Entertainment » Theatre

Meet Sonya Tayeh - the choreographer who makes 'Moulin Rouge' sizzle

by Robert Nesti
EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor
Wednesday Aug 8, 2018

"Moulin Rouge! The Musical" begins with such an electric moment -- a spectacularly staged "Lady Marmalade" that brings the audience into the sexy, bohemian dive first introduced in Baz Luhrmann's film -- that you wonder how is it going to sustain that high for two-and-a-half hours.

Yet the amazing creative team at Boston's refurbished Emerson Colonial Theatre, where this musical adaptation continues through August 19, pulls it off by continually topping what comes before. (For the record, the show is written by John Logan and directed by Alex Timbers with a dizzying score of pop songs, many of which were written since the movie premiered 17 years ago.)

Much of this success comes with the work of Sonya Tayeh, the choreographer who is making her Broadway debut with this staging. It is a prodigious effort: virtually every number in this extravagant juke box musical features movement by the enormously talented ensemble who dance in a variety of different styles: contemporary dance out of music videos, classical Broadway (think Bob Fosse), jazz and, of course, the traditional can-can.

In a rehearsal video, Tayeh refers to her work on the show as being like a kid in a candy shop -- a nearly $30 million candy shop that opened this week to terrific reviews with seats getting more and more scarce as it ends its Boston run.

EDGE spoke to Tayeh recently before a rehearsal for the show.

Danny Burstein and company members of "Moulin Rouge! The Musical". (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

EDGE: How did you get involved in the project?

Sonya Tayeh: About a year and a half ago, I think, Alex (Timbers) called me and said in his humble way, 'I'm doing this show.' And he had set up an audition process for a couple of choreographers he wanted to see. So we had this audience process, then after that I had to wait two months to find out if I got it, which was grueling. Very grueling. (Laughs).

EDGE: You have a very eclectic career so far, but this marks your Broadway debut. Are you feeling a different set of pressures being part of such an expensive and commercial project?

Sonya Tayeh: Yeah, I try not to let them bother me. I try to keep my perspective nice and open and clear, and just focus on the work and being inspired by the work and understanding the skill of the work, and not letting the other side of what that means to everyone or myself get in a way, you know? Because every project I do is important to me and huge and comes with a lot of expectations so I just try to focus on, what do we want to express and prepare for in Boston and take it from there. Or else, I am going to have twelve houses on each shoulder and not know how to walk.

Karen Olivo and Aaron Tveit in "Moulin Rouge! The Musical". (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

EDGE: Did you talk to Alex about the kind of dancers you were looking for? How did the process of choosing the dancers come about?

Sonya Tayeh: I think his eyes opened up to what the show could be during the audition process and he saw the dancers. It was one of the most thrilling audition processes in the world for me because I got to see the most incredible artists that excel in the art form. It was just beautiful to watch. For the audition, I created a lot of highly physical, highly technical choreography. I think watching this upped the standards for what he wanted and what I wanted just in terms of the capabilities. I have said this before, they (the dancers) can truly do everything.

EDGE: Do you feel confined by such an iconic film?

Sonya Tayeh: At first, it was like, 'okay, how do I do this. How do I go about it in a way that I see it?' I watched the movie a million times and understood what I wanted and what Alex wanted to pay homage to, and I held onto those moments. And with Baz's blessing, we felt free to turn it over on its head because we are a different group of people with different ideas. The movie is such an incredible baseline because it is so open. It is a mixed bag of forms. It was really fun to know that I could go in with that mindset.

EDGE: What's funny about the film is that you barely see the dance steps. The cutting is so intense. How did you take something so fragmented by quick editing and approximate it on the stage?

Sonya Tayeh: What I took from that is that we don't have a lens. We aren't behind the lens. We can't cut to. But how can we try to do that physically? How can things be excessive in the way that you feel that speed? And you feel that swiftness? That was really inspiring to try to attempt.

Robyn Hurder in "Moulin Rouge! The Musical". (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

EDGE: How would you describe your aesthetic?

Sonya Tayeh: My aesthetic is to be full-bodied; to be athletic and aggressive in my approach. So the essence of that is that, because that is my aesthetic. I love challenging the body. So you have that side of it throughout the piece. Then you have the historical can can and classical musical theater nods, but all through my eyes.

EDGE: When you were casting, what were you looking for?

Sonya Tayeh: I think people from all walks of life with uniqueness and individuality in the way the express themselves. That's what you see in the movie. There is no prejudice. It is very open and free and unique and weird and interesting. That's what we wanted to hold on to.

EDGE: Did you work with Derek McLane (the set designer) in terms of space?

Sonya Tayeh: Yes. He is so incredible. He was so communicative. We were able to jam on what type of floor to dance on, what type of wing space that I need. But there were a lot of moments where I had a small amount of space, I really tried to embrace the challenges that those carry, when you have a constricted amount of space or what the runways and passerelles can do. The passerelle can be limiting, but I think we use it in a really interesting and excessive way, in a way that was surprising.

I really feel that we all worked together, but we also are trying to be really ambitious and challenge ourselves from things we were most comfortable with. I feel that all of us were really on that train of like, this is what I know, so let me try do something that I question and I am afraid of and see what it brings. And it really brought a lot of life to it.

Aaron Tveit, Sahr Ngaujah and Ricky Rojas in "Moulin Rouge! The Musical". (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

EDGE: What's been your biggest challenge?

Sonya Tayeh: Is it weird to say all of it? I think the general scope. I think you're overall challenge of confidence. It is like how I have this amazing reference point -- the film. But it's not about doing it any better than it was. And it is not about changing it so you cannot recognize it. It is about holding onto the company that you have and celebrating them in all of their glory. But because their capabilities are so excessive and extreme, my biggest challenge is to make sure that I am driving the story through them. How do I build the movement that moves through the story? And how to I build that momentum of the tension and the aggression and the secrets that are carried throughout the story, that was my biggest challenge.

EDGE: How do you work with Alex Timber?

Sonya Tayeh: I think we jam. I think we are open-hearted and honest with each other. I know this is going to sound hard to believe, but I love him so much. I trust him. He trusts me. I think we really have an open dialogue. I tell him and he tells me, we have to be honest with each other to get what we really want. And so we have to keep it real with each other, so there won't be a beef on that side, or I don't get hypersensitive about a critique about a staging question.

Derek McLane's set to "Moulin Rouge! The Musical."

EDGE: Entering the Colonial auditorium is breathtaking for an audience member to see Derek McLane's design. What was it like the first time you saw the set?

Sonya Tayeh: I cried a lot with excitement. I couldn't believe it. You see a set design model for 8 months with these little pieces and you try to imagine it. Then you see it come to life in this set. Alex has created this really mysterious dark, beautiful, interesting world, so it just felt like this beautiful playground. I am so completely excited to be a part of this experience. It is nothing like I have experienced before. And I truly never worked this hard -- and I am a hard-assed worker -- I have never worked this hard in my life.

EDGE: Are you continuing to make changes?

Sonya Tayeh: I feel like we promised each other that we would stay ambitious and work throughout previews and try thing. The beauty of going out of New York is that this is our try-out where we try all of these things out. Even the small questions, but can they work or not? It's hard, though, because sometimes we are stuck with things for three days because we have matinees and couldn't have rehearsals. But I think we are ambitious to hold onto the idea of trying all these things so we can really get a lot of answers. Then make a list of things we want to make better or want to try later after Boston. But the goal is that we working all the way up to when we open.

"Moulin Rouge! The Musical" continues through August 19 at the Emerson Colonial Theatre, 106 Bolyston Street, Boston, MA. For more information, visit the show's website.

Watch this video featuring Sonya Tayeh discussing working on "Moulin Rouge! The Musical."

Watch this video of Aaron Tvett singing "Come What May" from "Moulin Rouge! The Musical."

Robert Nesti can be reached at rnesti@edgemedianetwork.com.


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