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"It has to be funny, it has to be elegant, it has to be emotional, I need to die." Liisi LaFontaine is ruling the West End

Her Santine is dazzling West End audiences in Moulin Rouge! – but Liisi LaFontaine might be even cooler than the character she portrays. Meet a star who will only burn brighter 

Liisi LaFontaine

Liisi LaFontaine knows how to make an entrance. The stage is a kaleidoscope of colour, the rafters shake with song, the audience is louder than a Las Vegas hen party at the Dreamboys – and there she is! Swinging from the heavens, a vision of black diamonds, glittering, glorious, crooning that she doesn’t need love as men are mere mortals who are not worth going to her grave for. A statement that will come back to haunt her in a couple of hours but seeing as both the song and the musical are already deathless, perhaps she has a point.

A few days later, she makes a slightly less dramatic appearance at a Soho restaurant – well, the ceiling isn’t high enough to support a swing and it would be risky to somersault through the window when she’s back onstage later tonight. She wears not diamonds but a yellow smiley face hat. She’s tired and cool and charming and happy – everything you would expect from the star of the West End’s hottest show. She isn’t yet hungry: that comes later, at the end of an evening where she and the 28-strong cast expend roughly the equivocal energy as Rafael Nadal over a five-setter – if Nadal played with a steel-framed racket and wore Ugg boots on court.

“You're starving afterwards,” laughs LaFontaine as she inspects the menu. “You get home and you're just ravenous!”

Home is currently Camden, although for a while it was New York and will always be Los Angeles. “LA is home-home. LA is born and raised.” But it’s Camden for the foreseeable, for as long as she’s performing in Moulin Rouge! – swinging, singing, falling in love every night, succumbing to consumption in the final moments. (You’ve seen the film, right?)

“It's one of the most engaging theatre shows I've ever seen or been a part of,” says LaFontaine. “There's so many moving parts. It has to be funny, it has to be elegant, it has to be quick, it has to be really emotional, I need to die… There's just a lot going on, and very little time to breathe. Once I'm onstage, I'm pretty much not off.”

Liisi LaFontaine

She has fifteen minutes in the first act. Fifteen minutes before she walks round the front of the theatre – outfit covered by a jacket but she still gets the odd look – up some stairs and gets hooked into the swing while far below her the impoverished bohemians of Paris note that they’ll never be royals (royals). The height was scary at first but she’s now acclimatised.

Not that she doesn’t get nervous: “I feel like if you don't get nervous, what are you doing this for?” She prays all goes well for her castmates and comrades. “Theatre's such a collaborative experience. You don't know if someone could lift you wrong or twist their wrist or do a wrong turn and break their ankle. Have a panic attack onstage. A lot of stuff like that happened during Dreamgirls.”

Dreamgirls was her big break. Half a decade earlier, her first experience of the West End. She played Deena Jones, as did Beyonce in the 2006 film adaptation. No pressure.

“It was terrifying,” says LaFontaine. “It was terrifying. I was moving countries and playing a character, played by one of the most famous people on Earth, in one of the most famous musicals of all time.”

Both LaFontaine and Dreamgirls were well received but Moulin Rouge! is something else. When I tell LaFontaine it was one of the most joyous evenings I’ve ever had at the theatre, I’m not speaking out of politeness. (“Liisi, it was shit. So, favourite thing about London?”) I spent both acts grinning like a particularly gormless Cheshire Cat, a grin that only widened as I surrendered myself to the show and the not-as-overpriced-as-it-might-have-been bottle of Sauvignon Blanc. And I don’t typically like musicals.

Liisi LaFontaine

But then Moulin Rouge! isn’t a typical musical. Its songs have mostly been updated from the 2001 Baz Lurhuman film but the soundtrack remains unashamedly populist – the hits, and nothing but. "It's like a night out,” says LaFontaine. “The show feels like a Saturday night. It's such an experience. Because it's recognisable music it makes people feel more involved."

She notes that the big numbers from the likes of Phantom of the Opera or Wicked were written specifically to serve the story; the audience experiences these songs through the context of the show. The songs of Moulin Rouge!, however, will already be familiar; memories come pre-attached. When Satine sings Firework, for example, "not only are you hearing it work for the story, you're putting in your own personal experiences." The kisses, the road trips, the heartbreaks. The hungover showers. (Don’t pretend like you haven’t bawled out some Katy the morning after the office Christmas do.)

So yeah, Moulin Rouge! earns its exclamation mark and then some. The whole cast is brilliant across the boards – shoutout to Jamie Bogyo, debuting as Christian, and Simon Bailey as the Duke and oh, there’s too many to mention, shoutout to all of them! – but LaFontaine’s Santine carries the night. Her star is born, attends nursery, survives puberty and achieves straight As on its GSCEs. Her celestial voice could charm the planets from their orbit, cause Jupiter to change its spot, Mars blush a deeper shade of crimson, and Saturn stuff all its rings into its jacket pocket the moment she enters the room. (“Dione? Never met her.”)

LaFontaine has been circling the role for years, ever since the summer of 2018 when she did a musical called Born For This at the Cutler Majestic Theatre in Boston. The debut production of Moulin Rouge! was blowing off the roof of the Colonial Theatre next door. The two casts frequently socialised but concurrent schedules meant LaFontaine didn’t see Moulin Rouge! until it had landed on Broadway. Even from the back row, she had the time of her life. When Santine, played by Karen Olivo, came down in the swing, LaFontaine caught a glimpse of her future – or so she hoped.

Her future took a long time arriving. There were showreels, Skype auditions, chemistry reads. Then March 2020 happened and everything went silent until February 2021, when the whole damn process repeated itself. One morning, her agent phoned: Santine was hers. "I didn't even react. I was just –” Eyes and mouth widen in joyous amazement. She didn’t celebrate – it was six am and she had a throat operation later that day. 

Liisi LaFontaine
Liisi LaFontaine

It’s fitting she was in LA when she got the phone call. LA is where it all began for her – quite literally. She was raised in the Hollywood Hills, the daughter of singer Nita Whitaker and voiceover artist Don LaFontaine.

You’ll know Don, even if you’ve never seen his face. He’s the guy whose portentous bass tones introduced every film trailer from Terminator 2 to Batman Returns to Shrek. “In a world where…” Yeah, you got him. His death in 2008 basically ended the trailer voiceover – when did you last hear one at the movies? You know you’re good when you don’t define your industry – you are it.

“He was so classic Hollywood, so larger-than-life,” says Liisi of her father. “He was born in the 1940s so he really came up in that golden age of Hollywood.” He loved his daughter, rarely ever refused her – “his favourite phrase was 'it's only money, I'll make more!' He was so bouji!”

Her childhood was one of parties, galas, limousines. Red carpets, black ties. Often Don hosted poker nights for other voiceover artists – “you'd hear them come through the door, all these different voices. Hello, HELLO, helloooo!” She rattles off several impressions and laughs at the memory. She was 14 when Don died. It feels like another lifetime. Nita is still going strong – she recently made her Broadway debut in the play Trouble In Mind.

Despite their Hollywood lifestyle, Don and Nita ensured their children weren’t secluded in the Hills. “I went to regular schools. Met people from every different possible background and religion and race. Growing up in LA was so special and cool because I got to see all different possible sides of life. From my friends in high school who were literally living alone because their parents were immigrants and they were working two jobs, to my friends whose parents were, like, investment bankers and they lived on twelve acres in the Palisades.”

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Arriving in London for Dreamgirls, she fell in love with the diversity of the city. “There's such a different connection to blackness and culture here. There's so many first, second generation immigrants, a lot of African and Caribbean families who still have such a close tie with their culture. Whereas in America, we've created our own culture as African-Americans, but I have no idea where in Africa my family is from because of slavery.”

There are currently four productions of Moulin Rouge!: London, New York, Melbourne and touring America. All four Santines are played by women of colour. “Yeah, it's sick,” says LaFontaine. “I love it so much.”

She strikes a note of cautious optimism when asked if theatre is becoming more diverse. “Yes. Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I think it has to. Because now it's been talked about so much. Sometimes it feels false – it feels like people are diversifying because they have to, not because they want to. But I'm super thankful for our company and our team. They're so inclusive because they want to be.”

A week after we speak, LaFontaine experienced her own Parisian romance, jetting off for a weekend break with her boyfriend Karl. (Yes, she visited the actual Moulin Rouge. No, she didn’t die of consumption.) Karl is an adventure photographer. Hopefully their love story will  meet a better ending than Santine and Christian but its beginning was almost as fraught.

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She stumbled upon his Instagram back in 2020 (@karl_shakur – you won’t regret it). "Everything was a feast for the eyes. I didn't just look at it once and keep scrolling. I was staring at it, looking at all the different components." She followed his page, felt "a little tingle" whenever he posted. "Didn't think much of it. Then I was on Hinge, scrolling through my old matches – single life! I saw him and I had matched on Christmas Day! Had a whole conversation, I didn't remember it at all – it was Christmas. And I had never responded!"

She dropped him a message: Hey, it’s been four months. Are you in LA?

Karl replied: I have a wife and kids now.

The next day: Do you want to get dinner tonight?

Far smoother than Elephant Love Medley. Which, let’s be honest, should really have landed Christian a restraining order.

Time to say goodbye. She has an audience to dazzle, a city to conquer. Moulin Rouge! should occupy her until October. Then? Who knows? Write a TV series, star in the movies, release some music of her own – there's plans for an EP entitled Loud and Clear.

The future is opening up for Liisi LaFontaine. Her ascent could be steep but she’ll be able to handle herself. Come what may.

Moulin Rouge! The Musical is playing at the Piccadilly Theatre. Book tickets here 

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