PARIS, FRANCE and NEW YORK CITY: Producers Van Kaplan and Stuart Oken have seized a rare opportunity with their upcoming Broadway production of An American in Paris, starting previews at the Palace Theatre on March 13.
Over the years, the Gershwin family has cast a skeptical eye on multiple attempts at adapting Vincente Minnelli’s 1951 film to the stage, none of which were able to successfully find their way to production—until now. Kaplan and Oken’s production, which earned high marks in its recent world premiere at Paris’s Théâtre du Châtelet, owes its breakthrough to a creative team charged with breathing contemporary vitality into a classic story.
The piece began its life in the concert hall, not the theatre. Gershwin wrote it after a visit to Paris in the spring of 1928, and the roughly 20-minute score was first performed live in December of that year at Carnegie Hall by the New York Symphony Orchestra. Then, in 1949, 12 years after Gershwin’s untimely death, dancer/choreographer Gene Kelly convinced Arthur Freed to produce a film inspired by the piece. The 1951 film, which included several other Gershwin compositions, culminated with a dream ballet set to the entire original work. Directed by Vincente Minnelli, it was among the rare musicals to win a Best Picture Oscar.
Kaplan and Oken’s alliance came after each had been individually communicating with the Gershwin estate about the potential of developing a new work based on the film. The key to making An American in Paris work onstage would be assembling a dream team of theatre artists.
First they needed to find a book writer who shared their vision, which included moving the story from 1950 to the end of the war in 1945, and adding a measure of depth and complexity to the characters that was lacking from Alan Jay Lerner’s original screenplay. Craig Lucas (Prelude to a Kiss, Marry Me a Little) filled this role. Next they approached Christopher Wheeldon—a director who “understands the language of dance,” as Oken notes—to be the show’s director and choreographer.
A finishing touch, the producers thought, would be an actual opening in Paris. So the Gershwin estate put Oken in touch with Jean-Luc Choplin, artistic director of the Théâtre du Châtelet. Eighteen months later, Choplin and the producers had a deal that gave Châtelet a hand in the show’s development, in much the way commercial producers often develop shows with American nonprofit theatres. Given the Châtelet’s history as the music house of Paris, with a long tradition of staging ballet and opera performances in French—and a shorter one, over the past nine years, of hosting revivals of American musicals in English—it was a natural home for the premiere.
The company’s time in Paris was formative, even “magical,” according to Oken. Company members had the opportunity to deepen their understanding of the city and the characters they were portraying, and the trip was a powerful bonding experience for the ensemble. It was a gratifying experience in cultural exchange as well, embracing the reaction of the French audience before trying out the material on Broadway.
Adaptating such a beloved and star-driven movie was among the stage musical’s biggest hurdles. As Oken puts it, “You have to know what you love about the film to organically make it live and breathe onstage.”
First came Lucas’s book work. By setting the story in 1945, immediately after the war’s end, the adaptors hope to strengthen the spine of the piece, as the characters struggle to put their lives together after a trauma. As Choplin puts it, “It is important to speak about roots, about history, and this story becomes even more important if you can place it in a dramatic moment in history.” Lucas’s book directly and indirectly addresses characters’ reeling postwar emotions: A mother speaks of being so traumatized by having to hold up false public appearances that she loses track of her own personality; characters make offhand comments about “French guilt,” though for what is never specified. This historical context makes it more immediate for contemporary audiences, as we ourselves lived in a world rife with conflict, Lucas believes.
Next, to reimagine the film’s memorable dances, the producers turned to the world of ballet: Leanne Cope, of England’s Royal Ballet, and Robert Fairchild, a New York City Ballet principal dancer, will play the lead roles, in their Broadway debuts. Eleven other company members are also crossing over from the world of classical ballet to the Broadway stage. For his part, Wheeldon has already straddled the classical and musical-theatre worlds (he previously did the dances for Sweet Smell of Success), though this marks his Broadway debut as both director and choreographer.
Wheeldon’s dances exhibit a blend of styles born of their French and American parents, as the numbers flow through ballet, modern, jazz, tap and even a kick-line. The final, fantastical 14-minute ballet is inspired as much by the film’s 23-minute original as by the tradition of dream ballet established in such stage musicals as Oklahoma! and the ensemble sequences in West Side Story (and more recently evoked by the revival of On the Town, featuring Fairchild’s sister, ballet dancer Megan Fairchild, in the female lead). “How often do you see a final ballet where you are so personally invested in the characters, and so fulfilled to see them performing?” Oken asks rhetorically.
In his lifetime, George Gershwin said, “I always preferred the stage. Nothing makes me happier than direct contact with the public.” Eighty-seven years after Gershwin’s An American in Paris was first performed, and 64 years after Minnelli’s film was released, this team is rightfully proud to realize Gershwin’s dreams.
Amelia Parenteau is an arts writer who divides her time between New York City and Paris.