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Film: Baz's World Is Indeed a Stage

Moulin Rouge director makes Broadway splash with La Boheme

By Rodger Pille · January 29th, 2003 · Movies
New York City -- From the opening moments of his Broadway production of La Boheme, it's clear that film director Baz Luhrmann is captivated by the theatrical process.

Stagehands walk on and off stage without any attempt to hide themselves. Actors gather together before they hit their marks. The stage manager even walks out and calls places in plain sight and earshot of the audience.

This is not the work of a director who hides behind the great curtain. In fact, in this production of La Boheme, there is no curtain. Perhaps to Luhrmann, putting it together is as interesting as the end result.

Examining Luhrmann's film credits, this is no surprise. His love affair with the stage was apparent from the very beginning. His 1992 directorial debut, Strictly Ballroom, centered on the love of performing itself, as told through a ballroom dance championship. Romeo + Juliet was Luhrmann's MTV-style take on a stage classic, an early indication of his unquenchable desire to bring high art down to the masses. After all, the tale of the star-crossed lovers should be examined by their peers. And then there was Moulin Rouge.

From its opening scene when, before a red-curtained proscenium, a conductor rises and directs an imaginary orchestra through the 20th Century Fox theme, Luhrmann continually reminds us that we're enjoying theatrical entertainment. It just happens to be filmed.

If the movie musical is resurrected in this age, Moulin and Luhrmann should be given the credit. While the critical and box-office appeal of Rob Marshall's new film production of Chicago shows that audiences are open to a little song and dance, it was trailblazer Luhrmann who stuck his neck out the farthest.

And for that, Luhrmann must consider Moulin his favorite creation.

Either that or he can't get the film out of his mind. The production of La Boheme at the Broadway Theater -- the talk of the town since it began previews in November -- is drenched with reminders of its film cousin.

Greeting audiences as they find their seats is the massive rooftop set with the red-hot cursive "L'Amour" scrolled across it. It is an exact model of Christian's garret from Moulin Rouge, where he and his bohemian friends would gather to write their poetry. Catherine Martin, production designer and Luhrmann's wife, puts her indelible stamp on the entire opera. The program styling, the garish costumes and the Parisian backdrops all are reminiscent.

To be correct, though, one should say that Moulin is reminiscent of La Boheme. Luhrmann staged a strikingly similar version of the opera in his native Australia in 1993. If anything, this Broadway staging is version 2.0.

Luhrmann is far from the only film talent to experiment on the Great White Way. For as long as anyone can remember, Broadway and Hollywood were inseparably linked by its talent. Even today, marquees around town read like a Variety front page. Anne Heche just closed Proof. Rosie Perez and Joey Pantoliano are featured in Frankie and Johnny in the Clair De Lune. Even film legend Paul Newman just wrapped a run of Our Town.

But Luhrmann has cut an unusual path in his quest to remount Puccini's classic opera. For one, it tends to be in-front-of-the-camera talent that migrates back to the stage after success in Hollywood. Directors, after success in the film biz, typically don't.

The exception to the rule are those directors who began in the theatre. Sam Mendes came to limited American fame through his bold stage revival of Cabaret, first in London and then on Broadway. After his best director win for American Beauty, his debut film, he returned to the London stage, directing high profile projects such as The Blue Room with Nicole Kidman.

Others like David Mamet are playwrights and writers first and erstwhile directors second. Mamet's most recent New York offering, Boston Marriage, was a disappointment, but his last directed film, Heist, did decent business. Neil LaBute (Your Friends and Neighbors) bounces back and forth.

Marshall will be one to watch, since he too paid his dues on the stage before directing Chicago. Will he return now that he has discovered film success? The question is likely intrinsically tied to the viability of the film musical. If it stays in Hollywood, so too will Marshall.

With the box-office success of Moulin Rouge, to say nothing of its successful run through the awards season last year capped off with a best picture nod, Luhrmann could have done almost anything. Moulin's success affords directors a kind of Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card, allowing them to dabble on a pet project with other people's money. Luhrmann could have announced he was making a movie musical version of Pluto Nash and no one would have blinked an eye. As they say in Hollywood, when you're hot, you're hot.

Luhrmann's decision to go back to the stage when he did is peculiar. Initial buzz had him immediately conceptualizing how to stage Moulin and Strictly Ballroom for Broadway. It could reasonably be assumed that he wanted to try something "safer" first, to gauge Broadway audiences' receptiveness.

With an epic film telling of Alexander the Great, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kidman, next on the schedule for Luhrmann, his unresolved passion for live theater likely has to wait a few years. ©



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