Veteran Broadway star Sahr Ngaujah personifies this sentiment with nuance and rich detail in the Broadway production of Moulin Rouge! The Musical. In it, he deftly brings to life the character of Lautrec, as audiences bear witness to the iconic stage musical, twenty years after the release of the movie of the same name. This adaptation is a fresh take on a beloved and timeless story.
But Ngaujah is no stranger to embodying icons. In fact, his journey in bringing them to the stage is nothing short of inspiring.
The Atlanta-born actor got his start in theater in his youth. “I mean, it really started like many Black people in the States: in church.” Ngaujah says. “You know, singing in front of people, whether it be solos or with choirs. But with theater itself, really that started because of a guy named Freddie Hendricks, a brilliant theatre maker and human being I met around the age of 15.” Ngaujah joined Hendricks’ Youth Ensemble of America, the youth company at 7 Stages, an international theater hub based out of ATL. Being in that environment gave him a taste for a bigger world.
“After working with Freddie for many years, I began to have more opportunities to work with companies based in the Netherlands, and I eventually moved there,” Ngaujah says. After working on projects for a theater company in Rotterdam, he got his master’s degree and ultimately became the artistic director of a theatre company while he lived there.
But that was only the beginning.
Fela! and the Cultural Movement
Ngaujah is no stranger to embodying roles that leave an impact, from the screen — Stomp the Yard (2007) and Luke Cage (2018) — to critically acclaimed performances on the stage — Mlima’s Tale (2018) and Fela! (2008). In fact, it was his role portraying the legendary musician Fela Kuti that earned him his first Tony Award nomination.
The music and the dancing of the Broadway production alone could have been enough to rocket him off into stardom. But it was the social movement that came from Fela! that indelibly left an impact on the culture. “It was fascinating to be in the eye of that global hurricane in those years,” Ngaujah says. “And it’s been equally fascinating in the years since to see how that has continued.”
In an age just before social media took off, actors were doing double duty as promoters. For the Fela! production, Ngaujah found himself in the unique position of lead actor while attempting to bring audiences together to witness the story. “The audiences who love the latest music and the people who love Broadway are not the same people,” he says. “And so we had to bridge this gap of how to bring those people together.” Their efforts resulted in widespread success, and ultimately, acclaim.
A New Age for the Stage
But recent years brought the most formidable experience yet. With the onset of the pandemic, Ngaujah found himself facing a new challenge: an empty house. “During the hardest time in New York, in the early months of the shutdown, we may as well have just had Godzilla walking up and down the street. The [COVID case] numbers were so high, and you don't know where it's coming from or who's going to get it next. When they would say those numbers, I would think about standing on that stage and looking out at 1,500 people every night. I was like, ‘Wow. That's a packed house. An entire packed house.’”
Facing that reality was a sobering one, especially considering that no one could predict when things would turn around. But today, in the wake of turning tides, the actor and veteran is back in front of the velvet curtains and is opening on the stage once again.
With Broadway being back, Ngaujah is finding new life on stage and new ways to tell stories that resonate deeply across genres. “It's been phenomenal,” he says. “It's heartwarming and it's hopeful. Just to be back in the space and to hear music loud with other people. The first week of Broadway opening, our shows would easily stretch to three hours during that period. Being back, everyone was ecstatic. It was sublime. I don't know how else to describe it.”
Spreading the Gospel of Love and Enlightenment
This year, the 20th anniversary of Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!, the musical is giving the beloved film the Broadway treatment. And the songs, staging and performances are reliably transcendent. Even more, the musical roster has been updated to incorporate new classics that are sure to captivate audiences of a new generation.
As for Ngaujah? He hopes to continue reaching more audiences, and he has a word for anyone looking to pursue their own dreams of making an impact: “I always bring up the skyline of Manhattan. Consider that any one of those skyscrapers started inside of someone's head. It was just an idea that they started working on. And I don't know this for sure, but I would imagine that the majority of them, at a certain point, experienced challenges in getting from idea to the skyscraper that we see.”
He goes on: “There's no reason why any person can’t do the same. It doesn't matter how many times it almost didn't happen. It still got done. And at the end of the day, if it does not happen in the way that you were hoping it to be, don't let it be because you stopped.”
If Lautrec is the embodiment of love and enlightenment, we couldn’t imagine another soul to better capture all that and bring it direct to audiences on stage.
Keep an eye out for Ngaujah’s upcoming projects, and catch the stage production of Moulin Rouge! The Musical on Broadway. Learn more about the incredible cast and musical lineup that make this production of Moulin Rouge! The Musical a must-see.
This editorial is brought to you in partnership with Moulin Rouge! The Musical.