Director Baz Luhrmann invited movie audiences in 2001 to think in a new visual language for his picture, "Moulin Rouge." Now, if the gasps of previews audiences at La Bohème are any indication, his new staging of the Puccini opera for Broadway, opening Dec. 8 at the Broadway Theatre, will keep people talking for a long time.
Reveling in a theatricality that some are saying hasn't been seen since the potent work of Harold Prince in the 1970s, Luhrmann freely shows stage hands and stage managers, props and effects-machines — the mechanics of the event behind the rich, classic romance that has been a sensation on opera houses for generations. Luhrmann's goal is to rediscover the story using young, lean performers, placing them in a world that, if not as mammoth and opulent as what can be seen at the cavernous Metropolitan Opera, is still visually arresting. The Paris Latin Quarter section of the show (Act II) has had audiences gasping and applauding for the monochromatic, neon-punctuated work of designer Catherine Martin. The opera, the creative team seems to be saying, will do the rest of the work.
From the three rotating casts for Mimi and Rodolfo and the two pairs of lovers for Marcello and Musetta, the opening night will feature American tenor David Miller and Russian soprano Ekaterina Solovyeva as Mimi and Rodolfo and American Ben Davis and British Chlöe Wright as Marcello and Musetta. The producers are said to be petitioning the Tony Awards committee to have all of their principals available for nominations. Performances for the Tony voters to view the casts will be made available to nominators, if and when it comes to that.
The Nov. 29 first preview of Baz Luhrmann's staging of La Bohème represents new territory for musical theatre: A major commitment from major producers to produce a major Italian-language opera on Broadway. It helps that the title is a brand name like Puccini's La Bohème, arguably the most-produced opera in the history of the world. It also helps that this production, when it was first seen in a staging by the Australian Opera in 1990, was a sensation Down Under. Set in Paris of 1957 with comely young sopranos and tenors, it was revived twice in the 1990s, and now director Baz Luhrmann and designer Catherine Martin return to shepherd the American debut, complete with English surtitles.
Of course La Bohème is a risk for producers Jeffrey Seller, Kevin McCollum and Emanuel Azenberg, but Seller (who, with McCollum, guided Rent to Broadway) suggests it's not worth doing if there's no risk.
"I'm scared out of my mind," Seller told Playbill On-Line. "But I don't think that Kevin and I are really interested in producing anything in New York City that doesn't break the rules, turn convention upside-down on its head and make us feel like we could be on the brink of utter catastrophe."
Considering San Francisco critics raved about the show in its pre-New York tryout Oct. 1-Nov. 10 at the Curran Theatre, where the show was largely sold out, the brink of "utter catastrophe" seems unlikely. Still, the unknown territory aspect of the production (the thing is in Italian, after all) is being closely watched by industry folk.
Seller and McCollum's risky past productions of Rent (the Jonathan Larson rock opera inspired by La Bohème) and De La Guarda have paid off with international success. Their hope back in 1995, when they first approached Luhrmann about a U.S. staging of La Bohème, was to see both Rent and Bohème playing in New York City at the same time. The latter continues its smash run on 41st Street, at the Nederlander, while Bohème settles into the Broadway Theatre at 53rd Street and Broadway.
What's different about the Broadway staging compared to the Aussie staging of the Luhrmann conception is the triple casting of the principal lovers — seamstress Mimi and poet Rodolfo. The triple cast (and double casting for Musetta and Marcello) is due to the vocal demands of the eight-show-a-week schedule; opera companies usually offer works in rotating rep, with less than eight shows a week. As in Australia, all the principals are young, sexy and attractive. The 10 rotating on Broadway come from various parts of the globe.
Also paired up in rep are Russian soprano Ekaterina Solovyeva and American tenor David Miller, and American soprano Lisa Hopkins and American tenor Jesús Garcia. Canadian Jessica Comeau and Romanian Eugene Brancoveanu also play Musetta and Marcello, respectively.
In theory, the Rodolfos and Mimis who rehearsed as couples will stay paired and play no more than three shows a week; and the Marcellos and Musettas won't play more than four shows per week. Sickness, delays and other circumstances could change that, but members of the principal acting company said they welcomed such an energy-sparking shakeup.
A spokesman for the show said once previews and critics performances have passed and the regular run has begun (after Dec. 8), a performance schedule will be posted one month in advance at the box office, on the www.BohemeonBroadway.com website and with phone sales agents in the event ticketbuyers want to see a specific performer. That performance schedule, as noted above, is subject to change.
Critics are invited to see all three of the rotating casts of Broadway's La Bohème, a spokesman confirmed, but that doesn't necessarily mean all reviewers consecutively digested triple doses of Baz Luhrmann's rich theatrical cafe au lait in the past week.
The way newspapers and critics approach the show is ultimately up to them, a La Bohème spokesman told Playbill On-Line, though "we're inviting them to see all three casts." Whether critics squeezed three viewings — totaling about eight hours — into one week leading toward the Dec. 8 opening is questionable, but return trips are likely, leading to potential expanded exposure.
Considering the unique New York Times approach to the dance-heavy Broadway musical, Movin' Out (side-by-side reviews by Times theatre and dance critics), it seems likely that the most powerful paper in town will offer its readers reviews of Bohème by its theatre and opera critics.
Opening night is the performance that traditionally determines Tony Award eligibility. (The Tony committee has been flexible in the past: Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner, playing conjoined twins in Side Show, were dubbed one actress and both nommed together as Best Actress in 1998; the singular Natasha Richardson won the prize).
Joining the six previously-announced international leads are Daniel Webb as philosopher Colline, Daniel Okulitch as musician Schaunard, William Youmans as Musetta's Alcindoro and Adam Grupper as landlord Benoit. The ensemble of La Bohème comprises Enrique Abdala, Christine Arand, Janinah Burnett, Gilles Chiasson, Charlotte Cohn, Michael Cone, Vanessa Conlin, Sean Cooper (as Customs Officer), Patricia Corbett, Evangelia Costantakos, Lawrence Craig, Dan Entriken (as Parpignol, a toy seller), Graham Fandrei (as the Sergeant), Bobby Faust, Katie Geissinger, Jennifer Goode, Paul Goodwin Groen, Joy Hermalyn, Robb Hillman, Adam Hunter, Tim Jerome, Katherine Keyes, Laurice Lanier, Morgan Moody Marcus Nance, Daniel Neer, Debra Patchell, Patricia Phillips, Jamet Pittman, Martín Solá, Radu Spinghel and Mark Womack. The production also features a children's chorus of 15.
The American premiere of Baz Luhrmann's production of La Bohème ended its tryout run at San Francisco's Curran Theatre Nov. 10 on a high note, and not just Puccini's.
The Curran run of the classic opera was sold out three days after it earned enthusiastic reviews there, and sold about $300,000 in tickets the day the reviews appeared.
No advance box office figures are available to the press for the Broadway run.
The 1896 opera is being re-set from early 19th-century Paris to the Paris of 1957. A 67-minute "highlights" cast album — featuring all principals handling various sections of the opera — was recorded in California for Dreamworks. It's expected in stores Dec. 10.
The Broadway staging's producers are Jeffrey Seller, Kevin McCollum, Emanuel Azenberg and Bazmark Live, with Bob and Harvey Weinstein, Korea Pictures/Doyun Seol, J. Stine/I. Pittelman/S. Nederlander and Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Musical director Constantine Kitsopoulos conducts the 28-piece orchestra, which includes two electronic keyboard players, sweetening the orchestra. The company does indeed perform with body mikes. The opera has a legendary score by Giacomo Puccini — even those who avoid opera will recognize "Musetta's Waltz," if only from its interpolations in movies. Reviews were not good 100 years ago, but the score outlived the critics.
Luhrmann's La Bohème premiered in 1990, and became the biggest hit in the history of the Sydney Opera House and a sold-out sensation. It played return engagements at the Sydney Opera House in 1993, when it was recorded for video, and in 1996.
The design staff includes "Moulin Rouge" Academy Award winners Catherine Martin (scenic design and co-costume design) and Angus Strathie (co-costume design), with Nigel Levings (lighting design) and Acme Sound Partners (sound design).
Onetime actor Luhrmann is internationally known for directing the films "Strictly Ballroom" (which he began as a play), "Romeo + Juliet" and the Academy Award nominated "Moulin Rouge." He has worked in film, opera, theatre, music and events management. With Martin he is the founder and director of Bazmark. In 1988, he created the critically acclaimed opera, Lake Lost, with composer Felix Meagher, where he first collaborated with designer Catherine Martin.
The director and designer, married off-stage, seek to capture the romantic haze of Paris in the 1950s — the same gray world captured by the lens of photographer Robert Doisneau, whose subjects kissed rapturously on Paris streets.
"It's a monchromatic, Doisneau world, with the bohemians, their characters, in color," Luhrmann told Playbill On-Line. "They are colorful because they see life in a romantic way. When we did that in 1990, the color was acrid and very '80s. It was very garish, which was totally right. In the [late] '80s we were all into the brashness of color. This production, while we use the same device, those colors are a little more somber."
The four-act opera is offered with one intermission and two scene changes. The conceit of the staging has stage crew making scene changes in full view of the audience. The actors appear under a contract with AGMA (The American Guild of Musical Artists) rather than Actors' Equity Association, the usual union for Broadway performers.
Why is this production set in 1957?
"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 said. "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 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."
For La Bohème ticket (ranging from $20 same day tickets in the first two rows) to a $95 top, call (212) 239-6200.