Backstage at the Moulin Rouge

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Danny Burstein as Harold Zidler; emcee at the Moulin Rouge. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

BY GREGORY BOSSLER

IN 2010, Thespian Troupe 6379 alum Justin Levine was music director (also orchestrator, conductor, and musician) for the Off-Broadway and Broadway runs of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. In July, he returns to Broadway with Moulin Rouge!, this time as music supervisor (plus arranger, orchestrator, and lyricist).

Previously, the multitalented Northport (N.Y.) native was music director and orchestrator for the Off-Broadway productions of Murder Ballad (2012) and Love’s Labour’s Lost (2013), as well as music director and collaborating producer for Here Lies Love (2014).

As a writer and composer, his credits include the book and score to Bonfire Night (2016) and the Drama Desk-nominated music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2017). As a performer, he’s half of the cabaret duo Pepper and Sam, has traveled the world with the Clinton Curtis Band, and has sung backup for Adele at Radio City Music Hall.

Dramatics spoke with Levine as he was in final preparations for the opening of Moulin Rouge!

You pursued acting in school, but you've spent a good part of your career music directing.

In high school, I was active in both the music program and the drama program. I taught myself to play piano and guitar, and I was in the choir and the orchestra and the jazz band, but my main focus was the drama club at Northport High School.

As a little kid, I would entertain my family by writing skits and performing them with my cousins, and in sixth grade it dawned on me that performing was what I would pursue. I was cast as Applegate in Damn Yankees. It was a formative moment. It was the first time I had the opportunity to play a meaty role in front of a large group of people, and I fed off the energy of the audience.

When I got in to NYU for drama, I planned to continue writing and performing projects. Music didn’t enter my mind until I started working as part of the music department on a show in which I was performing. That was The History of Tears, a devised piece with music by Michael Cerveris. As we were developing it, Michael decided he needed somebody to steward the music, so he asked me to be the music director. I said yes, then promptly asked him what a music director did.

After the show was optioned by a producer for development in an Off-Broadway lab, they hired new actors, but they kept me on as music director. In the mornings, I rehearsed Off-Broadway, and in the afternoons, I studied Shakespeare at NYU. The actor they hired to replace me was Gabriel Kahane, better known now as a composer. He and I forged a friendship and a couple of years later, he recommended me to take over for him as music director of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. That was the beginning of my decades-long collaboration with Alex Timbers. After Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Alex brought me on to Here Lies Love, working with David Byrne.

I remained passionate about acting, but I kept being pulled in this other direction. I never thought music direction would be my career path. I saw it as an opportunity to pay the bills, while also being able to be in the right rooms — and to work on exciting projects.

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Justin Levine. Photo courtesy of WME Entertainment.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson was the first time you did orchestration. Without a formal music background, how do you approach orchestration?

Simply put, orchestration is the art of deciding who plays what and when. You can sit down with a manuscript and do that from the ground up yourself, or you can build it organically with musicians. When I’m building orchestrations with a band, I see my role as captain of a team. On Moulin Rouge!, though, my music producer Matt Stine and I created the orchestrations from the ground up. I went into the studio and recorded myself playing guitar, bass, keyboards, etc., and then I brought in a horn arranger, a string arranger, to help polish my ideas.

How does that differ from arrangement?

Dance arrangement is different on every show, since every choreographer is different, their process is different. Sometimes, a choreographer will ask for a basic track, which we’ll build like a film score, adding the different accents the choreographer brings during rehearsal. In other cases, choreographers want everything there for rehearsal, and they react to what I’ve given them.

Since Matt and I have worked with several dance companies, including Paul Taylor and Doug Elkins, we knew how to collaborate with [choreographer] Sonya Tayeh in the specific way Moulin Rouge! needed. You have to react to the project, to the project’s musical needs, which are rarely the same from show to show.

Every show is unique, but Moulin Rouge! has been the most exceptional process I’ve experienced. Early on, John [Logan] and Alex and I began exhaustively outlining the show, talking through the story and making sure that we felt good about the foundation we built. Then I presented a dream playlist, how I could imagine us layering music into that foundation. Typically with jukebox musicals, you pick a catalog and mold the script to support and fit those songs. Our process was the reverse of that. My job was to find the perfect songs to support the storytelling.

Baz Luhrmann’s vision was excess, but it was excess with purpose. It reflects the society of the Belle Époque: how people were drinking themselves into oblivion with absinthe, how people were painting until their hands bled, how people were dancing the can-can until they collapsed. I’m trying to find ways in which my artistic taste and vision can complement the film’s vision.

Levine got his start in musical orchestration with the rock musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which portrays America’s seventh president as an emo rock star. Photo by Joan Marcus.

You also did some lyric writing for Moulin Rouge!

Sometimes it felt appropriate to make adjustments to lyrics to support the story and its context. We didn’t have a hard-and-fast rule, but when we felt it necessary, we would examine different options, trying to use a gentle hand.

For example, take the iconic moment in the film when the Bohemians pitch their idea for a show to the duke. In the film, it’s famously done in the number “The Pitch (Spectacular, Spectacular),” where they take Offenbach’s “Can-can” melody and rewrite lyrics to it. In the musical, we pay homage to that, weaving different iconic French songs, including the Offenbach but also Edith Piaf and Bizet, with new lyrics so they convey our Toulouse-Lautrec’s concept for that show, which is different from the film’s concept.

You’ve enjoyed several creative partnerships in your career. How do you find partners?

When you encounter people who inspire you, people you love being around, take note of that, appreciate that. And when you encounter people who you aren’t instantly friends with but who, during the nitty-gritty of working on a project, you find an electricity with them, embrace those people as well.

I’ve been fortunate that so many of my collaborators either began as friends or became great friends. But more important is the spark of creativity we inspire in one another. That’s why Alex and I continue to come back to one another creatively. Matt Stine and I also feed off each other. The music of Moulin Rouge! is seated in that dynamic. At the end of the day, it’s about the creative partnership, your ability to be honest with each other. We set our egos aside in pursuit of making the best artistic choices.

As much as I try to set the course of my creative life, my success has come from simply embracing projects that are exciting to me. Every time I end a project, I take an audit of what worked and what didn’t work, so with each new project, I’m able to better articulate what I’m interested in doing.

Levine worked with David Byrne and Fatboy Slim on the music direction for Here Lies Love, about the infamous Philippine First Lady Imelda Marcos. Photo by Joan Marcus.

 I’m inspired by artists who are able to tap into their voices, tap into their artistic expression. Frank Loesser, for example, could create the catchiest hooks you’ve ever heard with lyrics so smart they can tell you three things at once without seeming overstuffed. Alex Lacamoire and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s collaboration also inspires me, how they’re able to challenge and support each other. And I love Kander and Ebb’s taste for darkness, how they tell dark stories through exuberance, like Cabaret, which is about forgetting your troubles while the Nazis are banging down your door.

One of my favorite books about theatre is Cy Feuer’s I Got the Show Right Here. It reminded me that what has become canonized as a conventional musical was anything but. Guys and Dolls was also created through a search for authenticity. When Cy Feuer went to the Damon Runyon estate to get the rights, he didn’t even know which story he wanted to adapt. He was simply excited by that world, passionate about it. And when I heard James Lapine talk about writing Into the Woods and Sunday in the Park with George, he said that he and Sondheim were trying to do something original and interesting, not what everybody else was doing.

In my own writing, I usually start from story, then build a musical world around that. I gravitate toward unsung heroes, particularly historical figures. I’m also fascinated by how stories are told, particularly because history is often told by the victor. I like the idea of telling the story from the other side, examining what we take for granted about the way history is taught.

In Bonfire Night [about the Gunpowder Plot of 1605], I was attracted to the idea that these guys would today be defined as terrorists, but they certainly didn’t believe themselves to be terrorists. They believed themselves to be oppressed and fighting that oppression, that hatred against their kind, the Catholics. They also had style, they had panache, and they were sneaky, with secret societies and codes. That made me think of the swagger in heist movies, which made me think Rat Pack and Ocean’s 11. It made me think of Frankie, Sammy, and Dean in tuxedos with cocktails in their hands, wearing their swagger as a badge of honor. That led me to a Nelson Riddle world and even a bit of Frank Loesser’s sound as well, that early 1960s jazz club sound.

I won’t cop out and say I love all music, but I certainly grew up in a household where I did listen to jazz and soul music, to opera and rock music. I continue my music education to this day. I’m constantly asking people to send me things. I’m always trying to expand my musical world.

Moulin Rouge! seems to present a unique opportunity to do that.

It’s been great to seek out lyrics that tell the story better. I have encountered so many great songs that would never make it into the show and listened to a lot of albums from which we only use maybe 30 seconds. It’s given me a deeper appreciation for a lot of the pop writing in the past decade. It’s easy to say that music isn’t what it used to be, but when you do as deep a dive as I’ve done, you regain an appreciation for a lot of the artistry people are still using today.

What would the you of today tell your younger self?

First, you can hope but don’t expect. I’m certainly not doing what I imagined when I was 17 years old and doing musicals at Northport High School. And second, be open to everything. If I had stuck too hard to pursuing an acting career, I wouldn’t have had all these other opportunities.

The most important thing, though, is to listen to yourself, listen to your happiness. It’s easy when you work in a freelance business like theatre to not allow yourself time to breathe and pursue other interests or have experiences outside your work, because you’re so dependent on it. But I believe that the more room you can carve out for your mental health, for your personal happiness, the better artist you will be. In the end, it’s important to know why you’re doing what you’re doing, because if you do it just because you think that’s what you’re supposed to do, you might not be doing the right thing.

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