There is a very good reason Red Mill! Musical comedy was dubbed “Broadway’s Biggest Karaoke Night” when it opened in New York in 2019. It’s packed with tunes – 70 songs, credited to 160 songwriters, spanning 160 years of music.
It’s a lot. And it’s not like the soundtrack to Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 film was left out in the song department – it spawned two albums and reached No. 1 on the Australian charts. It also gave the film’s stars Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor their one – and only – Golden Globe nomination for Best Original Song for their rendition of Whatever happens (they lost to Sting).
So when Justin Levine was given the task of reworking the film’s soundtrack for the stage, he knew it was going to be tricky. “The first thing I said to [director Alex Timbers] was that if I do it right, I’m going to piss off as many people as I’m going to delight,” says Levine, who won a Tony Award and was nominated for a Grammy for his work on the show.
He was, after all, about to cobble together some seriously eye-catching work, one that could make your fingers snap at the mere sound of “Hey sista, go sista, soul sista, flow sista.” But it was also a soundtrack that was, at this point, 15 years old. No Beyoncé? How awful !
“This is, by far, the toughest job I’ve ever had,” says Levine. “Writing a musical, period, is a difficult task. But in a way, you think, well, you pick all these great songs, so it must be really fun. You know, I often get this. And it’s fun, but it’s also incredibly stressful.
SOMETHING OLD, SOMETHING NEW
To get it humming for a new audience, Levine turned to modern-day superstars — think Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Britney Spears and Adele — and finally gave the Rolling Stones their moment.
“I knew Baz wanted to put Rolling Stones in the original film, but I couldn’t get the rights,” Levine explains. “I really wanted to put some Rolling Stones in there. So, we went back and forth a bit, and it became clear that the more we communicated, the more likely it was that we were going to be able to use certain things because they became more involved in decision making.
The only conspicuously absent contemporary big name is Taylor Swift. Did she shake them? “There were Taylor Swift songs that we were considering,” Levine explains. “It also has a lot to do with the language of the songs and how they settle in the characters’ mouths. And I found that my top three Taylor Swift ideas, sitting in the mouths of these particular characters, sounded maybe a little too cheeky or campy.
The result is an enhanced soundtrack that retains the classics while ramping up the action with Gnarls Barkley, Sia, Katy Perry and the White Stripes, to name a few. The Rolling Stones aren’t the only heritage band to score a spot or three – the Stones songs Sympathy for the Devil, You can’t always get what you want and give me shelter – as Elvis Presley, Whitney Houston and Pat Benatar all take turns in the Red Room.
It’s one thing to put the songs together like Levine does, but it’s another to sing them. Take Katy Perry’s Fireworks. In Perry’s hands, it’s a call to arms for teenage girls: “Come on, show them what you’re worth.” Make them go, ‘Oh, oh, oh.’ But in the hands of Alinta Chidzey, who plays doomed courtesan Satine, it became a song about a woman grappling with the weight of responsibility.
“We’ve all heard the Katy Perry version – it’s a bit more generic, very pop,” Chidzey says. “For Satine, the song is about belief and hope, and knowing that she can bring her inner strength to overcome all the problems she has faced – the club, her illness and all the love she desires. It’s quite surprising how much it affects you.
“Song also lives in my life, with responsibility and making sure I’m good for the show, for home life, as a mother and wanting to set a standard. All these things that arise in her, I really feel them for me too.
Of all the musical mixes on the 19-song soundtrack, crazy rolling is perhaps the most unexpected. Gone is the propulsive rhythm that launches Gnarls Barkley Mad, instead it is replaced by a softer reflection of the Christian in love. “I remember when I lost my mind,” he sings softly, wondering, “Does this drive me crazy? Probably.” Cue the beat and we’re suddenly in Adele territory, like hit bottom thunder (“There is a fire starting in my heart”).
“It’s one of the biggest numbers on the show,” says Dse Flanagan, who plays Christian. “With all the scenes in between, the song is about 15 minutes long and it’s really Christian’s turn. Satine has just hurt him very badly and he’s trying to figure out what he’s going to do – is he going to kill himself?
“Mad is quite a catchy and funky song. Turning the tables and providing the landscape he does in this piece, of Christian going through the beginning of his turmoil, is my favorite reinterpretation in the show. Every once in a while people laugh when I start singing this song and I think the laugh is, ‘What? It just doesn’t make sense. It’s a bit of a shock that they hear these words that they know so well in this context.
It’s quite the roller coaster. “It’s quite an emotional journey to do in 15 minutes,” laughs Flanagan.
LOVE IS IN THE AIR
Of all the songs of Red Mill! Musical comedythe one that stands out the most is the film’s only original work, the duet Whatever happens. Written by David Baerwald and Kevin Gilbert, it was originally intended for Luhrmann’s 1996 film Romeo + Juliet by William Shakespeare but landed in Red Mill! Afterwards, no other song matched Christian and Satine’s declaration of love.
“We wanted a song without baggage because it’s Satine and Christian’s secret code song,” said the film’s co-writer Craig Pearce. “It’s the device at the end that lets Christian know that in fact Satine loves him and that resolves the film.”
Levine didn’t need to tinker with it – the original had already been transformed by Luhrmann and the film’s music supervisor Anton Monsted from a country-tinged solo to a duet for the film – so all that was left to do was Flanagan. and Chidzey to find the chemistry.
“For the first half, it’s just Des singing to me, which is the most glorious thing to listen to and listen to,” Chidzey says. “And that’s the biggest challenge of always doing so many shows a week, and for so long, is that you have to stay present. Because without that, it’s dead in the water.
Flanagan agrees. “It’s like kids falling in love all over again,” he says. “I could paint Alinta’s eyes from this song.”
And if that’s not enough to make you go awww, Flanagan has more — well, the cover he sings at the end of the show, anyway.
“It’s a celebration of life,” he says. “It’s not a sad song. It’s just continuing to love that person. And I don’t necessarily think it’s always Satine in this number for me, it’s whoever. And for anyone in the audience, that’s what this song is – it’s for everyone they’ve lost. I try so hard to put as much joy into it as possible – there’s so much pain at the same time, and it’s beautiful when those two things live side by side.
Red Mill! Musical comedy is at the Capitol Theater starting May 28.
A cultural guide to go out and love your city. Sign up for our Culture Fix newsletter here.