Welcome to The Moulin Rouge
A spectacular, sparkling diamond.
Behind the Scenes with Debora Krizak.
As Sydney prepares to welcome Global Creatures’ Moulin Rouge! The Musical to the Capitol Theatre (with other cities to follow), I had the opportunity to interview Associate Lighting Designer Gavan Swift about the design elements that went into creating the theatrical masterpiece.
It’s a smorgasbord of sensory delights with the mantra of such a production being ‘more is more’. The set, lighting, sound, and direction are all designed to captivate and overwhelm the senses. From the moment the audience walk into the venue, they are presented with a vision that encompasses the entire theatre.
Moulin Rouge! is unlike any show that Gavan has worked on.
With a show of this magnitude, the first challenge was how to fit all the scenery and equipment into Melbourne’s Regent Theatre.
Image: The Lady Ms.
“It was tight,” Gavan states. “As for rehearsing the show and bringing it to life onstage, I wouldn’t say it was challenging; it was exciting. We were in the middle of another extended Melbourne lockdown. While theatres and businesses all around us were closed, Global Creatures managed to keep the production moving ahead and we rehearsed, documented, and honed the show up until the point when we were meant to have an audience. There are occasions when the mixture of circumstance and personnel combine to create something special, and the tech process was like catching lightning in a bottle. Luckily, when we were able to open, the audience response was testament to this process.”
Lighting designers are storytellers. It’s their job to craft atmosphere, direct the audience’s attention, follow and enhance the emotion of a scene, and provide the basic illumination to assist the performers to tell the story. The brilliance behind Justin Townsend’s original lighting design is that it beautifully crafts and supports this story and can provide the spectacle and energy that elevates the production to the next level.
I asked Gavan to describe how some of those design elements are captured in this pair of production stills from Melbourne’s beautiful Regent Theatre.
INSIDE THE ELEPHANT
Image: Alinta Chidzey (Satine) and Des Flanagan (Christian).
“The opulence of Satine’s boudoir inside the elephant is a great piece of theatrical design. The over-the-top décor evokes a place of seduction, where men of means are enticed and bewitched.
“It’s a challenging set to light as, working from downstage to upstage, the elephant cloth needs to be seen, and lit in a way which emulates the large elephant on stage left, without drawing focus away from the performers. Inside the elephant the atmosphere is warm and decadent. Beyond the elephant, the garrets of Paris can be seen, bathed in a midnight blue light with the Eiffel Tower twinkling in the background - a sky of stars with a romantic moon, dominated by the instantly recognisable ‘Lamour’ sign.
“Within this set there are scenes, romantic songs, a comedic song selling the new show to The Duke and then the transformation that carries the show towards the Act 1 finale. All needed different lighting treatment.”
WELCOME TO THE MOULIN ROUGE
“When the audience enters, they are met with Derek McLane’s incredible set that consumes the entire theatre. Every part of the theatre is touched by scenic detail, big and small, and is therefore also treated with light.
“The swags of red drapes are followed by swags of LED festoon, which also continue along the walls of the theatre right up into the dress circle. The faces of the proscenium, passerelle and access runways have individually circuited festoon bulbs, ready to explode with energy in the opening number. The stage and auditorium are bathed in red light. The venue houselights are red. On stage right is the iconic Moulin Rouge windmill, and on-stage left is a large blue elephant, an icon repeated above the proscenium arch.
“Throughout the swags of red drape is an assortment of chandeliers and even the FOH speakers have design treatment to make them blend into the scenery.
“The gold columns and frescoes of the Regent Theatre’s architecture were all up lit with LED wash units to make the theatre itself part of the scenic design. There’s practically no part of the auditorium untouched by scenery and lighting on Moulin Rouge!”
Image: Alinta Chidzey (Satine), Des Flanagan (Christian) and cast in Elephant Love Medley.
Ahead of transferring Moulin Rouge! into Sydney’s Capitol Theatre, Gavan was halfway through tech week for Harry Potter Part One. I asked him what he loves the most about the industry and his contribution to the theatre.
“Personally, I love the variety of being a theatrical lighting designer. Whether it’s the fun and flashy nature of productions like Saturday Night Fever and Mamma Mia!, or the drama of plays like Patrick White’s The Aunt’s Story & The Ham Funeral, every show is different.
“I have been very fortunate to have had an extensive career covering all forms of live theatre and performance. I’ve designed in venues as small as the Hayes Theatre, right up to Marvel Stadium in Melbourne.
“As the musical theatre industry in Australia has evolved to a model that largely imports productions from overseas, I have been fortunate to have the trust of several Broadway and West End lighting designers who have asked me to recreate their lighting for production in the Australia, New Zealand and Asian markets.
“As the industry rebounds after Covid, and starts to settle after the boost provided by RISE funding, it’s going to be interesting to see how the theatrical landscape looks in the next couple of years”.
Gavan Swift – Associate Lighting Designer – Moulin Rouge
Moulin Rouge! The Musical plays at the Capitol Theatre, Sydney from May 28. It plays Perth's Crown Theatre from February 2023, with a Return Melbourne season from August 2023.
Australian production images by Michelle Grace Hunder.