"One of our Mimis is missing — one of our Rodolfos, too." Such was the eleventh-hour heads up from the publicists for Baz Luhrmann's La Bohème. It appears Alfred Boe and Wei Huang have been lollygagging too long of late in a freezing garret apartment in Paris and come down with sore throats, meaning only four of the six leads will make the previously scheduled mass interview in the offices of Boneau/Bryan-Brown — but, hey! isn't that the reason (or one of the reasons) that God, or Baz, invented triple-casting?
Shows, and interviews, will go on this way. The Broadway La Bohème has been cast to last — contrary to the age and weight divisions of most Mimis and Rodolfos — with a squeaky-clean half-dozen of twentysomethings who have been swept into the limelight from, quite literally, all over the world — St. Petersburg, Russia (Ekaterina Solovyeva); Simi Valley, California (Lisa Hopkins); Shanghai, China (Huang); League City, Texas (Jesús Garcia); Lancashire, England (Boe); and Littleton, Colorado (David Miller). This casting took two years and involved 2,100 contenders. "That number jumps a thousand every time it comes up," asides Miller — as though 6-in-2,100 weren't stiff enough odds!
All are surprised that the roads they took have taken them to Broadway, Miller less so than the others: "Theatre is what sparked me into the music. I was at Oberlin when I first heard opera. I had the same preconception everyone else has — that it was a bunch of people screaming their guts out onstage. Then I started listening to this beautiful music and thought, 'Why don't more people know about this? Why is it such a closed circle?' I was hooked. For me, the trick became to find projects that combined theatre and opera."
La Bohème filled both needs — to the brim! — but it required six callbacks, an aria each time, to land the lead. Hopkins required seven, a lucky seven as it turned out, before the flame-haired beauty persuaded her potential employers she was more Mimi than Musetta.
She hails from Yale and an acting orientation similar to Miller's: "I've devised my career choices where I try to be involved in productions where acting's important. My instinct was 'Don't study voice — study acting.' My voice teacher, Marlena Malas [wife of the Broadway Most Happy Fella, Spiro Malas], suggested La Bohème . She said, 'Did you see “Moulin Rouge”? The redhead?' [Nicole Kidman] — Baz'll hire you for your hair, like that.'" The Soviet Solovyeva, a brunette till Luhrmann coaxed her into a Catherine Deneuve wig, is the show's blonde Mimi but comes to the role with a fairly well-established Musetta past. To her mind, the Broadway edition "is not any different from any other opera production. There is a beautiful prestige with this, but basically it is an opera still."
Luhrmann's record as a bold, brassy innovator in film was the lure for Garcia, who was late in rising to the bait and had, happily, only a single torturous weekend of auditions before he was picked for the part. "There were rumors going 'round — 'they're doing it in English,' 'they're changing the score' — and I wasn't interested in that. Then I found out Baz was directing it, and my ears perked up because I was very affected by his Romeo + Juliet. It really changed my life and my whole perception of what film could do. It seems his work always changed my perception in some way, so I was eager to have this chance."
According to his young disciples, Luhrmann was up to his rep at the rehearsals, melting his eclectic cast into six degrees of unification, careful to leave a little room for some individual interpretation so everyone's character could breathe naturally. "Before we went onstage," recalls Solovyeva, "we sat down and we talked about our characters. On the wall there was this chart where we put down the name of the character and, under it, aspects of that character. A shared fact, we called it, like every Mimi was a certain age."
"We had the truth that we agreed upon, and then the truth that was private for us, for our own rendition of the role," qualifies Hopkins. "There was one month of rehearsals in New York before we went to San Francisco. For three weeks of that, we paired off as couples and rehearsed separately about six hours a day. Then, for the last week and a half, we all came together for Act II and would swing in and out with different partners."
Musical adultery carries no moral angst, it seems. "It was kinda like a crap shoot, a tag team," Miller admits. "They would tap us on the shoulder and say, 'Go on up,' we'd tap them on the shoulder, and the scene would continue as if nothing had happened. There is a particular chemistry between the couples, but there's a general show camaraderie. I mean, we're all friends. There's not even friendly rivalry. We all support each other.
"I don't remember Baz instructing us to bring some particular point out in a character. What they did was translate it into English for us — Russian for Katya — and we rehearsed it as an English play separately. When we came up with our dialogue, our inflection of the lines would be different and our intentions would be different as we connected to the lines. I think that's why he kept us separate. We'd develop it a certain way, and he'd say, 'That was good. How do you feel about this?' The question 'Why?' was ever-present."
Garcia appreciates the way Luhrmann individualized his direction: "He had a different way of asking each person," he says. "Baz is very wise and one of the most centered directors I've ever worked with in terms of him being able to totally know you as an actor and how to get out of you what he wants essentially — which is also what you want because you want to fill that character with truth. I remember when we were shooting the commercial. By that point, he knew how my dramatic mind worked as an artist and just what he had to say to get me to emotionally deliver what he wanted on that camera."
And all that's Baz . . .