Most of Amélie, A New Musical (onstage at the Ahmanson Theatre December 4, 2016 – January 15, 2017) takes place in Montmartre, a neighborhood in Paris known as an artistic and bohemian enclave.
Montmartre boasts a collision of past and present, of quaint tradition and contemporary chic—embracing both the highbrow and the lowbrow. The geography of the area reflects these juxtapositions: a large cemetery sits down the street from a strip of nightclubs, storied artistic heritage coexists with pivotal moments in political history, and two historic churches reside on the hill above it all. There is no better location for this story that understands human beings in all of their beautiful, crass, effervescent, and uncouth glory.
The neighborhood is filled with narrow, winding streets that curve up steep slopes, adding to its allure as a place to get lost (or as a place to follow people, as Amélie does). At the bottom of the hill is the Boulevard de Clichy, which is lined with bars, kebab shops, and dozens of sex shops (like the one Nino works in). One of the main landmarks is the Moulin Rouge, a dance hall that was constructed in 1889 and is the rumored birthplace of the cancan dance. Nearby is the Élysée Montmartre theatre (1807), a ballroom and concert venue that boasts a metal structure designed by Gustave Eiffel. In between the two famous venues sits Folies Pigalle near the Pigalle Metro, the red-light district of Paris, where a nightclub owner discovered cabaret singer Edith Piaf. Many famous artists lived in Montmartre: Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Amedeo Modigliani, Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, Erik Satie, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Maurice Utrillo among others called the neighborhood home. Now street artists create portraits of tourists in the Place du Tertre, turning artistic space that used to be staunchly anti-establishment into a commercialized zone.
In addition to providing a haven for artists, Montmartre was home to a number of seminal political moments in the history of France. During the 1590 Siege of Paris, Henry IV stationed his artillery on the hills at Montmartre so his army could fire down into the city. In 1790, before Montmartre became part of Paris, the new revolutionary government declared it a self-sufficient area known as the Commune of Montmartre. Montmartre joined the city of Paris in 1860, and in 1871 it was the location for the uprising of the Paris Commune, a group of revolutionaries who took arms against the French government from March to May. During the French Revolution (1789–1799) an abandoned gypsum quarry slightly outside the center of town was used as a mass grave. It became an official cemetery in 1825 and is the resting place of many great men and women in the arts and sciences: Hector Berlioz, Stendhal, Vaslav Nijinsky, Émile Zola, Léo Delibes, Edgar Degas, and more.
Montmartre’s name—“Mountain of the Martyr”—comes from the martyrdom of Saint Denis, who was the Bishop of Paris and was beheaded around 250 AD on the signature hill where the stunningly white Basilique du Sacré-Coeur now sits. Surrounding the basilica are terraced gardens where gypsum quarries once were, and a brightly colored carousel nestles into the greenery. The neighborhood’s main sources of income used to be quarries and vineyards (now only one vineyard remains), and around 300 windmills once dotted the landscape. Today, two windmills remain, giving the name “Two Windmills” to the café in which Amélie works.
The mélange of history, romance, death, and art in Amélie’s story could have no more perfect backdrop than Montmartre, one of the most vivacious neighborhoods in France.
Reprinted with permission of Berkeley Repertory Theatre.