Catherine Martin, the gamin-faced scenic and costume designer who won Academy Awards for her costumes and art direction for the explosively colorful "Moulin Rouge," directed by husband Baz Luhrmann, is again providing the eyeful of romance for a Luhrmann project — the Broadway staging of La Boheme, beginning previews Nov. 29. Although both "Moulin Rouge" and La Boheme are set in Paris, the City of Light seen in Luhrmann and Martin's vision of the 1896 Puccini opera is a visually-restrained world of monochromes punctuated by color, as it had been for the couple's conception for the Australian Opera in 1990. (Australian Martin shares costume design credit for the Broadway staging with her "Moulin Rouge" Academy Award co-winner, Angus Strathie.) Martin, who is known to friends and family as C.M., spoke to Playbill On-Line's Kenneth Jones about the way she approached the design of this fresh, hip new take on the Italian opera (which has been set in 1957), and how the 1990 version compares to its American premiere 12 years later.
Playbill On-Line: The four acts of the opera dictate where we are, scenically, and your scenes follow that tradition. How did you approach the tradition of the scenic elements?
CM: I started off being a bit self-conscious about the design. I was thinking, "people'll think it's terribly old fashioned." Baz said, "You're gettin' too self-conscious here." He has a great adage: "Taste is the enemy of art." You get all wrapped up in "What's fashionable? What's not? Are people gonna think this? Are people are gonna think that?" The inception of the idea was based around bringing La Boheme to the widest possible audience, making it accessible.
PBOL: How is it different, visually, for Broadway than at the Sydney Opera House in 1990?
CM: It's more refined, without losing the naivete and the freshness of the original production. I think that's the thing I am happiest with: I feel we didn't throw the baby out with the bathwater. It's a more focused, better resolved production with more detail and clarity.
PBOL: Can you talk about the use of color then and now? The backdrop and everything around the lovers was in grays or black in 1990, and in the subsequent Australian revivals in 1993 and '96.
CM: The original show did have the chorus and the setting and scenery in monochrome and black and white, and the principals in color. In the original, everything was either bought from a thrift shop or taken off the rack at the Australian Opera — borrowed from another show. I only had about four or five costumes actually made: The yellow coat, the purple dressing gown, Mimi's coat and the red dress. That was about it. Everything else was bought and adapted, or whatever. So that meant that the focus in terms of the characterization of the chorus was more accidental, to some degree. I was aiming to be as specific as possible, but in the end there were sometimes when it got to the third act and you had someone that weighed 300 pounds, and a blanket and a safety pin looked pretty good. They were the restrictions of the old show. Now...we've had the resources to very specifically costume all the chorus, all the actors, all the children's chorus, and be much more specific and subtle about how we costume the principal characters. For instance, Musetta, did have a red dress in Sydney, but it wasn't realized to its ultimate perfection: Resources, time, all those things. There was a purple dressing gown, but that wasn't brought into focus. Also [on Broadway], we have slight variations between all of the casts, just because certain things worked on certain people and certain things didn't.
PBOL: Did you know from the beginning that the backdrops, the world of the show, would mirror the black and white, gritty romance of Robert Doisneau's famous black and white postwar Paris photographs?
CM: No. Baz goes on a very thorough research process, and as a designer you're allowed into that process. By going through that research process you discover ideas and thoughts on the way. That evolving into a 20th century transposition [of the 19th-century tale] was very much a part of his initiative to make it far more accessible to a wide audience. On top of that, I think being in Paris while doing the research, we were just far more exposed to all those black and white images than we would be if we'd been in Sydney, Australia, looking at books. Certainly it was part of a focusing device that Baz was working on: Having this monochromatic background and being very clear about who the bohemian was, their aspirations [seen through the colors they wore]. It was a way of being very clear who everyone was. As the show progressed, the color slowly drained out of their clothes. PBOL: Spring is major idea in the text, yet, as you say, by the final scene — the famous death scene — the bohemian world is cream colored and neutral. Being a visual person, did you yearn for more color there, or throughout? One thinks of color when one thinks of passion.
CM: Everything is about trying to serve the director's vision and the actor's characterization. Hopefully, your longevity and your career is about being able to adapt to a vast range of different subject matters and styles. To me, the restrained nature of the color palette is just another series of problems and disciplines; it's quite dramatic in its own right.