January 13, 2003 12:00 PM

With just three days until La Bohème‘s opening night, director Baz Luhrmann wants to add a little something to the opera’s showstopping parade scene. Namely, cannons. Moments later, as Luhrmann bounds down the aisle during rehearsal to watch, a resounding boom sends red, white and blue streamers shooting into the air. The cast applauds. Luhrmann beams. “Well,” he declares. “how can we say no to that?”

Sensational? Sure. But Luhrmann, 40, has rarely been known for restraint. Turning Puccini’s 106-year-old opera into a Broadway smash is only the latest feat of showmanship from the flamboyant Aussie director, whose movies have brought to the world Nicole Kidman warbling Elton John tunes in 19th-century Paris (200l’s Moulin Rouge) and Leonardo DiCaprio declaiming Shakespeare in Verona Beach, which resembles a modern-day Miami (1996’s Romeo + Juliet). A century ago, opera “was a deeply popular form of storytelling,” says Luhrmann. “It was like television. We set out with a mission to bring it back to the audience that it was written for—basically everybody. And everybody’s going.”

No lie. Within days of opening to critical raves on Dec. 8, La Bohème sold out nearly three months of shows. To revitalize the opera, which he set in 1950s Paris, Luhrmann cast attractive young singers he felt had the acting chops as well as the voices to convincingly portray Puccini’s struggling artists. Onstage, projected supertitles translate the Italian lyrics into casual English with cheeky references to Marlon Brando and Christian Dior. Stylish sets and costumes—all designed by Luhrmann’s wife and longtime collaborator, Catherine Martin, 37—draw ovations of their own. “It works on a visceral level,” says Kidman, a close friend of the couple’s. “You feel the love, you feel the sexuality, you feel the poignancy. It’s so romantic.”

That’s also how Kidman describes Luhrmann himself. “He’s deeply romantic, not cynical,” she says. And his brand of romance sells: His three movies—Moulin Rouge, Romeo + Juliet and 1993’s Strictly Ballroom—have raked in more than $340 million worldwide, while often dividing critics. Luhrmann, who courts fame as much as any on-camera star, even conquered radio in 1999 with a platinum-selling spoken-word single, “Everybody’s Free (to Wear Sunscreen).” “The thing that I find extraordinary about Baz,” says his wife, “is that he can have a wild idea, he can convince people to give him the money to do it, he can be an incredibly inspirational leader and then at the end can deliver it to an audience that really wants this unusual thing.”

He cultivated his creativity during an unconventional childhood. The oldest of four children of Leonard, a now-deceased former navy diver who owned a gas station deep in the Australian Outback, and Barbara, a ballroom-dance instructor, Luhrmann was pumping gas and waiting tables by the time he was a preteen. His hard-driving father encouraged other pursuits as well. “It seemed normal that we should be getting up at 5 in the morning and doing commando training,” says Luhrmann, who also dee-jayed at a makeshift radio station his dad set up, entered dance competitions and shot movies on an 8-mm camera. “I was sort of the Barnum & Bailey of the gas station.”

Luhrmann’s parents divorced, and at 15 he moved with his mother to Sydney. Drawn to acting, he landed TV and stage roles and established his own theater company at 19 before winning acceptance to the prestigious National Institute of Dramatic Art. (Desiring a catchier moniker, he legally changed his first name from Mark to Bazmark, a spin on a high school nickname.) In 1988 the rising theater-world star hired fellow NIDA student Martin to help design sets for his production of Lake Lost at the Sydney Opera. They wed in 1997. “They’re like one person,” says La Bohème producer Jeffrey Seller. “There’s no Baz without CM and there’s no CM without Baz. It’s seamless.”

Their collaborations range from a 1990 Sydney staging of La Bohème (which they updated for the Broadway show) to Romeo (sold in the U.S. as “clever MTV,” Luhrmann grouses) to Moulin Rouge, a Best Picture nominee that won Martin two design Oscars. Luhrmann “has a mission to shake us from our sleep sometimes,” says Miramax cochair Harvey Weinstein, who helped fund the $6.5 million La Bohème, “so we can experience something new.”

How will he treat his next project, an epic movie bio of Alexander the Great starring DiCaprio? Luhrmann, who has homes and offices in Sydney, L.A. and Manhattan, won’t drop any hints. Creating a movie, he says, is a “very private process.” But Martin dryly offers one suggestion: “There have been many jokes made about a kick line of Alexander’s soldiers.”

Samantha Miller

Mark Dagostino in New York City

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