Both Gigi and An American In Paris are adapted from Oscar-winning 1950’s movie musicals directed by Vincente Minnelli and starring Leslie Caron. Both take place in Paris. Both have revised books, tuneful songs, able performers, pleasing designs. So why does An American in Paris feel so fresh, and Gigi…not?
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The short answer: the dancing. First-time Broadway director Christopher Wheeldon has turned An American in Paris into a modern ballet.
This makes sense on several levels:
- The 1951 film, which starred two trained dancers, Caron and Gene Kelly, is full of dance numbers, and concludes with a wordless 17-minute fantasy ballet — unheard of for a major studio motion picture at the time….and still unheard of. Lovers of the film are thus already primed to expect classical dancing; it’s a smaller leap (a petit jeté?) than it would be from almost any other film for the stage adaptation to conclude with a ballet of similar length as the movie’s, and to make dance the language of the musical.
- It’s a language Wheeldon has been speaking since the age of eight, when he began his training as a ballet dancer, winding up dancing for the Royal Ballet and the New York City Ballet before spending the last 15 years as an acclaimed choreographer of contemporary ballet. An American In Paris feels very much like the product of this artist’s singular vision.
- By breaking out of the conventional use of dance in a Broadway musical, An American in Paris can use a wider range of Gershwin’s music, not just some of his most beloved songs – among them, “I Got Rhythm,” “The Man I Love,” “S’Wonderful,” “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise”– but also his classical pieces – “Concerto in F,” Second Prelude, ““Second Rhapsody” combined with “Cuban Overture” and of course “An American in Paris,” the symphonic poem that Gershwin wrote in 1928. (The song list of the stage musical has only occasional overlap with that of the movie.) As played by a 19-piece orchestra, this music does feel like a stairway to paradise.
It is important to point out that, while the contemporary ballet dancing is what makes An American in Paris special, it’s not the whole show. There are also traditional razzmatazz song-and-dance routines. There are scenes full of dialogue. There’s a plot – more or less the same plot as the movie, but with substantial changes written by playwright Craig Lucas (Light in the Piazza, Prelude to a Kiss.) Some of Lucas’s choices are intriguing (some aren’t.)
The story takes place immediately after the war, rather than several years later as in the movie.
“For four years, the city of light went dark,” begins a man sitting at a piano. “Violence and swastikas in the street. Then the Liberation came.” This is Adam (stand-out Brandon Uranowitz), a wounded American ex-G.I. and Jewish composer living in Paris and struggling with his latest composition; he will be our occasional narrator throughout the show. “But how can you feel liberated when your city has been crushed?”
We see Parisians tearing down Nazi banners, which turn into an immense billowing French tri-color flag, which turns into a backdrop of the Arc de Triumph with planes flying in formation overhead, being watched by a G.I. with his back to us – a startling image. This is Jerry Mulligan (Robert Fairchild.) He rips up his ticket home, and starts to sketch the crowd scenes that pass by him rapidly. He catches sight of a lovely young woman. This is Lise (Leanne Cope.) He sees that she gives a homeless woman some of her loaf of bread. He loses sight of her for a while, but she re-emerges, caught in the melee between an angry crowd and a woman with a shorn head and a swastika armband (we understand that she was a collaborator during the war.) Night ends with a pastel Eiffel Tower surrounded by a yellow dawn.
All of this is a wordless ballet, set to the energetic, jazz-inflected Concerto in F. It’s mesmerizing, unlike anything I’ve witnessed on Broadway before. It is also an unusually dark introduction to a musical about romance.
Or, more precisely, romances. There are at least three at the heart of the musical: the romance with Lise, the romance with the city of Paris (scenes of which we see in copious projected drawings), and the romance with art.
The romance at the foreground, for better or worse, is a kind of love quadrangle (expanded from the love triangle in the film): Three men are all in love with Lise, although they initially don’t know it’s the same woman for whom they all pine – Adam the composer, Jerry the painter, and Henri (Max von Essen), the scion of a fabric industry fortune who secretly plans to be a song-and-dance man. In this stage version, Lise is a talented ballet dancer initially working as a jewelry store clerk.
Lucas has kept the unfortunate character of Milo, here played by Jill Paice, a rich American heiress who is trying to make Jerry a kept man while pretending simply to be helping to establish him as an artist. The playwright adds two more unappealing wealthy characters, Henri’s parents (Scott Willis and Veanne Cox.) Madame Baurel in particular is a stuck-up snob who disapproves of her son’s choices and just about everything and everyone else. It is to Lucas’s credit that we eventually are made to understand the reasons why. Still, there is something unjust in creating such caricatures for such great actresses; Cox was an amazing Amy in Sondheim’s Company, offering a terrific rendition of the Sondheim song, “Getting Married Today”.
Brandon Uranowitz, who had the bad luck of making his Broadway debut in the less-than-stellar Baby It’s You, here shines as Adam. He’s a good song-and-dance man with great comic timing and real acting chops.
Both Robert Fairchild as Jerry and Leanne Cope as Lise are making their Broadway debuts – and indeed their acting debuts. Fairchild is a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet; Cope dances with the Royal Ballet. Their acting is acceptable, their singing serviceable. (How can any mortals overcome the challenge of performing the same songs recorded by Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire, Louis Armstrong and, basically, everybody else who’s ever sung for a living over the past century?) But their dancing is sublime. They easily communicate their energy and a passion, in a way that even novice dance-watchers will surely find inviting. It says something about the accessibility of the dancing in An American in Paris that Wheelden slyly adds a number making fun of the stuffiness and pretension of modern dance – “Maestro Zhlutoslavsky’s” interpretation of “the celestial ballets of Ivor and Irina Popover” performed in Greek toga leotards – which Wheelden relegates to the background while Jerry and the rest of the bored characters in attendance at the ballet sing and dance to the Gershwin song “Fidgety Feet.”
The work of the designers – Bob Crowley’s sets and costumes, Natasha Katz’s lighting, projections by 59 Productions – are unusually integrated not only into the action of the show, but its themes. The performers move the very walls of whatever set we are in (ballet studio, cabaret, café)– an apt metaphor for how much was unsettled right after the war, and how much they had to rebuild. There is a blackout at one point, which forces the characters to adjust; the ease with which they do so indicates that this hardship is something to which they have become accustomed. While the darkness motif that threads its way sporadically through the musical isn’t always effective, I began to suspect it was intended as another metaphor — for the artistic process. While both Adam and Jerry have been in the dark artistically, the long climactic ballet at the end is supposed to be Adam’s finally realized composition, combined with Jerry’s drawings come to animated life. Might we credit Christopher Wheeldon with presenting dance as one way to bring new light to the Broadway stage?
An American in Paris is on stage at The Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway (Broadway and 47th Street), New York, NY 10036
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