"Just What Is a Musical? Broadway Has a New Definition"
IF there is anything new on the Broadway horizon this fall, it is the prospect of two artists from outside the theater, the choreographer Twyla Tharp and the filmmaker Baz Luhrmann, bringing their creative energy to the stage and expanding the definition of what constitutes a Broadway musical.
Ms. Tharp, who has created some of the most innovative and popular work in contemporary dance since she formed her first company in 1965, has conceived, choreographed and directed "Movin' Out," a dance musical based on 31 songs by Billy Joel. It opens on Oct. 24 at the Richard Rodgers Theater.
Mr. Luhrmann, the Australian director best known for creating the hyperkinetic pop-rock movie musical "Moulin Rouge," is staging Puccini's popular opera "La Bohème," sung in Italian with English supertitles. It will play for six weeks at the Curran Theater in San Francisco before opening at the Broadway Theater on Dec. 8. First mounted at the Sydney Opera House in 1990, Mr. Luhrmann's "Bohème" is set in 1957 Paris and has been specifically cast with young, good-looking performers who are required not only to sing but also to act.
For the last couple of seasons, musicals that refer knowingly to other musicals have dominated Broadway. The major shows — including "The Producers," "Urinetown" and "Thoroughly Modern Millie" — have been made by veteran insiders at the peak of their form or newcomers following in their footsteps. Ms. Tharp and Mr. Luhrmann work outside that Broadway tradition. With their idiosyncratic artistic visions, they are aiming for an audience that does not necessarily see every Broadway musical. Exuding a recklessly experimental rock 'n' roll energy, they hope to lure those who might otherwise never suspect that ballet or opera could appeal. And they both see Broadway theater as a kind of big, friendly carnival tent where audiences for different art forms can cross-pollinate.
The Broadway musical benefits from new blood. When people enter the field from outside — like Mel Brooks ("The Producers"), Marc Shaiman ("Hairspray") and Michel Legrand (the forthcoming "Amour") — the tried-and-true formula is for them to work with established directors (Susan Stroman, Jack O'Brien and James Lapine) as a kind of insurance.
Although Michael Mayer and John Rando have shorter track records, they proved their mettle by successfully marshaling the creative teams that made their Broadway debuts with "Thoroughly Modern Millie" and "Urinetown," respectively.
Without a sturdy Broadway veteran at the helm, shows by Broadway newcomers are riskier. An unhappy example is "The Capeman" by Paul Simon, directed by Mark Morris. "Movin' Out" and "La Bohème" have a different kind of insurance going for them: music that hasn't been proven on Broadway but has been wildly popular in the culture beyond Broadway.
Will the combination spell success? That is one question the new season stands to answer.
Ms. Tharp has always been interested in choreographing to pop music. She shook up the dance world in 1973 when she made "Deuce Coupe" for the Joffrey Ballet, with music of the Beach Boys, and she has set dances to music by David Byrne, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen and Supertramp. A few years ago, while working with her five-member company on some Billy Joel songs, Ms. Tharp hatched the idea "to do a big production," she said in July in Chicago, where "Movin' Out" was having a 10-week pre-Broadway tryout.
The plan was to use Mr. Joel's music to create not just a dance concert or a revue along the lines of "Fosse" or "Jerome Robbins's Broadway," but "a narrative that had a through line, that could build to a second act," said Ms. Tharp, 61, a small woman with owlish glasses and a no-nonsense manner.
"Rather than go to a ballet company to mount this, or to the Met," she said, "I decided we'll go to Broadway because I think that's the kind of house where the audience will feel more comfortable."
For Mr. Joel, the idea was intriguing if unexpected. When Ms. Tharp invited him to view a small sample of her work, "I wasn't sure what I was going to see," he said in a recent telephone interview. "I had this idea of guys prancing in tutus, that I wouldn't like it and I'd have to think of something to say that wouldn't hurt anyone's feelings." Instead, he liked what he saw and immediately gave Ms. Tharp permission to use any and all of his music without restriction.
Theatergoers might imagine that a Twyla Tharp show using Billy Joel songs would be some combination of "Mamma Mia!," whose characters sing well-known hits by the Swedish pop group Abba, and "Contact," in which a drama unfolds not in words but in dances to popular recordings. But "Movin' Out" doesn't look like either of those shows. For one thing, there is a full 10-piece rock band onstage playing the music live and led by a Billy Joel sound-alike, Michael Cavanaugh. With the musicians stationed on a platform overhead, the dancers perform a series of story ballets on the stage floor.
The narrative begins in 1967 with "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant," and the show follows characters named Eddie, Brenda, Tony, James and Judy through the Vietnam War and its aftermath, up to the present, using some of Mr. Joel's best-known songs, including "Uptown Girl," "River of Dreams," "Just the Way You Are" and, of course, "Movin' Out." There is no spoken dialogue.
When the show opened at the Shubert Theater in Chicago on July 21, the reviews were mixed to negative. Critics generally praised the dancing, especially in Act II, and Mr. Cavanaugh's singing, but found the story line confusing and ill conceived, especially in Act I. Ms. Tharp did not disagree. She had started out structuring the show like an opera. "I tried introducing the entire cast all at once, and then gave each of the lead players an aria right up front," she said. "Wrong! I was looking at the first act as exposition to get me into the second act. Wrong! Even while you're doing exposition, it has to have energy, and there were scenes where it didn't."
At the Chicago tryouts, Ms. Tharp relied on the audience to pay attention to certain lyrics and let the rest wash over them, she said. "I'd assumed that they would look at two people onstage — Cavanaugh is up there singing about Brenda and Eddie — and they would know this is Brenda and Eddie. Wrong, wrong, wrong! You can't feed in Billy's language, because then you become too literal, and dance does not work well literally. The whole reason I do what I do is there's a truth in action that words sometimes belie."
Still performing eight shows a week, the cast plunged back into rehearsals. By Aug. 12, Ms. Tharp had almost completely overhauled the first act, restaging the opening, dropping subplots and creating 20 minutes of new dance material.
Ms. Tharp has been on Broadway before. Her company has played short engagements in Broadway theaters, and she directed a 1985 stage version of the movie musical "Singin' in the Rain" that ran for 367 performances. But that experience was, she wrote in her 1992 autobiography, "Push Comes to Shove," "my worst nightmare"; it left her "humiliated by the horrible reviews."
It clearly has not deterred her from trying again. To her, being on Broadway simply means more people will see her work than if she stuck to two-week engagements at City Center or the Joyce Theater.
"I don't see myself as a missionary or a proselytizer," she said. "I'm affording entertainment and an experience to move people. It's not outside the ken of what Broadway mandates. I'm just doing it in a slightly different way."
For Baz Luhrmann, Broadway was an imaginary romantic realm that he first encountered watching Fred Astaire movies while growing up in a tiny town north of Sydney called Heron's Creek. Broadway "was this mythical, magical land where dreams and hopes and ideals can come true in show business," he recalled recently.
"It was a place where very sophisticated, glamorous audiences went off to have a truly enriching, beautiful experience and talk about it with friends at a fantastic dinner afterward," he said. "Have I actually had that experience going to Broadway theater? No. Do I think the essence of that experience is what a night out on Broadway should be? Yes, I do."
The producers Jeffrey Seller and Kevin McCollum, the team behind "Rent," Jonathan Larson's rock version of "La Bohème," had seen Mr. Luhrmann's staging of the Puccini opera on video and had for several years been urging him to mount it on Broadway. But the director was always engrossed in films. After making his debut in 1992 with "Strictly Ballroom," he filmed a modern-dress version of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Clare Danes that was set in Miami and included, among other touches, a Mercutio who shows up at the masked ball in drag lip-synching to "Young Hearts Run Free."
Mr. Luhrmann then spent two years and $50 million making "Moulin Rouge," a cross between the Orpheus myth and "Camille." Set mostly in 1899, it freely quotes lyrics from Madonna, Elton John, Nirvana and "The Sound of Music."
LAST year, Mr. Luhrmann and his production company, Bazmark, decided to start a theater division, à la Disney, to explore adapting "Strictly Ballroom" and "Moulin Rouge" to the stage. In addition, he and his wife, Catherine Martin, who designs his sets and costumes, wanted to move their home base from Sydney to New York. "We've been living on the edge of the world," he said, "and we wanted to be in the center of the world."
A handsome 39-year-old with graying hair and coal-black, close-set eyes, Mr. Luhrmann is clearly a savvy, self-dramatizing showman who loves to expound at length to the press. He greets a reporter at Bazmark's second-floor loft on Wooster Street in SoHo wearing flip-flops, with the nails of his big toes painted blue-green, and his spiel about "La Bohème" comes with guaranteed sound bites. "It's `Sex and the City' made into an opera," for instance. Referring to his international cast with three pairs alternating as Mimi and Rodolfo (for Broadway's eight performances a week): "We've assembled the young Olympics of opera."
When Mr. Luhrmann first staged "La Bohème" for the Australian Opera, his intention was to peel away generations of operatic tradition so that viewers could experience the emotional power of Puccini's music wedded to a classic love story as directly as the opera's first audiences did in 1896. He and Ms. Martin developed a stage design inspired by romantic black-and-white photographs of Paris in the 1950's by Robert Doisneau and Henri Cartier-Bresson.
"The reason we chose 1957 was that it was the closest social and economic match in recent history to the 1830's, when the play was set," said Ms. Martin, a short, exuberant blonde who was buzzing around Bazmark's headquarters on a hot summer day wearing what looked like a black full-skirted wedding dress. (She is a character, too.) "It was a secure time in history between great upheavals" — World War II and the student riots of the 60's in Paris.
In Ms. Martin's design scheme, a major visual element is a huge sign spelling out the show's theme in bright red neon: "L'amour." The "L'amour" sign has become a signature for Mr. Luhrmann, making cameo appearances in each of his films. Ms. Martin expressed some concern that fans of "Moulin Rouge" might expect the opera to be equally fast-paced and eye-popping. "There's not much action in `La Bohème,' " she said dryly. "It's kind of a kitchen-sink drama." Set during a bitterly cold winter in Paris, "La Bohème" tells of the love of the penniless poet Rodolfo for the equally poor seamstress Mimi, his fatally ill neighbor, and the lives of their young friends, among them Marcello, an artist, and Musetta, his flirtatious girlfriend.
A WEEK later, Mr. Luhrmann was in a rehearsal studio near Union Square working on the Act III quartet with one of his three principal casts. David Miller and Ben Davis, American tenors, played Rodolfo and Marcello, with Yekaterina Solovyeva, who is Russian, as Mimi and Chloe Wright, who is British, as Musetta. (An Englishman, Alfred Boe, will play Rodolfo to a Chinese Mimi, Wei Huang. Lisa Hopkins and Jesús Garcia will be an all-American Mimi and Rodolfo. And the alternate Marcello and Musetta will be Eugene Brancoveanu from Germany and Jessica Comeau from Canada. The young Olympics of opera, remember?)
Sitting in a circle, Mr. Luhrmann and the performers went through the text line by line, translating the Italian into colloquial English. (Ms. Solovyeva, who speaks no English, conveyed her Russian equivalents through a translator.) Mr. Luhrmann fired questions at the actors: How long have the characters known one another? Who in the neighborhood knows Musetta, and what do they think of her? Next, the director had them walk through the scene, speaking the lines alternately in Italian and English with piano underscoring. Eventually, he let them sing but monitored whether they were conveying the meaning of the words or simply "cruising." Clearly, these singers could sing the score in their sleep, but with Mr. Luhrmann riding herd on them, their struggle to find the words produced the unpolished vulnerability he seemed to be aiming for.
If the goal is to make the essence of "La Bohème" accessible to a new audience on Broadway, one might wonder if "Rent" hasn't already beaten Mr. Luhrmann to the punch. Asked about "Rent," Mr. Luhrmann adopted a diplomatic tone.
"There will probably be a lot of `Rent' kids who will go to `La Bohème' just out of interest, but that's not our audience," he said. "What I'm doing is opening the door to people who may otherwise be fearful of opera because it's kept in a temple. What I want to show them is that what opera can do, which almost no other art form does, is take you to an emotional level which is not like anything else. We're making a show for the person who wants to have that direct emotional experience."
New York Times, September 8, 2002