"When I start the journey on any show, I really am thinking about the audience first," the Tony nominee tells PEOPLE
If Broadway could crown its current reigning king, director Alex Timbers would fit the bill.
The two-time Tony nominee, 40, currently has two hit musicals playing on the Great White Way, both based on blockbuster films. His wild take on Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice was recently nominated for eight Tony Awards, including best musical. And just last week, Moulin Rouge! The Musical, his decadent adaptation of Baz Luhrmann’s iconic 2001 screen musical, opened to rapturous reviews after a series of sold out previews.
As Timbers tells PEOPLE, it wasn’t his master plan to have two of his productions play in New York City at the same time.
“I’ve been working on Beetlejuice for 10 years and Moulin Rouge! for six. So it’s truly just a wild coincidence that both are happening at the same time,” he explains. “But I love both. I love both of those films.”
“I think what unites Moulin Rouge! and Beetlejuice, even though they’re incredibly different in tone and vision and scope, is that they both involve world creation,” he adds.
That’s indeed the case with both shows. When audiences enter Beetlejuice, playing at the Winter Garden Theatre, they’re immediately greeted with fog emanating from the stage and neon lighting that evokes the underworld as depicted in the 1988 cult classic. Over at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, Moulin Rouge! guests are transported to a tawdry French cabaret, with scantily clad performers traipsing around the orchestra area before the musical has even begun.
“When I start the journey on any show, I really am thinking about the audience first,” Timbers says. “The idea of stepping into a new space and for two and a half hours, you’re transporting people to a far-off land. For me, that’s kind of the most delicious challenge.”
Fans of both films will delight in the nods back to the source material — but neither production are direct screen-to-stage adaptations. Beetlejuice — with music and lyrics by Eddie Perfect and book by Scott Brown and Anthony King — borrows key lines and scenes from Burton’s comedy, while largely deviating from the structure of its second act to offer new surprises. Moulin Rouge! injects new recent hit songs to pad out its tragic love story to dazzling effect. Among the new additions: Lady Gaga‘s “Bad Romance,” Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” and Britney Spears’ “Toxic,” which gets its own sexy tango number.
“A lot of people were excited to be involved in Moulin Rouge!,” shares Timbers. “We didn’t get every song we wanted, but we got very lucky, and in some cases we wrote letters to the artist, explaining how the song would be used — and so a lot of the appeals really ended up being personal, artist to artist.”
When the Rolling Stones agreed to be featured in the show with one condition (that the musical incorporate “multiple songs” from their catalogue, per Timbers), book writer John Logan devised a medley to meet their request.
“That was really the artist saying, ‘Go forth and fully Moulin Rouge! it,” says Timbers.
Moulin Rogue! The Musical is now playing at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre.