'An American in Paris': From '50s Technicolor Movie to Modern Stage Musical
Producers Stuart Oken and Van Kaplan, director-choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and book writer Craig Lucas share how they shaped a new show out of the Oscar-winning movie musical.
If there’s one thing the producers of the Broadway musical An American in Paris weren’t trying to do, it was recreate the Oscar-winning 1951 film.
“When we looked at the movie we saw a Hollywood backlot Technicolor musical that was basically built around a lot of Gershwin songs,” explains Stuart Oken, who with Van Kaplan is lead producer on the new musical, opening April 12 at the Palace Theatre. “It was not written by the Gershwins for the movie any more than it was for the stage.”
The MGM classic about a U.S. soldier who stays on in France after the war to pursue art starred Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron and featured a score of George and Ira Gershwin songs. But the impetus to create the show came from the Gershwins’ estates, as they had had the title in their hope chest for some time. A few script attempts had come and gone, and Oken and Kaplan were approached separately. But ultimately they came together to collaborate on the project.
Their goal was to create a new show that felt like a classic 1950s musical, though they do worry that audiences will see the title and assume their production is a revival. Since successful revivals usually have shorter lifespans on Broadway than hit new musicals — Chicago being the chief exception — they needed to find a way to make it feel modern and classic at the same time.
“Had this show been realized for Broadway instead of film at the same time, what kind of show would it be?” Kaplan posits. “If Jerome Robbins had taken this story and turned it into a West Side Story, what would it have been?”
The first thing they decided to do, along with director-choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and book writer Craig Lucas, was move the story up a few years right to the end of World War II. Although the film never explicitly states its exact timing, the story seems to take place a few years after the Nazi-occupation of Paris. Kelly's character Jerry Mulligan opens the film with a gushing monologue about the City of Lights, whereas the musical starts with a dark opening ballet echoing the lingering effects of the war.
“They would have done that themselves had it not been five years after the war,” Wheeldon guesses about the film’s director Vincente Minnelli and writer Alan Jay Lerner. “It was still an extremely raw and difficult thing for people to face and talk about, certainly in Paris. They couldn’t have written a truthful musical about that in the early '50s; there was no way. That’s one of the things that was exciting to us. Now we could do that and we could really honestly explain why Jerry Mulligan decided not to go home, and what was going on with Lise Dassin and why she was being protected by this bourgeois family.”
In the stage musical, Lise (Leanne Cope) has deep connections to the wealthy Baurel family and is now betrothed to Henri Baurel (Max von Essen), although Jerry (Robert Fairchild) falls in love with her and pursues her despite multiple rejections. Their friend, the pianist Adam Hochberg (Brandon Uranowitz), also has a thing for Lise, while arts patron Milo Davenport (Jill Paice) falls for Jerry.
In the film, all of these elements culminate in an epic dream ballet. Wheeldon recalls being obsessed with this moment when he was younger and fast-forwarding his VHS tape just to watch the dance. However, instead of putting a fantasy sequence onstage, Lucas decided to make ballet more integral to the storytelling.
“Because the original film is mostly jazz dance, the great innovation of ending with a ballet could be incorporated throughout the narrative now — start to finish,” Lucas explains via email, also suggesting that the collaboration was a fruitful though tortured one. “Artistic creation, which is of course very hard work, is also a form of play, and everybody was interested in playing on the same level. I think the results show, even if everybody wanted to kill me from time to time.”
In order to make dance essential to the narrative, Lucas made Lise a ballerina, and the final dance is an actual ballet performance that the characters have been planning for the entire show. Jerry provides the designs; Adam provides the music; Milo provides the patronage; and both Lise and Jerry dance. There are also two other major ballet moments, both at the beginning and at the end of Act 1 with the Rhapsody ballet, which is danced to Gershwin’s “Second Rhapsody/Cuban Overture.”
Songs were also added and taken away from the original film for the stage version. The movie only has 10 official numbers, with many orchestral movements incorporated throughout. And other than the dream ballet, one of the most famous moments is Gene Kelly singing and tap dancing to “I Got Rhythm” with kids on the street. (Spoiler alert: There are no kids in the show, but the song made the cut.) In collaboration with Rob Fisher, who adapted, arranged, and supervised the score, the team deleted five of the movie's songs, and added nine tunes not sung in the movie. (That count doesn’t include any orchestral music.)
“In creating a musical, you have to pick music that advances story and that is character-driven,” explains Kaplan. “Some worked for our characters and moving our story forward and others we felt we couldn’t use.”
However, ballet wasn’t immediately seen as the dance medium, despite Wheeldon’s storied resume as a choreographer of ballet. (American in Paris marks his first time directing a musical.) Given the Kelly association, tap dancers were also auditioned for the part of Jerry.
“If you’re going to put a tap dancer in a Gene Kelly role on a Broadway stage, they’ve got to be as good or better than Gene Kelly,” Wheeldon says. “What was so attractive about Robbie is he’s so charming and so stylish, and he shares certain qualities with Gene Kelly, with the ease of his presence on stage. It’s an understated, grounded stylishness that’s quintessentially American.”
“There’s one Gene Kelly and Robbie needed to be his own performer,” Oken adds.
The musical is arguably much more dance-heavy than the film, with the three full-out ballet numbers and movement incorporated throughout. And while the plot has been fleshed out from the thinner one onscreen, Kaplan and Oken hope the two entities complement each other.
“We wanted people that had seen the film to come in and see something completely different that honors the film,” explains Kaplan. “And we wanted people that haven’t seen the film to come see our show and perhaps go see the movie and do the same thing.”