Sonya Tayeh's Spectacular Three-Year Journey with 'Moulin Rouge! The Musical'
Updated: Apr 22, 2020
Moulin Rouge! The Musical opened on Broadway on Thursday with strong reviews and it is already playing to standing-room-only audiences. The 2001 Baz Luhrmann movie musical, about a love story between Moulin Rouge singer Satine and English poet Christian, gets a larger-than-life treatment on Broadway that takes the story audiences know and love to the next level.
Choreographer Sonya Tayeh, who last worked on NBC's Rent: Live in late January, tackles the extraordinary task of creating movement for the show. She talked to Dance Dish about what the show means to her, what iconic scene was the biggest challenge and if she has time to squeeze in a week on So You Think You Can Dance this summer.
Dance Dish: How are you feeling since it is opening week for Moulin Rouge! The Musical?
Sonya Tayeh: I'm completely exhausted and invigorated and sad and excited all at the same time. It's so many different emotions. I was just telling [director] Alex [Timbers] that I thought I've experienced all of the emotions possible in life and I have new feelings through this process. My heart is being pulled in so many different emotional directions. I feel so proud of this and so devastated that the process of being in this space with these incredible artists is coming to a close. Giving it away is an intense feeling.
DD: You've been with this project for three years. What has it been like to watch the show develop?
Sonya: There's nothing more glorious than time and having breadth in time to see it through. In Boston, we had this really strong show, but I made a list for New York for those things I couldn't do for an out-of-town tryout. I had a year to check the list off and be enlightened and have revelations of ideas through this already strong landscape. Being able to have the breadth of time and have a year of research has been a true gift.
DD: You've worked on two back-to-back projects — Rent and Moulin Rouge! The Musical — where the shows already have an established fan base. Is it daunting to try and honor the original work yet put your stamp on the show?
Sonya: Incredibly daunting. But I love to be up for challenges like that because I love reminding myself how alive I am. I want my brain to feel constantly challenged — that's when I thrive. It's super daunting to have material that's been loved for years and years. People hold onto that love and then to turn it upside down is very scary. We want people to love it still.
DD: What piece in the show was the greatest challenge for you?
Sonya: The opening of the second act and "Roxanne." Those are two very big storytelling moments and the dance is important and big and exhaustive. I wanted to make sure that it was story-driven, but connecting it to the movie was also stressful, especially in “Roxanne.”
In the past three years, my associates told me they have many, many versions of “Roxanne” on video — I think there's 35. I'd walk in and say, "Let's try it this way," and my associates would say, "We did that, but OK, we can try that again." I have to feel the whisper in my mind or as Twyla [Tharp] would say, "The goosebumps on the back of your neck." They have to rise or something in my body has to stimulate for me to know it's right.
I don't come from an ego place. I come from a feeling place and something happens to me and I know that's the one. I don't stop until I feel that. I remember when we were in rehearsal and when that happened, I was teaching “Roxanne” to the company. I remember putting my hands on my head and saying, "Oh my gosh, it's here! This is it." I had a big dream of what type of dance I wanted to see on a Broadway stage that was mine. I feel that I'm honoring that.
DD: What did you look for in dancers for Moulin Rouge! The Musical?
Sonya: You need that certain type of dancer who has fire and is fearless and is open and willing to be a canvas, but also willing to bring their individuality to it. One of the most beautiful parts of this ginormous show is that you see the individuality in everyone because in a Bohemian lifestyle and at the Moulin Rouge, that's what's celebrated.
I remember that audition too. We had, we had many, but there was one, in particular, most of the ensemble members that are in the show were there. And it was truly one of the most unforgettable auditions I've ever had. Just striving and sweaty and driven. Just like that Fame episode.
In terms of technical facility, that's my job to fix, but the heart and the guts and the openness and the fire of wanting it so badly are what I was looking for. I know these are big dramatic words, but it's very true because it's a highly physical piece of work for two-and-a-half hours. It's very intense for them, so it takes a certain type of dancer in terms of discipline and focus and care. I have a company that strives for all of those elements. They are excellent art-makers and just fearless. They light up that stage all the time.
DD: After Moulin Rouge! The Musical opens, will you have time to visit So You Think You Can Dance this summer?
Sonya: That is another beautiful family I have and that I cherish. To have [executive producer] Jeff [Thacker] say, "call me when you're available," is such an honor and it makes me my eyes water. That show was the start of many things for me when I was 31. I'm truly so grateful to him and grateful for that experience.
I don't know at this point if it's possible, but there's nothing more gratifying to know that if I am available, I could go. I would never expect that because there are incredible choreographers who grace that stage, but to know that it's there is special.
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