Alex Timbers may feel you did not fully appreciate Rocky: Das Musical.
In 2013, when Alex Timbers was handed the huge budget of a Rocky stage musical (and the playground of the Winter Garden Theatre along with it), the news seemed intriguing. Obviously a movie musical was not going to crack open the form – but Timbers’ involvement promised at least something theatrically interesting. News that the show’s final bout would extend into the orchestra and create an almost in-the-round experience, not unlike Timbers’ immersive staging of Here Lies Love, only heightened that hope.
The lingering question, of course, was heart. Timbers was and remains a master of spectacle. Even his lower tech hits Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Peter and the Starcatcher deployed a bursting bag of theatrical tricks, always to gorgeous effect. Yet most of his hit works tended to comment on themselves throughout. Starcatcher broke the fourth wall constantly, with villain Black Stache dropping pop culture references left and right. Michael Friedman’s musical adaptation of Love’s Labour’s Lost begins by mocking its own addition of “unnecessary songs.” Even Timbers’ own smart concepts, such as Ferdinand Marcos turning the audience into his adoring fans in Here Lies Love, tended to be played with a knowing wink. Could this same director ever relax and tell a story sincerely?
In retrospect, I realize that Rocky is where he tried. Though the show’s set pieces were huge, Rocky spent just as much time with its characters. Andy Karl played Balboa with all the sweet open-heartedness of Stallone, while Margo Seibert brought a wounded gentleness to Adrian. Time was taken out to depict the two’s awkward, hesitant courtship. The book did not assume you were rooting for them – it tried to earn that, particularly in the staging of their leisurely ice skating date. Later Rocky even pauses the build-up to its final bout for a moment of happy domestic life. All of this was necessary – when Rocky loses the fight and yells out for Adrian, their embrace needs to hit home. And it did.
Now look – in addition to being a flop, Rocky did not cohere as a show. (Also, probably most important of all, the music sucked.) Yet in watching Timbers’ staging of Moulin Rouge!, which opened July 25th at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, I felt a pang of nostalgia for the Timbers of Rocky. Early on in Rouge!, when romantic young writer Christian (Aaron Tveit) first visits Satine (Karen Olivo) in her dressing room above the theater, they quickly launch into a back-and-forth medley of numerous beloved pop hits. Christian drops a little of “I Don’t Want to Wait.” Satine ripostes with a bit of “Shut Up and Dance.” The audience laughs knowingly at each new familiar song.
Of course, this is a variation on the movie’s own “Elephant Love Medley,” and Baz Luhrmann does not hesitate to milk humor out of his movie’s meta-ness. Beneath that though, the central idea is that Christian and Satine’s emotions are so big, so wild and uncontrollable, that words cannot possibly capture them. Only song will do – the unlimited, universal vernacular of contemporary pop. It’s ultimately a deeply sincere idea, and one that is totally lost here. We are instead sitting outside chuckling at just how many songs Timbers and Co. have managed to pack in.
The musical numbers of Rouge! are not without pleasure. From the bombastic “Lady Marmalade” opener through Aaron Tveit’s killer 11 o’clock “Rolling in the Deep,” and many others along the way, Justin Levine’s orchestrations are superb. Sonya Tayeh’s choreography is invigorating and often genuinely sexy, if never transgressive. Catherine Zuber’s glittering costumes are simply perfect. A happily diverse ensemble (both racially and physically) takes the show as their own, most especially in the thrilling second act opener “Bad Romance” – the highlight of the show.
Even within its camp style and musical focus, though, Rouge! is a sincere tale. Its big numbers and grand theatrics exist partly to conjure the mad, chaotic experience of foolish young love. Timbers’ theatrics are plentiful as always, but there’s little attempt to tie them in with Christian and Satine’s big, theatrical emotions. An epic number like the absinthe-fueled “Chandelier,” for instance, could play as a manifestation of Christian’s big-heartedness – instead, it feels like a desperate distraction from an empty emotional center.
It’s hard not to feel that Timbers took the wrong lessons from Rocky. That show didn’t work, but taking time to slow down and spend time with the characters was not its mistake. Timbers just hadn’t figured out how to hit that ever-illusive balance between big and small. Maybe the greatest challenge of any musical is to sync book and music, so one seamlessly flows into the next. Many a musical is sunk by this challenge. Yet since Rocky, it feels like Timbers isn’t even really trying that hard.
Just look to his similarly half-hearted Beetlejuice, Timbers’ other movie musical currently playing on Broadway. Beetlejuice is obviously broad and absurd, but its book, by Scott Brown and Anthony King, attempts to find an emotional core in teen Lydia’s grief. Timbers seems mostly interested in fourth-wall smashing MC Beetlejuice, who happily snarks his way through the affair. He’s a Timbers dream – a character ready to mock every artifice of theater as fast as he sees it. Lydia mostly gets lost in the shuffle. When her arc abruptly becomes relevant again late in the second act, we feel nothing, as none of the groundwork has been laid.
In a strange way, even Timbers’ consistent failure to find his heart on Broadway feels like a self-referential move. The big emotional climax of a typical Broadway book musical can be, at its worst, nothing but empty manipulation. Even as Timbers embraces a commercial career, he can’t entirely buy into the con. The guy who made his name deconstructing the musical form can’t just forget all he learnt. The trouble is, Timbers isn’t inventing a new language for Broadway either. So we’re left with a half-hearted in-between, an almost-sincerity that catches itself at every turn. Turns out a Timbers for everybody is a Timbers for nobody.