Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin Bring Their Unique Collaborative Process to Broadway with La Bohème

First things first: Moulin Rouge it's not. Baz Luhrmann's production of Puccini's La Bohème, which opens December 8 at the Broadway Theatre, is designed by the director's spouse Catherine Martin, who won two Oscars for last year's hit musical movie. But Martin says, “I'm a little worried that after seeing Moulin Rouge, people are going to be disappointed, because this is very restrained. It's not an orgy of color.” In fact, this La Bohème has smatterings of color at most. Set in 1957 Paris, its primary visual inspiration is contemporary black-and-white photographs of the city — classic shots like Robert Doisneau's 1950 “Kiss at the Hotel de Ville,” for example. Co-costume designer Angus Strathie (also Oscared for Moulin Rouge) became an expert in gradations of gray, and the settings are abstract in a far more minimalist manner than the director and his design team are known for. Still, Martin is conscious of her responsibility to the Broadway audience: to give those who have paid $95 a ticket “bang for their buck.”

This is not an entirely new La Bohème, of course. Luhrmann and Martin first visited Puccini's opera about doomed bohemian lovers Rodolfo and Mimi in 1990, when their production premiered at the Sydney Opera House; revivals followed in 1993, when it was recorded for video, and in 1996. Since the original mounting, Luhrmann's films Strictly Ballroom, William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, and Moulin Rouge (all designed by Martin) have made him an international name, and the La Bohème narrative template has already had a phenomenally successful Broadway reworking in the form of Rent. This is not a musical, however; it is the opera, in Italian, with English surtitles. Three performers — singers, primarily, though put through rigorous acting rehearsals — will alternate each of the lead roles.

The production that will come to the Broadway Theatre, following a six-week run at San Francisco's Curran Theatre, is similar in many ways to the 1990 version. “It's definitely both the practical and the philosophical starting point,” says Martin of the Sydney production. “But Baz wanted to re-examine it for New York, and put it in the context of the here and now. Also, we had to think about the audience we were hoping would come. When we did it in the Sydney Opera house, even though our audience opened out enormously, people knew coming in it was in Italian, knew there were certain prerequisites to it being an opera. We hope it's a hugely broad audience that comes to see it here. So we want to be very clear that what we're presenting helps to support the story, and helps to bring the opera out into the auditorium, so that we're making contact with the audience.” To that end, “We're bringing the set out by covering the first boxes, and staging action there. We're also bringing a passerel around the pit, so the singers can come into the auditorium.”

Though Martin and Luhrmann decline to be interviewed, or even photographed, together — “it's about protecting a little bit of the sanctity of the relationship, and protecting that mysterious thing that somehow makes it all stick together in the end,” she says — the designer consistently discusses the creative process in the first-person plural. “It's inevitable that we're talked about as a team, because we are a team,” she says. Since they live and work together, there's no stopper on the flow of ideas. And, as Martin says, “Baz has more ideas than any other human I have ever met. I'm just like, stop with the ideas, I'm having trouble enough. But he never stops, he's always pushing the envelope. That can get a little tense sometimes, because in the practical world, there are deadlines to meet. But ultimately, the reason we do such good work is because he's pushing you. And he engages you in that creative process. In the process of trying things out, of doing variations on a theme to find the best way of going about it, your ideas start coming into play. As you triple and quadruple the ideas, you come up with a collective idea.”

With La Bohème, she continues, “We went back over the original production and decided, ‘Great; could be better; has to change.’ The lighting designer, Nigel Levings, and other collaborators had worked on the original [Acme Sound Partners serve as sound designers for the current production], so there was a lot of resistance to change: ‘I liked it when the hat looked like that!’ You really have to argue your point very clearly. My design associate, Prisque Salvi, and I would have meetings every week with Baz; hopefully by the beginning of the next week, we could show the change, or explain why it didn't work.” Some changes were decreed by practical considerations. “The theatres are enormously different,” says Martin. “In Sydney, there was a lot of depth to the stage. In New York, the theatre is all about real estate, so theatres are wide, but they don't have depth. We had to re-examine how we were going to do the revelation of the Café Momus, for example, in the second act, In the original, it came in a sort of zoom movement from way upstage.”

As ever, detailed models became important tools for Luhrmann and Martin. “We made a complete model box of the Broadway, and a complete model box of the Curran, which is the smaller theatre,” says the designer, who was interviewed in New York last summer, when La Bohème rehearsals were in progress and the sets were being constructed at Hudson Scenic Studio. (Costume construction was being supervised at Bazmark Studio in Australia by Strathie.) A visit to Martin's Soho studio revealed not only both model boxes — which come complete with miniature lights and plastic figures — but dozens of costume drawings pinned to the walls, and design assistants hunkering over drafting tables and computers. “We parallel the two models, and we work from one to the other developing the design,” she says. “Baz will sit there for hours with the little plastic figures for the chorus, which have their names written on them. It's like he's working out a battle [which Luhrmann indeed will be if his next project is, as reported, a film about Alexander the Great], methodically figuring out how the scene's going to work, listening to the music as a stimulus. Of course, things change when the actors become involved, but that's his way of preparing — making sure he knows where everyone's going to be, and what he imagines the point of the scene is.”

As in the original production, the design of La Bohème is centered on a series of wagons (or trucks, in Australian parlance) that are moved around the stage by costumed stagehands. “It's an exposed operation; they're almost like film crews operating pieces of equipment,” says Martin. Although the designer wanted “the physicality of Paris to be very evident in the show,” economic factors led her in a direction more dependent on suggestion back in 1990. “When we first presented it, it was Zeffirelli-like, super-real,” she recalls. “The Australian Opera was just appalled — ‘We got these young kids in to make something modern.’ Basically, all my scenery got cut. Baz said, ‘Why don't you find a way of not having all the scenery, but doing the Orson Welles trick of having a staircase, lots of black, and then a light on the chimney piece, and you believe you're in that room in Xanadu?’”

In the case of La Bohème, that led Martin to the idea of scaffolding. “Up through the 50s and early 60s, Paris was still being rebuilt from the war,” she says. “A lot of buildings got shrouded in scaffolding with translucent net over the top. We came up collectively with this idea of replacing real pieces of scenery with these scaffolding trucks, covering them in mesh, and then just having a few backlit signs and so on to pick up moments of reality. It came out of wanting to create a mass for the street from elements that we could hire and dress, and that were cheap. Then we made the garret very realistically, but we broke it away, deconstructed it, so the window hangs on a scaffolding support structure.”

The major modification for the new production takes the idea a big step further — a step that adds up to 1.2 gigabytes of Photoshop files, to be exact. On a recent visit to Europe, Martin noticed that on certain monuments and buildings being refurbished, “they printed a picture of that historic monument on mesh, and stretched it on the scaffolding. So we took this idea of the printed cloth, and translated it into the scenery.” Inside the set's black mesh — covered mobile towers is an inner structure fronted by black and white, 19'-high × 10'-wide Photoshop representations of various settings — the garret, Café Momus, the shop where Mimi buys a pink hat — that are backlit like Chinese lanterns. “Sometimes there are three-dimensional elements stuck on, like a practical door for the hat shop,” says Martin. “People go inside, and one of our chorus members is the milliner.”

The designer had to sell the concept of the translucent printed cloths to Luhrmann, which meant figuring out how they might be executed. “Baz liked the idea, but it was a lot of work to make him understand what it might look like onstage. I thought the cloths would help us with that whole idea of having areas of reality drop away to black. But because the look of the show was going to be based on this backlit idea, it was very important that we be able to backlight the models.” Levings made several early trips from Australia to experiment on the models, and try out various materials for the printing surface. “We finally ended up printing them on this vinyl material that they use for backlit ads in bus shelters,” says Martin. “It worked beautifully with the resolution of the artwork,” which is created by the designer and her art department from photos, drawings, and Photoshop collages. “We've also hired on, in Sydney, some digital matte painters from the film world who have been working on Lord of the Rings. We did the texturing internally, and the matte painters relit them, put a gloss on them.”

After the Photoshop files were completed, they were printed onto the scenery at Hudson Scenic. “We had to buy a special drive to get them to the printer, and hope it doesn't break the machine,” says Martin. In addition to the photo pieces, there are also three 67' × 31' scenic backdrops for the show that match the Doisneau and Henri Cartier-Bresson style.

“In the show, Paris is a black-and-white photograph,” says the designer. “The chorus, representing the bourgeois world, is dressed in black and white.” Even their hair and makeup is in grayish tones. But there are touches of color throughout. Most noticeably, the red “L'Amour” sign that has turned up in most of Luhrmann's work is prominently featured. And the bohemian characters, who include Rodolfo's friend Marcello and his lover Musetta, are initially dressed in vivid colors, though “as their journey gets sadder, and they have to give up their bohemian ideals, the color is drained from their clothes more and more,” says Martin. The main characters, says co-costume designer Strathie, are color-coded: “Musetta's always in red, in dresses that give Dior a nudge. Marcello is brown, Rodolfo is purple, and Mimi is in very pale colors. They're like football players, really; you can recognize them in a crowd. They have quite punchy colors to kick out against the gray.”

Since he didn't work on the 1990 production, Strathie is one participant who came to La Bohème without too many preconceived notions. But he was in on all the discussions of what to do differently this time. “The costumes are much more refined,” says Martin. “Originally, it was all begged, borrowed, and stolen. Now we have the luxury of a Broadway production. We have a very, very strong chorus, all of whom were extensively auditioned, and they're very particularly costumed for each of their physical parts and character types.” Says Strathie, “That's been the joy of it; I've known the faces of the people in the chorus for months. In workshop, Catherine and I could say, ‘Oh, she looks like she'd be a good older prostitute who's not particularly successful.’ You can design not only for the character, but for the person playing the character.” Of course, this also means more work is required. Costume sketches are Strathie's domain, and by Martin's count, he probably produced about 120 for La Bohème. “Every street sweeper has been thought about,” she says.

It was Strathie's idea to dye virtually all the fabric in the chorus members' costumes in a carefully worked out gray color scale. “I did a lot of fiddling around with Photoshop: getting a black-and-white photo, taking a point sample to find our particular range of grays,” he says. “It's taken to the nth degree. There was a lot of dyeing — I'm quite happy not to see a gray fabric for some time.”

After spending several months in New York earlier this year on the design process with Luhrmann and Martin (a period punctuated by a trip west for the Oscar ceremony in March), Strathie went shopping for fabric. “I did most of the buying in New York, because if you're there you might as well get it there,” he says, naming B&J Fabrics as one major supplier. “Then I took everything back to Sydney,” he continues. “We had a team of about four cutters, and by the time we finished, I think we had nearly 20 sewers. It got pretty intense — there was a deadline of getting the damned things in boxes and back over here. During that period, we came back to New York for a week of fittings.”

Fine-tuning the principals' costumes meant paying individual attention to three separate Mimis (Lisa Hopkins, Wei Huang, and Ekaterina Solovyeva) and Rodolfos (Alfred Boe, Jesus Garcia, and David Miller). “We set out not to do the thing opera does, which is you design a costume, and every person that comes into the role either gets squeezed into it, or they make exactly the same costume with no consideration of physical traits,” says Strathie. “Wei Huang is Asian, so the blond wig on Ekaterina is not going to look good on her.” (La Bohème's hairstyles are by Aldo Signoretti, an Oscar nominee for Moulin Rouge.) “In the first act, Ekaterina wears a trench coat, and we made exactly the same coat for Wei, but it just didn't work, it looked quite hard. So she has a cream coat. We treated it a bit like a styling job. David's enormously tall and fair, Jesus is quite petite with Latino looks. So we made different types of leather jackets. There's a lot of tweaking.”

With Luhrmann around, Martin knows from tweaking. “Every week it's been heated discussions that almost come to blows, and I have a hyperactive fit,” she says, only half-kiddingly. “‘You have got to be kidding my ass, you're not telling me to change it.’ But of course, I go and change it. In the end, I think he's usually right. But he does push you and everybody to the absolute limit of what's possible.” The designer still worries, however, about that bang-for-their-buck issue: “I feel a responsibility to the audience to deliver an experience to them.” If it's not a Moulin Rouge-style orgy of color, she at least hopes La Bohème will be “an orgy of experience, and you will come away moved. And feel like you've gotten your $95 worth.”