of getting people away from their phones and tuned back in. Then it’s just Santiago alone onstage with a chair and a single spotlight. Sometimes there’s some hooting and hollering, sometimes it’s dead silent; I can feel the audience, but I really can’t see anything, which is kind of isolating and very daunting. But I’m supposed to be out there with this immediate command of the stage. So during intermission, I’m changing my costume, stretching and getting warmed up, and then I’m pacing the stage and doing whatever I can to feel like, once that curtain goes up, that space is absolutely my domain.
Lloyd: Beforehand, I’m rolling out with a foam roller or getting a few things worked on in physical therapy — whatever I can do to be ready for this marathon. Then I walk onstage toward him and stare him down, like a lioness stalking her prey. That’s when people get a cue that something big is gonna happen. It feels like a boiling pot where you can feel the lid rattling and about to pop off and spill over at any second.
Martinez: I have a vocal line that starts low and inward and growly, and then builds to a real crescendo. And then when the tempo kicks in, that’s when the audience figures out what song we’re singing, and there’s always a laugh of recognition. It’s one of dozens of points in the show where we give the audience a moment to say, “Hey, you know this song, isn’t this fun?” There’s never been a single performance where that hasn’t landed.
Amy Quanbeck (dance captain and swing): Throughout the number, the choreography is challenging and dynamic and ferocious, but each section of the song has a different dynamic. “Toxic” feels tantalizing because the movements feel drippy and gooey. ...
Justin Keats (assistant dance captain and swing): … whereas “Seven Nation Army,” is the complete opposite, like you put your foot on the gas pedal. Sonya says it should feel like you’re coming out of the wings screaming. There’s this rubber band sensation that happens from the different push and pull from initiation in different body parts, like it starts in your foot and snaps through your wrists and then rolls around.
Tayeh: I was inspired by how the camera dances in the movie, with a whipping-around motion and these abrupt cuts. I incorporated that in the movement by using the momentum of the body to create these sudden shifts in style and direction.
Quanbeck: “Sweet Dreams” is hard because you’ve already done so much of the number by that point, and then you’re in a low, deep plié for that whole sequence. You have to find that clarity and efficiency in these precise movements.
Libby Lloyd (actor): It’s all very sexy, obviously, but it’s not just sexy in the typical sense, which is so easy. This has so much technique, strength, motivation, attack and control in every move. We’re not up on relevé, we’re not straight-legged; we’re plié, pelvis low, using our glutes and quads to get that strength from the floor and exude power together.
Tayeh: When the ensemble is learning this number, I ask them: What does the unattainable feel like in your body? How can you execute it externally? I tell them to think about sprinting toward something you want so, so badly — the desire to love, to win — and bring that difficulty and tension to your physicality.
It’s so important to me to ask these questions because they’re not machines, they’re human bodies with a task to tell a story. And all of these actors are so talented and come to the table with so much to offer. I want them to get their hands inside of it first; it will feel gritty and a little bit messy, but when you keep driving the “why” behind these movements, it starts to polish itself, it starts to find its ground. The stricter notes of “your arm goes here” and “your shape has to land like this for the lighting cue” — all of that comes last, because the aliveness of any dance is in the guts.
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Quanbeck: We call the final push of the number “the gantlet.” There are multiple lifts happening, everyone has their own path and, with what the lighting design does, it all feels like chaos. Anytime someone new goes into the show, we rehearse that section as a whole because it really does have a trickle effect.
Courtney Reed (actor): This was one of the hardest things in the show for me to learn because, if you’re in the audience, it looks like so many things are happening quite seamlessly, but it’s actually extremely intricate and effortful. And if you mess up one thing, it has a domino effect on everything else.
Conor Ryan (actor): The “gantlet” establishes that people at the Moulin Rouge are becoming aware of their scandalous situation. There’s a bit of dialogue where Courtney and I come together between the clothing racks of costumes and plan a secret meeting later that night. But the tension with the Duke, the stakes getting higher and higher for Christian and Satine, the feeling that trouble is lurking just around the corner — all of that storytelling is so beautifully and thrillingly told through Sonya’s choreography in that last section.
Martínez: It’s a marathon number that just never seems to end, and then when it finally does, the audience applauds for what feels like a full minute. We hold our last pose until they’ve finished applauding, but it’s a very, very difficult pose.
Lloyd: I’m trying to take in the energy that the audience is giving us, but I’m also breathing hard, leaning back and squeezing every muscle I have. We release when André Ward, who plays Toulouse-Lautrec, says, “I have a few notes,” so we then release and sigh and groan. It’s perfect because we’re reacting to what he’s saying, but we’re also so relieved to be out of that pose.
Ryan: I’m comfortable because I’m on my knees and basically get a moment to sit, but I’m the frontmost member of the formation, and all of the ensemble members have been told to choreographically put their focus on me. They’re all hinged back at their torsos, holding this ab crunch pose, trembling and gasping for breath, and they’re staring right at me while holding these fierce looks on their faces. It’s kind of funny, they look like they want to murder me and I’m just looking back at them all like, “You’re so close, it’s almost over.”
Keats: It’s so rewarding to do a number that is so ensemble-forward and really displays their talents. It’s incredible every time, and I still get just as excited as the audience does.
Tayeh: There’s been a lot of times in my experiences as a choreographer where dance feels secondary to the narrative, and it’s just not held to the standard where it could be, which is discouraging. In “Moulin Rouge,” the ensemble is incredibly integral to the entire narrative structure.
So when I see the audience bobbing their heads to “Backstage Romance” and giving the ensemble a raucous applause, I know they felt something. And that’s all I want, to remind people of what dance can do and what this company can do. I know how hard they work and what’s required of them, so to see them celebrated with such a visceral response makes me so happy.
‘Moulin Rouge! The Musical’
Where: Hollywood Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays; through Sept. 4
Tickets: Starting at $39
Info: (866) 755-2929 or via Ticketmaster, (800) 982-2787 or BroadwayInHollywood.com
Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (with one intermission)
Where: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Runs Nov. 9 through Nov. 27. (Check website for exceptions.)
Tickets: Starting at $31
Information: (714) 556-2787 or scfta.org
Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (with one intermission)
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