Baz Luhrmann's Broadway staging of Puccini's La Bohème is not set in the 1840s Paris of the 1896 opera, but in 1957 Paris — a time of artistic experimentation, World War II kids coming of age and inoculation from disease.
Why does Luhrmann set the production in the era of artist Jackson Pollock, who is conjured in the opening scene, when Marcello splatters paint on a canvas?
"For all the talk that this is another wacky Baz Luhrmann groovy show, all decisions are based on revelation of character, revelation of plot," Luhrmann told Playbill On Line. "We wanted to make it as much like the experience Puccini's audience would have had in the 1890s. A lot of the humor [back then] had to do with an understanding of the characters — what a bohemian of the 1840s was. The 1840s bohemian basically got around in large, velvet, floppy hats and checked pants and beards like ZZ Top. It might be difficult and an unnecessary burden to decode for a contemporary audience what that is, so we wanted to see: Could we re-set it in a bohemia that could be more accessible?"
Luhrmann said it helped that his designer-wife, Catherine Martin's father is a professor of French history and that her mother is French.
"We spent a lot of time in Paris, living the bohemian life and researching all different periods of bohemia, and found that '57 was a good social-economic match [with the 1840s bohemian life]," Luhrmann said. "And indeed, the bohemian of the 1840s was [living in a] post-war time . Louis Philippe was a boring king but a good one, and so the bourgeoisie flourished. Their kids were rebelling without cause: There were non-politicized bohemians. And '57 was a time again when you had this sort of non politicized bohemia." And what of the sickness of Mimi in 1957? Is she tubercular?
" was also the year in which broad inoculation for tuberculosis took place," Luhrmann said. "Clearly, this being a primary plot point, there has to be a reasonable amount of credibility that [Mimi] died from tuberculosis. For those reasons, '57 became our year. It wasn't like, 'Gee, don't people look great in leather jackets?' Much as they do look good, it's not my favorite visual period, the '50s. My favorite things are irrelevant to me. My taste is irrelevant. It's about decoding the work and revealing the power of that to the audience."
Previews for the Broadway staging of the production that caused a sensation in Australia in 1990 (and in revival in 1993 and 1996) begin Nov. 29 at the Broadway Theatre. Opening is set for Dec. 8. For ticket information, call (212) 239-6200 or (800) 432-7250.