Baz Luhrmann adds new moves to ‘Strictly Ballroom’ for musical

Baz Luhrmann with cast members of the Australian musical "Strictly Ballroom: The Musical" at Carriageworks in Sydney, Australia.
(Lisa Maree Williams / Getty Images)

SYDNEY, Australia — The video playing on the television inside Baz Luhrmann’s bedroom was supposed to be much steamier.

But where there should have been desirous bumping and prurient grinding, the couples were remarkably chaste, as if they had been ordered to abstain from all manner of randy moves.

“Look at this,” the filmmaker behind “Moulin Rouge!” and “The Great Gatsby” said from the foot of his bed. “You couldn’t get any more sexless.”


Working inside the creative compound he calls Iona in Sydney’s arty Darlinghurst neighborhood, Luhrmann was sitting with a reporter, reviewing news clips from 1980s Australian ballroom dancing competitions, whose judges favored technique over passion.

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When the contestants started performing the samba — the Brazilian dance popular from the nation’s libidinous annual carnival — their steps were as precise as a mathematical equation. The dancers’ feet navigated the floor expertly, yet they rarely moved their hips.

The samba had been neutered.

Reinstating the sexiness of ballroom dancing was one of the organizing principles of Luhrmann’s feature film debut, 1992’s “Strictly Ballroom,” and the filmmaker several weeks ago in Sydney was in the middle of rehearsals for its reworking as a stage production.

It opened April 12 to mostly favorable but qualified reviews at the cavernous Sydney Lyric, with some critics finding that Luhrmann’s extravagant staging undercut the story’s romance and emotion. “Strictly Ballroom: The Musical,” bankrolled by Global Creatures, the same company behind Australia’s oversized “King Kong” and “Walking With Dinosaurs” productions, hopes to travel north in the months ahead, perhaps making it all the way to Broadway or some American tryout city first.

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Before any of that could happen, though, Luhrmann first had to navigate his way back to the theater, where his career all began.

Stage directions

“It’s been so long since I’ve been in a room with a group of kids,” the 51-year-old Luhrmann said as he visited one of the first choreography sessions for the musical in late January. “It’s such a relief not to have 300 people say, ‘We can’t get to the mountain because of the rain.’”

The 18 dancers working on a waltz with choreographer John “Cha Cha” O’Connell, who designed the dance steps in the original film and has collaborated with Luhrmann on “Moulin Rouge!” and “Romeo + Juliet,” probably had no idea what the Australian director was talking about. But last year’s “The Great Gatsby” proved a nightmare for Luhrmann to shoot, with monsoonal storms repeatedly washing out the film’s sets and leading to costly budget overages.

Wearing a faded T-shirt, khakis, tennis shoes without socks and sporting a small bandage on his neck from where a worrisome growth was recently nicked off by a doctor, Luhrmann knew that his presence in the rehearsal would cause something of a ruckus, as most of the dancers hadn’t met the kinetic director since auditions several weeks earlier.

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“Don’t mind me,” he said in a friendly admonition ignored by everyone in the studio in Annandale, an affluent residential neighborhood about a 20-minute drive from Darlinghurst. “I’m going to go back to being invisible.”

Even though rehearsals were just starting — flamenco in the morning, waltzes in the afternoon — Luhrmann and longtime writing partner Craig Pearce already were making significant changes to the show, excising songs here and ordering new songs there.

“Never forget that ‘Memory’ was not in ‘Cats’ when it opened,” he said as O’Connell resumed rehearsals. “But we will have all the songs in place by the time we open.”

It turned out barely to be true, with Luhrmann (as is his habit, particularly in filmmaking) making significant changes up to the last minute.

Returning to the theater was supposed to be more manageable than a $100-million-plus feature, yet little that Luhrmann undertakes is modest, even if the underlying source material was.

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Thirty years ago, while studying at Australia’s National Institute of Dramatic Art, Luhrmann directed and acted in a student play set inside ballroom dancing. It was partly inspired by Keith Bain, an Australian choreographer and teacher whose students included a young Mel Gibson and Judy Davis. “He started creating his own steps,” Luhrmann said. “And he was carved up, never working, told to cut it out and stick with the rules.”

The 20-minute “Strictly Ballroom” show ostensibly was about a competitive dancer who felt compelled to break from tradition and move as he saw fit, not as the overzealous rules committee prescribed. Even with so many dance steps in the play, Luhrmann, whose mother taught dancing and who was a childhood dancer himself, believed his play carried a political message: Rise up against authoritarian decree and liberate yourself.

A longer version of Luhrmann’s play, running just an hour, was greeted warmly at the Czechoslovakian World Youth Drama Festival (the country’s Velvet Revolution was several years in the future), and its director promptly started trying to make a “Strictly Ballroom” movie, which would be filled with dancing and music but wouldn’t technically be a musical.

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It would take years to attract financing. In the decades before “Dancing With the Stars” and “So You Think You Can Dance” became television hits, few people thought the proposed film’s subject would be relevant.

“I can’t tell you how many Americans said, ‘Ballroom dancing will never, ever be popular in the United States. I’m promising you that,’” Luhrmann recalled.

He persevered, and in 1992 the independently financed “Strictly Ballroom” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.

The movie, which showcased Luhrmann’s nascent but already showy visual style and the bold production design of his wife, Catherine Martin, was a critical and commercial success.

It starred Paul Mercurio — later a judge on Australia’s “Dancing With the Stars” but now largely out of movies — as Scott Hastings and Tara Morice as Fran, dancers on seemingly opposite trajectories. Scott looks destined to win the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix, but his enthusiasm for the unauthorized pasa doble (Spain’s take on the pas de deux) leaves him facing expulsion until the shy but secretly saucy Fran replaces two of Scott’s potential partners. Scott and Fran triumph by rejecting protocol and dancing the way they, not the Australian Dance Federation judges and autocratic leader Barry Fife, want to.

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“It’s really about a popular revolution. A despot controls a country by saying, ‘These are the rules and get rid of those who don’t follow,’” Luhrmann said of the subtext of “Strictly Ballroom.” “A true revolutionary is not afraid of dying for what he believes in — let’s forget the rules and what gets you the medals. Let’s do what’s truthful and shows what we want to express.”

Luhrmann followed the film with “Romeo + Juliet,” “Moulin Rouge!,” “Australia” and last year’s “The Great Gatsby,” several of which leaned on modern songs — by Elton John, Kanye West and Beyoncé, among others — to tell period stories.

Having staged his version of Giacomo Puccini’s “La Boheme” in 2002 in San Francisco and New York, Luhrmann had returned to the theater, but when he announced in early 2011 that he was planning a musical of “Strictly Ballroom,” he had been away from the stage for a long time.

In a way, he had to reinvent “Strictly Ballroom” all over again.

“It was a play that had a theatrical language that became a film,” Luhrmann said as he dashed out of the dance rehearsal and climbed into his Mercedes Sprinter van — equipped with a high-definition television and enough mobile phone technology to operate a small business — where several assistants were ready to prepare him for his next meeting.

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But first, Luhrmann had to inform his representatives that he would not be traveling that coming weekend to Los Angeles, where the “Great Gatsby” soundtrack was nominated for three Grammys. “Look, I just have too much to do,” he said. While the ceremonies and parties might have been fun, the movie ended up being blanked.

Luhrmann’s driver steered the van back toward Darlinghurst, where his leads, newcomers Thomas Lacey (playing Scott) and Phoebe Panaretos (as Fran), were about to find out they quickly had to learn a new song for the musical.

“Hey, kids,” Luhrmann said as he walked into a small recording studio where Lacey and Panaretos were rehearsing. “Let’s have a little listen and see what you guys think.”

The new duet, called “Beautiful Surprise,” was intended to fix a story problem that had been bothering Luhrmann for weeks. The show was overflowing with spectacle but lacked intimacy, and as Fran emerged from the shadows and was transformed from wallflower into a leading lady, she hadn’t showcased her new confidence in music. “Look. We’ve had so many big numbers up to now — we need something small,” he told the actors. “Remember, when words fail you, you sing,” he said. “And when singing fails you, you dance.”

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Lacey and Panaretos listened to the song once and promptly started working on it. Luhrmann later would move “Beautiful Surprise” from place to place in the show to see if it would work better in different spots, with several critics singling the song out for special praise.

Changing the routine

When Martin won two Oscars — production and costume design — for “The Great Gatsby,” she was rewarded in large part for her exquisitely devised dresses, each stitch a small work of art. In her “Strictly Ballroom” costume shop around the corner from Iona, Martin was no longer working with creamy French silk but yards of gaudy taffeta.

One assistant was sewing pineapple leaves into the bikini top for Tina Sparkles, the knockout holdover from the movie who is competing for Scott’s affections. “Baz keeps telling me, more sequins and sparkles,” Martin said, as if she were half-embarrassed by the over-the-top designs.

In bringing “Strictly Ballroom” back to the stage, Luhrmann faced two apparently competing agendas: To not disappoint fans, he needed to retain some of the signature tunes from the original movie — including the Cyndi Lauper love ballad “Time After Time” and John Paul Young’s disco hit “Love Is in the Air” — and the romantic intimacy they convey, even as his production had to offer new original music and enough theatricality to fill the 2,000-seat Sydney venue, where “Strictly Ballroom” is scheduled to run until July 6.

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“The iconic things will remain the same,” Luhrmann said, adding that some of the musical’s sets mirror locations used in the movie. At the same time, the musical has new songs by Australia’s Sia Furler and Eddie Perfect and the American songwriters Diane Warren and David Foster, which do not have a 1980s beat.

“Of course scenery will arrive and all of that,” Luhrmann, who has yet to announce what his next movie will be, said of the complicated staging. “But character is what’s going to tell this story.”

When the original movie premiered, ballroom dancing occupied a niche, and it’s easy to see “Strictly Ballroom” as a precursor to its emergence from the shadows into the cultural spotlight. Consequently, the revolution the story calls for already has happened. And with so much ballroom dancing everywhere, “Strictly Ballroom” somehow needed to set itself apart as fresh and immediate.

To make the story, set vaguely in the 1980s, feel current and immediate, Luhrmann turned part of the house into a space resembling an actual contest. “As soon as you walk into the theater,” said Lacey, who stars as Scott, “it’s like a ballroom competition. You feel like a part of what’s about to happen.”

That’s part of Luhrmann’s classic model: over-the-top spectacle intended to tell a personal story.

“There’s a lot of fun in the show,” Luhrmann said. “For lack of a better way of saying it, it’s making a serious point in a silly way.”