Why Derek McLane Went for “Baroque S&M” in MOULIN ROUGE! THE MUSICAL Set Design


Derek McLane inspecting front-of-house drapes in the Al Hirschfeld Theatre | Photo: Monique Carboni

Dan Meyer
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December 6, 2022 11:00 AM

There’s one character in Moulin Rouge! The Musical for which the best description is “Baroque S&M” is absolute perfection. In his new book, two-time Tony-winning set designer Derek McLane explains his thought process behind each look, from the club to Satine’s apartment, into Montmartre, and beyond.

Check out below which set piece was inspired by a centuries-old photo, what got cut from the Boston pre-Broadway tryout, and how the seating arrangements posed a unique challenge for the designer.

Co-written by Eila Mell, Designing Broadway: How Derek McLane and Other Acclaimed Set Designers Create the Visual World of Theatre was released November 22. For more information, click here.

DEREK MCLANE: Often, we revere unity of style in a show. I thought that might be a bad idea for Moulin Rouge! Part of what is amazing about the show is that it’s wildly eclec­tic. Violating the style constantly would make the transitions more striking and energetic.

You see three people’s homes in the show. Satine is a pro­fessional courtesan employed by the Moulin Rouge. There’s a heart-shaped window, which is an homage to the movie, but the rest of her place was based on my research of Paris in that period. I looked at courtesans’ apartments. They were very exotic, with a lot of Orientalism, which was regarded as sexy. They were elaborately decked out with layered carpets and draped fabrics, cut Moroccan screens, and so on. That became the identity of her apartment. A lot of time is spent in Satine’s place, so it was important to invest a lot of our resources there. I don’t just mean money; I mean space on stage and time to set it up. Some sets you don’t want to spend much time setting up — you just get into the next scene efficiently. Satine’s was important enough that we could afford to spend forty seconds getting into it because we’re going to be there a long time.

An early sketch of Satine's Apartment | Photo: Derek McLane

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec as a character in Moulin Rouge! was an artist and very poor. The show exalts artists — one of the ideals of the show is that artists are poor but noble. Toulouse- Lautrec invites Christian to come live with him in Montmartre in “glorious poverty.” That was the guiding principle for his garret. It was romantic and beautiful, but all made of rags.

The Duke, who is ridiculously wealthy, is the only evil character in the show. He uses his money and power to exact cruelty on other people. He wants to own Satine. I thought the image for the Duke should be Baroque S&M. I wanted his place to look very expensive and very dangerous. I found an image of a beautiful, expensive-looking Baroque room from that period, and I took that photo and inverted it in Photoshop so it looked like a negative of the room. I built a wall inspired by that piece of research and painted it like a negative. There is only one piece of furniture in there, which is a very excessive sixteen-foot patent-leather upholstered chaise. All three places have totally different styles and distinct personalities.

John Logan described the club in the script with the words: “The club — sex and smoke.” I thought that was perfect. I love descriptions like that, that don’t spell anything out and just give you the atmosphere. The one homage to the movie is the heart-shaped portals. You barely saw them in the movie, but they made a strong impression on me. There are three of them in the show. They’re made out of lacy, Victorian ironwork that’s painted gold to look like gold leaf. Because there are three con­centric heart shapes that are similar but not exactly the same, the shapes morph a bit as they go upstage. Each one is dense but also transparent. You’re looking through this ironwork to the next shape, and it’s visually confusing. People were con­stantly surprised to find out that there were only three of them. They thought there were three times that number. That was a happy trick created by the density and transparency of the pat­terns. The layering of patterns was important to me. The por­tals have hundreds of light bulbs built into them and tubes of neon, so there was a lot of opportunity to light them.

Danny Burstein on the passerelle in the opening number | Photo: Monique Carboni

We first did the show at the Colonial Theatre in Boston. Alex and I flew up to take a look at it a year in advance. The theater looked gorgeous. The walls were painted red with this gold architecture. It was perfect, but we knew they were going to renovate the theater. In the six months that elapsed between our scouting trip and the start of set construction, the theater was painted green and landmarked. Because it was now land­marked, we couldn’t alter the color of the walls. Obviously, we couldn’t do Moulin Rouge! in a green theater, so we had to cover the walls. I decided to use red velvet. There’s a lot of wall space, and we couldn’t even come close to getting enough of one fabric to cover the walls. We couldn’t find enough to do it with two fabrics. I decided we’d make a virtue of that problem, and we ended up using nine different types of red fabric, including satin, damask, velvet, brocade. That was a happy accident because the different shades of red gave the walls more texture and energy than a single shade would have. It was also in keeping with the idea that, even though the club is extravagant, it’s held together on a shoestring budget.

Aaron Tveit and Karen Olivo in the show’s finale. The curtain was cut in previews in Boston | Photo: Monique Carboni 

In the show, I wanted to capture the sense of the neigh­borhood you get in the movie, and there are a couple of opportunities to see the neighborhood of Montmartre. In the second scene of the show, we’re introduced to Christian, Santiago, and Toulouse-Lautrec. For that scene, I created a view of the streets of Montmartre with real scale buildings in the foreground going down to little, tiny models of buildings in the distance, so you get a sense of the winding streets in the neighborhood. A couple of scenes later, in Satine’s apart­ment, there’s a great big window. Outside, you can see some of those same buildings but they’re reconfigured a little bit. They’re not in exactly the same relationship, so you recognize that you’re looking at the same structures but from a different angle. In Act II we’re in Toulouse-Lautrec’s garret. He has a big artist’s window, and again you see the same buildings recon­figured slightly. You also see an added miniature version of the red windmill that sits atop the Moulin Rouge and the elephant that’s in the club’s backyard. It sets up a relationship between the different places in the neighborhood. While the club is full of color, Montmartre had no color. It was all shades of gray. The transition from the club to the streets of Montmartre created a visual shock. You had this incredible amount of color and then there was a completely gray palette.

The black-and-white palette of the streets of Montmartre | Photo: Monique Carboni

The Broadway show would not exist if not for the movie, but it has its own identity. As a designer, I wanted the show to feel new and original and surprising, but with an awareness of the movie’s intensely loyal fans. It needed to pay homage to some of their favorite features. If we could have, we would have put tables throughout the entire theater to enhance the audience’s sense that they were entering a club. That’s imprac­tical because you have to lose so many seats to do it. Instead, we had a passerelle that came out into the audience. We put tables and café chairs between the passerelle and the stage. That was designated the club seating, and it cost more to sit there.

Satine’s first entry into the club is on a trapeze. We didn’t want to do that on stage; we wanted to do it in the house, and the only logical place to have her land was the passerelle. There was no place built into the theater from which to anchor the trapeze, so we built a catwalk above the audience that is fully enclosed and disguised with drapery. When Satine is ready to make her entrance, she goes up a spiral staircase, onto the catwalk. She’s put into a safety belt and fitted into the swing; when it’s time for her to go, a trapdoor slides open and she’s dropped through to make her entrance.

Satine (Karen Olivo) making her entrance on her swing | Photo: Monique Carboni

The final scene of the show is Toulouse-Lautrec’s play, star­ring Satine and Christian. John Logan’s script says that “Toulouse-Lautrec is not only the author of the play, but also the set designer — not intimidating at all!” The real Toulouse- Lautrec didn’t draw spaces or architecture very much; he was really a portrait artist, so trying to figure out what a set he would have designed looked like was difficult. I did many dif­ferent versions in figuring what this should be. In conversation with Alex, I decided that this should be Toulouse-Lautrec’s painting of Satine’s apartment. I did a drawing of my own set for Satine’s apartment in my best version of his style.

Later in the chapter, he writes: 

DEREK MCLANE: It’s been a few years since Moulin Rouge! opened on Broadway, but its impact on me remains huge. While I have a habit of moving on from a show quickly and loving most whatever show I am in the midst of designing, this one was different. Moulin Rouge! feels like the culmination of many years of training, an opportunity that combined the source material for inspiration with the rare budget resources for execution that allowed me to show off some of the things I’ve learned over my decades of working.

Excerpted from DESIGNING BROADWAY: How Derek McLane and Other Acclaimed Set Designers Create the Visual World of Theatre by Derek McLane and Eila Mell. Copyright © 2022. Available from Running Press, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

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Dan Meyer

After 4 years in the biz, Dan swapped out theatre for sports and is now a researcher at NBC Olympics. Spectacle remains a key passion and is dedicated to building bridges between different forms of entertainment. He has worked as a writer and editor at Theatrely and Playbill, covering Broadway and beyond. In addition, he has been published in Rolling Stone, Spy, and others.