How Moulin Rouge! crafted the epic 'Elephant Love Medley' for stage and screen
You'd think that people would've had enough of silly love songs...
Love is a many splendored thing, love lifts us up where we belong, all you need is love…and maybe a medley of epic songs to woo the girl of your dreams.
That's the ethos behind Moulin Rouge's "Elephant Love Medley," the collection of love songs volleyed back and forth between Christian (Ewan McGregor) and Satine (Nicole Kidman) as he convinces her to give their romance a chance.
Now, 20 years after the film's 2001 release, some of the songs have become almost synonymous with Moulin Rouge!, with the medley even eclipsing their origins (how many millennials discovered David Bowie's "Heroes" thanks to this movie?). But devising the piece, and then re-imagining it for the Broadway stage production, was initially a feat as seemingly foolhardy as romancing a courtesan.
Co-screenwriter Craig Pearce remembers the scene beginning as a need for Christian to outdo himself, after trying to woo Satine with Elton John's "Your Song." Initially, director and co-screenwriter Baz Luhrmann and his musical brain trust conceived as the back-and-forth between the lovers as a simple mash-up of two songs, Steve Winwood's "Higher Love" for Christian and Tina Turner's "What's Love Got to Do With It" (which, coincidentally, did finally end up in the medley for the stage adaptation).
"The problem, as I remember it," reflects executive music producer and music supervisor Anton Monsted, "is that while it was lyrically really on the money, and musically, you could get those two songs to work as a mash-up, what it didn't have was the escalation that the final medley has."
"The final medley is like walking up an increasingly steeper spiral staircase where the stakes of the songs are getting higher and so is the fame and notoriety of the songs," continues Monsted. "It's like they're playing a frantic rally of tennis and each one has to hit the ball back harder each time. That was very much something that came out of the workshop process."
So if a simple duet wasn't enough, what would be? "You have to top 'Your Song' somehow," muses Pearce. "What could top it? A medley of the greatest love songs of the 20th century, at least the '80s and '90s. But then, we didn't just randomly choose songs, we let the characters pursue the argument, and we wrote it like a conversation. We wrote it as a debate about idealism versus realism, about love versus reality."
In short, they decided that they could be heroes...for ever and ever.
Once this approach was settled on, Luhrmann needed a list of potential songs. "Baz said to me, 'Can you go and make a list of every love song every written?'" laughs Monsted. "I was like, 'I'm never going to be able to do it. Every second song is about love.'" Complicating matters was that when this was being devised in the late 1990s they lacked the robust music technology we have today.
Monsted didn't have Spotify or even iTunes to discover songs he might have forgotten while compiling his list. "It really was sitting around and going, 'What about 'I Will Always Love You?' 'Yeah that's a good one, write that down.'"
Pearce notes that beyond the songs fitting dramatically into this argument about love and idealism, they also needed to have a recognizable hook to keep the audience engaged.
This collaborative process that called on everyone from Luhrmann to Pearce to Monstead to music director Marius de Vries to come up with contenders stretched across months, and Pearce estimates they went through at least 80 different versions of the medley as they drafted it.
"It took an awful long time and the actual content of the medley was a long process of gestation," adds De Vries. "Not only because it's finding songs which flowed well lyrically, let alone musically, but also because of licensing and what songs we would and wouldn't be able to use which was a fluid situation until quite late in preparation."
As the music director, De Vries was responsible for constructing the medley melodically and figuring out how one famous love song would transition into another as Christian and Satine lyrically leap from track to track. "It was a question of sitting myself in front of a microphone and doing the crudest imaginable demos of the transitions," he recalls. "I tried to get it so that they made sense to myself, and then going back to the piano and working out what the most satisfying harmonic transitions were. Some of those very unlikely sounding transitions leapt out of the ether and some of them were many weeks of mechanical trial and error."
De Vries is proudest of how the actors give the song emotional heft, thereby preventing it from becoming merely an exercise in cleverness for its own sake. "The point of an exercise like that is to bewitch people with the unlikely juxtaposition," he muses.
Monsted is still a bit stunned the whole thing worked as well as it did in the end, considering it was shot across two different sets over a series of weeks and that aligning the musical tracks with the cut footage proved to be a monumentally difficult task. But ultimately, the medley coalesced into one of the most romantic, memorable moments of the entire film — indeed, it serves as almost a thesis statement for the entire movie's inventive use of pop music and how far it can push the bounds of its experiment of truth, beauty, freedom, and love.
Which meant that when it came time to adapting the medley to the stage, the task perhaps felt even more daunting. Ultimately, music director Justin Levine decided to leave the bones of the original piece alone. "I was particularly interested in the idea of kicking it off with the original, and then departing, and then coming back to it at the end," he tells EW. "I felt that a way to honor the spirit of that moment was to basically take what they had done, and expand upon it, rather than look at this as an opportunity to go in and swap things out or to change things for the sake of making it our own."
Predominantly that came via giving Satine a stronger voice and more agency in the piece, as realized by original cast member Karen Olivo (who has since left the production prior to its Broadway return this fall). Levine wanted to amp up Satine's anti-love songs to further foreground her pragmatic view of romance. He also notes that any songs cut from the medley, including Kiss' "I Was Made For Lovin' You," came down to licensing issues, not any disregard for the original choices.
Similarly to Pearce's approach to the script, Levine found his way into the song by conceiving of it as a conversation. "It was always lyrics first," he says. "It felt very important that whatever we were doing felt organic to the character that was singing it. In the case of the 'Elephant Love Medley,' before I even began to arrange it and put it together musically, I printed up all the lyrics of all these songs and I cut them up, took scissors to them, and laid them out on the floor so that I was building the scene. Basically, the idea was that as you read those lyrics, it read like an argument."
Levine faced similar challenges to the film, with songs being swapped in and out at the last minute due to rights issues. His original final version of the re-imagined medley clocked in at nine minutes, but ultimately, he whittled it down to just over five minutes.
Whether you prefer McGregor and Kidman's lush, original take on the song or are a fan of Aaron Tveit and Olivo's expanded stage rendition, one thing remains true…how wonderful life is now that this medley's in the world.