There is no doubt that the “Théâtre du Châtelet’s world Premiere” production of An American in Paris is a total coup. It has the best of all worlds: 50% risk-free financing from the city of Paris, followed by a guaranteed direct transfer to Broadway in the spring, with a trifecta of artistic direction, by Jean-Luc Choplin, French Director of the Theatre du Châtelet, Christopher Wheeldon, British director and choreographer, and Craig Lucas, the American librettist, as well as a beautiful mélange of Franco-British-American artistic traditions of dance and theatre. Unsurprisingly, the 40 performances sold out the day of the first preview. Given the Châtelet’s history as the music house of Paris, with a long tradition of staging ballet and opera performances, it is a natural home for the premier of An American in Paris. By far, the most remarkable aspect of this show is the dance, with a unique blend of styles and choreography that are the love child of their French and American parents. The numbers flow through ballet, modern, jazz, tap dancing, and even a kick-line. The final “dream ballet,” a technique that is attributed to Rogers andHammerstein’s 1943 American musical Oklahoma!, is a delightful showcase of the talents of the entire company, and a passionate display of the love the protagonists share for the city, and for each other. In this dream, the ballet is entirely Parisian, with the dancers decked out in Mondrian-style costumes or chic blacks, carrying Picasso-inspired masks and headdresses. The dance stole the show. And, for a show that is “all about movement, dancing, and fluidity, based on Gershwin’s gorgeous music,” according to Châtelet’s Director Jean-Luc Choplin, it seems entirely appropriate.
Enamored by the music of the film, Choplin sought out the Gershwin estate to ask for the rights to create a staged musical, which put him in touch with a couple of American producers, Stuart Oken and Van Kaplen. Thus, the world premier at the Théâtre du Chatelet, followed by a Broadway engagement in spring 2015 (previews starting March 13, with an opening on April 12). George Gershwin is quoted in the program as saying, “I always preferred the stage. Nothing makes me happier than direct contact with the public.” Eighty-six years after the symphony was first produced, this team is rightfully proud to realize Gershwin’s dreams. This is not Choplin’s first foray into American musical theatre. Since his appointment to the role of Director in 2006, he has been reviving American musicals for Parisian audiences. He says, “When I discovered American musicals had never been presented to the Parisian public, I had a Champs-Elysées Avenue open up to me.” Châtelet is not a touring theatre, so it does not bring in shows traveling from other cities. It instead stages original productions, sometimes in partnership with other theatres in the city of Paris. Because of this model, regardless of the success of a show, it is rare for Châtelet’s productions to have a long life, unless they are sold to other producers after their run at the theatre.
For all of these reasons, the new model of coproduction for An American in Paris was a “great adventure” for Châtelet. According to Choplin, “My goal was to create a beautiful musical for Parisians. The possibility that the show would go to Broadway was, how do you say it? Icing on the cake.” The timing of the production is apt, as Paris is celebrating its 70th anniversary of liberation from the Germans. Choplin says, “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.” Americans now move to Paris for entirely different reasons than the Lost Generation did, but the romanticized notion of the relationship between the two cultures still remains deeply engrained in the American psyche. As for the staged adaptation itself, the collaborators realized that certain changes would have to be made to attract modern audiences and incorporate our historical hindsight. Craig Lucas had the idea to set the story in the 40s, directly after the end of the war, rather than in the 50s, as it was portrayed in the movie, because it made the impact of the war’s aftermath more immediately relevant and lent depth to the characters. The book directly and indirectly addressed characters’ reeling emotions after the war, such as a mother who was so traumatized by having to hold up false public appearances that she lost track of her own personality, or offhanded comments about “French guilt.” The American perspective was apparent in the adaptation, in scenes and songs that poke fun at the French reverence for master artists, to the point of ignoring and discrediting young talent, and there was no end to the plays on words and pronunciation. (One of my personal favorites was, “You are a beacon of art!” pronounced, “You are a bacon of art!”)
“France can propose, produce, and win”
The biggest change in this adaptation was the dramaturgical focus of the story. Whereas the film is centered on Gene Kelly and his marvelous dancing, this production focuses on Lise, the young object of everyone’s affection. Given that they were intending to write a new Broadway classic, as Choplin said, “Every big show is a kind of a romance, so we had to build a romance.” By putting the focus on a girl divided between art, love, and duty, the team created a plot that the audience invests more deeply in, curious to uncover the dark story of Lise’s past, which is not revealed until late in the second act. Although this reframing of the plot, turning the story into an inadvertent competition of the three young men for Lise’s affection, certainly makes a more compelling dramatic arc, I do wish that Lise became a stronger character in the overhaul, more capable of making her own decisions than being tormented by her inability to choose between her conflicting passions. And yet, as the show itself acknowledges, art can be used to work through dark emotions, or it can be used to divert and amuse an audience, for the sheer joy of the spectacle. This musical is a crowd pleaser : the night I attended, people walked out whistling or even singing bits of their favorite numbers. Patrons have been amazed by the quality of the show, and reviews have been overwhelmingly positive. Choplin believes that the production brings a feeling of joy to the audience, particularly given the current difficult times we are living in. Although modern day Paris’ troubles can’t shake a stick at the hardships faced by citizens in the newly liberated Paris of ‘44, a boost of happiness is always an appreciable outcome of a theatrical experience. This production offers one laden with historical truth, which is all the more enriching. Choplin says, “I think there’s a pride that it’s happening first in Paris. We’re not used to that. It’s a positive message, that France can propose, produce, and win.” I can’t help but wonder which of the collaborative partners suggested the line spoken by Adam, the piano player, near the end of the second act, “Oh, I just hate it when the French are right!” Because, in this beautiful celebration of dance and music, they sure are spot on.
By Amelia Parenteau, in Paris
“The Broadway partnership model gives me ideas”, says Châtelet’s Director Jean-Luc Choplin
This model of international development benefits from the Théâtre du Châtelet’s position as a city-subsidized theatre. For those unfamiliar with the specifics: city subsidized theatres in Paris receive a sum every year to cover their finances. The Théâtre du Châtelet receives a grant of 17 million euros, duty free, from the city, as well as a subsidy for equipment that varies from 200,000 to 500,000 euros per year. As a non-profit organization, their other sources of income are box office sales and private investors. The theatre’s own income represents 40% of the overall budget. Despite the fact that every production loses money, the theatre is still expected to have a balanced budget, because the city’s subsidy is earmarked to cover the deficit. Their financial freedom allows the theatre to stage six to seven productions each season, with the goal of “entertaining and bringing culture to the people of the city of Paris, rather than making money,” according to Choplin. The Parisian and American producers each contributed fifty percent of the initial investment, 3 million euros of which came out of Châtelet’s budget. Once the show is earning money on Broadway, the investors will split the royalties. Choplin predicts that after one to two years on Broadway, Châtelet would recoup its investment. This money could then be used to finance other projects. Considering the recent cuts to arts funding in France, the necessity of finding other sources of money for culture is becoming more apparent, and the French are turning to the Anglo-Saxons for inspiration. Choplin says, “The Broadway partnership model gives me ideas. I will try to develop that possibility.”
Ideally, great works combine both the profundity of sorrow and the beauty of optimism. Particularly following World War II, the public need for art that fell directly into the latter category was abundantly evident, and the film version of An American in Paris was a welcome exploration of the ex-pat’s romantic existence in the City of Lights. As for the 2014 production, Choplin says, “Châtelet is both a popular and sophisticated theatre where we do musicals and creations of cultural works. Musicals can be universal if they speak to a large audience and are of high cultural quality.” A.P.
Photographies (c) Angela Sterling et Theatre du Chatelet