The Healing Power of “Moulin Rouge!”

Few productions pack visual panache, catchy pop tunes, and unabashed emotion like Moulin Rouge! The Musical. Loosely based on the 2001 Baz Luhrmann movie starring Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman, the story was reworked for the musical’s Broadway premiere in 2019 and won 10 Tony Awards.

The North American touring production, which includes 70 songs and is slated to visit nearly two dozen cities, will stop at Seattle’s Paramount Theatre December 14 through January 1 to offer local audiences a uniquely immersive experience filled with romance, drama, and glitz. Conor Ryan portrays Christian, a young Englishman entangled in a tragic love story with the show’s cabaret star Satine. He shared his experiences performing in this epic musical production.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.

TODD MATTHEWS: This is the first time Moulin Rouge! The Musical will be performed in Seattle. Does that add any pressure to your performance?

CONOR RYAN: Well, for all the cities we’ve been to, it’s the first time the community has seen it in their hometown. I wouldn’t say there is any added pressure. I would lean in the opposite direction and say it’s a real joy to experience a community discovering the show for the first time. Once in a while, you meet audience members who saw it on Broadway. But most of the time, we are blessed with audiences highly anticipating the show because they love the movie but couldn’t get to New York City to see the show. It’s exciting to feel that energy. Some people come to the show dressed in costumes. Some people see the musical five, six, seven, or even 10 times! It’s a gift to be in a show that draws that kind of attention, to be a part of something that so many people love.

a large group of people stand together singing with their arms up in the air in exuberance
The cast of the North American Tour of “Moulin Rouge! The Musical.” Photo by Matthew Murphy

Are there differences and similarities between the movie and this touring production?

I’m happy to report all the things audiences love about the movie are still there—scenic elements, popping colors, and high energy. This show was written almost 20 years after the movie was released, so there are nearly two decades of new pop music that the music supervisor and the creative team were able to explore. Not only do we have those classic songs audiences love about the movie, but we’ve also got some Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, and Adele. Those moments in the show are thrilling because audiences aren’t expecting them. For example, I get to sing Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep.” Every time that song starts, the crowd goes crazy because they love it and are not expecting it. Also, the movie is a movie, and the show is a Broadway show. Just by the nature of it being a different art form, it has a different feel. It grabs you differently when you’re physically in the same space as the performers.

Moulin Rouge! is a huge spectacle often described as a “visual feast.” How do you maintain your energy and prepare for that night after night?

I’ve done some demanding roles before, but never quite on this scale and never for this long. Something I’ve struggled with is the “long game.” I’m one of those performers who doesn’t know how to give less than 120 percent every time. It feels good to wring out my soul and leave it all on the floor. But, unfortunately, it’s not the most sustainable way to perform. I’m learning to take as best care of myself as possible. Instead of doing eight shows a week, I do seven. I get a ton of sleep. I drink tons of water. This show is so vocally demanding that sometimes I need to go on complete vocal rest. That’s very difficult for me. I’m incapable of being in any social setting and not talking. It’s about finding balance. It’s a journey.

What appealed to you about the role of Christian?

As soon as I heard they were making a Broadway show, I was manifesting, “Please, put me in that role.” I was always drawn to that character—his love of life and passion for his art. I feel like Christian is not that different from me. It’s one of those roles that fit like a glove.

The character of Christian is being held back by a group of dancers with unsettling lighting.
The cast of the North American Tour of “Moulin Rouge! The Musical.” Photo by Matthew Murphy

Have you been able to put your stamp or signature on the character?

The creative team allowed me to bring so much of myself to the role within the show’s structure. They encouraged and supported me in singing the songs my way, unique to my voice, and bringing my raw emotion to the role. I love the journey Christian goes on, even though it ends up being tragic. I love the joys of the first act and all the pain and anguish of the second. I love the experience of going out there and bringing out my soul. I’m drenched in sweat by the end, but it feels so good. It’s a dream come true. Honestly, I feel like the luckiest guy in the world.

Is there one song you look forward to performing every night?

There’s this beautiful duet, “Come What May,” between Satine and Christian. As you said, the show is such a spectacle. It can sometimes be a sensory overload with the lights, orchestration, costumes, and choreography. Don’t get me wrong—it’s all delectable, fabulous, and magnificent. But I look forward to the scene in which Courtney Reed, as Satine, and I sing “Come What May.” I hold her in my arms, look her in the eyes, and for that moment, it feels like we’re alone. It’s not necessarily relaxing, but it’s so pure. It’s the last time the audience gets to indulge in Christian and Satine’s love before things get complicated.

a group of people look off into the distance as the man in front sings in front of a set that has a large heart
The cast of the North American Tour of “Moulin Rouge! The Musical.” Photo by Matthew Murphy

Is there anything else you would like to share with audiences about your experience with this show?

No one escaped the pandemic and its effect on our planet and society. The experience of Moulin Rouge! and live theatre truly feels like a gift. For two years, my self-esteem took a hit after being labeled “non-essential.” After being unemployed for so long, it feels like live theatre—and this show in particular—is as essential as ever. People leave the show feeling moved and connected. I’m so grateful that I get to re-emerge from the pandemic in such a meaningful way. Audiences communicate back to me—either at the end of the show at the stage door, on social media, or during the bows at curtain call—that we make a difference in the world. It never gets old to hear that.

Moulin Rouge! The Musical will play at The Paramount Theatre from December 14, 2022 to January 1, 2023. Tickets are available online

Todd Matthews is a Seattle-based writer, editor, and journalist whose work has appeared in Earshot Jazz, HistoryLink, Real Change, Seattle magazine, and other publications in print and online over the past 25 years. A graduate of the University of Washington and the author of three non-fiction books, he has earned four awards from the Society of Professional Journalists.

A Family Affair

Local theatre audiences are in for a treat this fall as Faith Bennett Russell and her daughters, Be and Sarah, will share the stage for the first time in a full production when Taproot Theatre Company presents A Night with the Russells: The Legacy of Us (September 21–October 22, 2022). Faith, Be, and Sarah recently sat down together to talk about this 90-minute cabaret that promises to send audience members leaving with a song in their hearts.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.

TODD MATTHEWS: What will audiences experience during the show?

BE RUSSELL: We’ll share songs that have very personal meanings to all three of us. Songs that either highlight, amplify, or mirror our journeys as artists. I don’t want to give too much away because I want it to be a surprise for our theatergoers. But audiences can expect musical theatre, pop culture, and faith-based songs—songs from all different canons that inspired our individual and collective journeys and represent who we are.

FAITH BENNETT RUSSELL: We will ask our audience to be involved. Get up and dance. In the time we’re in, there needs to be invitations to dance and sing. Not only are we celebrating our work and our journey, but we’re also celebrating community. Also, it’s a call for transparency and exposure, which I feel are necessary. It’s time to take the masks off—I don’t mean the masks necessary to keep us healthy, but the figurative masks—and just walk in our authentic selves. There’s been so much loss. There’s so much happening in the world. I’m hoping it gives the audience permission to be, like, “Let’s all be real together and confess it has been hard. Yes, I can relate to that story.”

Is this really the first time the three of you have been on stage together in a show?

BR: As far as a full production, yes. Sarah and I have been in many shows this season together, which has been such a joy. We did 9 to 5: The Musical. We did Mamma Mia! at Village Theatre. Faith and Sarah have been on stage together, as well. Sarah and I had a cabaret in 2019, in which our surprise guest was Faith. Also, Taproot Theatre had a benefit event in 2012, and we sang Stand by Me together. The audience had an amazing response to the three of us singing in harmony and being on stage at the same time. That kind of gave us the bug: What if we tried to do something together?

three black women are dressed in church dress and appear to be singing
Be Russell, Bethanie Willis and Tracy Michelle Hughes in “Crowns” at Taproot Theatre. PHOTO BY ERIK STUHAUG

How does this show compare to your experiences working on large-scale musicals?

SARAH RUSSELL: This is so much more personal. We’re telling our story. It’s scary to put yourself out there in a very vulnerable way—This is me. Take it or leave it. It’s exciting and scary, but that’s the motivation to do it. It makes you stronger.

What is the Russell family legacy?

FBR: We’re Jamaican-African American, and our people are storytellers. On my dad’s side, my great grandfather passed stories down. Our family would gather around and tell colorful, fun stories. My father continued that legacy of storytelling. After dinner, he would get his guitar out, teach us old Jamaican songs, and tell us stories attached to those songs. Also, I’m a pastor’s kid. Both my parents are preachers. Preachers know how to tell a story. That started my passion for wanting to act and tell stories through songs, dance, and dialogue.

BR: It’s also the legacy of what Taproot is in our lives as artists. Sarah and I grew up at Taproot. Faith was pursuing theatre as a profession, and we were homeschooled and came to the theatre with her during rehearsals and performances at seven and four years old. So, there’s a real special legacy as far as what being on the Taproot main stage means for us. The word “legacy” in the show’s title is not accidental.

Be and Sarah, as kids, did you appreciate what was going on at the time with your mom and Taproot?

SR: I didn’t realize that wasn’t normal. I had a great time. Don’t all kids go to the theatre with their mom and watch the plays, know all the choreography, and sing all the songs?

BR: It wasn’t just at Taproot. Faith invested in so much of our education and experience—going to the ballet, plays, and museums. Faith introduced us to so many things to give us the opportunities to find out what we loved. We watched so many movie musicals—Cats, Grease, West Side Story, The Sound of Music. We grew up being taught the canon and experiencing it on stage. As a child, it felt like this is what we do. It wasn’t until later in life that I realized how grateful I was for that education and the fullness of what it means to engage in the richness of life.

FBR: I just want to say my son’s name, Peter Russell Jr., because he also was at Taproot Theatre growing up. If he was typically abled, I believe he’d be an actor, too. He enjoyed the music and being around the storytelling. He keeps me grounded and real and authentic. He’s definitely present with me in the work that I do.

sarah russell stands center stage singing in Big Fish
Sarah Russell in “Big Fish” at Taproot Theatre. PHOTO BY ERIK STUHAUG

What will it be like on opening night with the three of you taking the stage together for this show?

FBR: It’s giddiness! It’s a joy I can’t describe. My heart bursts with so much joy.

SR: I know I’ll be nervous. I’m usually nervous before shows. Once I step foot on stage, I’m fine. But I will be on stage with the people I laugh with the most—the people who know the goofiest side of me. It’s going to be so much fun. I can’t wait.

BR: I might be a little biased, but I admire Sarah and Faith as artists. It’s a real privilege to share the stage with them. Also, I feel like there’s a special kind of groundedness and energy that only family can bring out of you.

A Night with the Russells: The Legacy of Us will play at Taproot Theatre Company September 21–October 22. Tickets are available online.

Todd Matthews is a Seattle-based writer, editor, and journalist whose work has appeared in 425, Capitol Hill Seattle Blog, City Arts, HistoryLink, Real Change, Seattle, South Sound, and other publications in print and online over the past 25 years. A graduate of the University of Washington and the author of three non-fiction books, he has earned four awards from the Society of Professional Journalists.