Waitress vs. Moulin Rouge

We saw two shows during our recent trip to New York City. It was good to enjoy Broadway again, albeit behind a mask. The two shows, both musicals, could hardly be more different. One, Moulin Rouge, won the award for best musical. The other, Waitress, has run sporadically on Broadway since 2016.

Given that Moulin Rouge won best musical, the choice would seem to be obvious. Waitress was nominated for best musical in 2016, but lost. If you were to judge a musical by audience enthusiasm, Moulin Rouge would be the clear choice. It’s relatively new, although it opened on Broadway in 2019 and abruptly closed when the pandemic started. There was a buzz outside the theater as we tried to get in. The lady next to me in row U was hopping with excitement, and she was hardly alone. The dancing was amazing. The songs were familiar and plentiful. The sets and staging were lavish. At the end, people were actually dancing in the aisles. That and the inflated ticket prices should make this an easy call.

We saw Waitress at a Wednesday matinee. It’s based on the 2007 indie film of the same name that was something of a cult hit. Its star, Sara Bareilles, was also the musical’s songwriter and lyricist. There was virtually no dancing, and the sets were rather plain. Perhaps the most interesting item on its set were two arrays of pie plates that went from the stage floor to the top of the curtain.

Moulin Rouge had the virtue of being familiar and comfortable. If you saw the movie, there were virtually no changes except for adding more songs: there was a lot of time to fill. The movie was a surprise hit, fusing modern music with late 19th century Paris. So if you liked the movie, it should be hard not to like the musical. Just don’t expect Ewan McGreggor or Nichole Kidman in the lead parts. In the movie you got Jim Broadbent as Zeigler. Danny Burnstein does a pretty good job as Zeigler, and brings a slightly manic and mischievous energy to the part.

In Waitress, unless you are a Sara Bareilles fan, the music should be unfamiliar and original. Any new music in Moulin Rouge simply wraps the popular tunes you already know. In Moulin Rouge, part of the tension is between the haves and the have nots. In Waitress, the focus is on ordinary people. There is no character like the Duke to loath although lead character Jenna’s husband comes close. In Moulin Rouge, the focus is on love; in Waitress the focus is on good people generally in bad relationships and the mistakes they make. For most of the show the star Jenna is having an affair with her gynecologist.

In the movie Moulin Rouge, Kidman and McGreggor bring a unique energy to their relationship. Sadly, it did not translate well on this Broadway stage. I tried hard to suspend disbelief, but for all the dancing and singing, the characters felt largely emotionally empty. Seeing it on stage made me realize that its plot is just piffle and comes off as extremely unconvincing.

On the other hand, the relationships in Waitress, however dysfunctional, seem grounded in real life and are wholly plausible. So many of us have walked these parts: waitress or waiter, short order cook, frequent diner patron … just ordinary folk. Unless you lived a very privileged life, Waitress is much more relatable. Moreover, at least with the cast I saw, the characters were easy to identify with and the energy on stage between the cast seemed real.

So the result surprised me. I was so excited to see Moulin Rouge as I really enjoyed the movie. The inflated ticket prices we paid and its best musical status made it feel like a sure bet, but it disappointed. Ultimately, it was a lot of glitz and spectacle, but missed the human element.

Waitress, on the other hand, was engaging, endearing, full of life’s complexities, musically enthralling and felt both real and meaningful.

So my take: skip Moulin Rouge‘s high ticket prices and go see a story that’s going to move you instead: Waitress.

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