Twenty-three years after George Gershwin composed an orchestral piece called An American in Paris — and 14 years since his death — the work became the climax of an Oscar-winning movie of the same name. Continuing his posthumous productivity, that film was transformed into a Broadway musical last year to major acclaim, spawning a national tour which arrives at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach on Tuesday.
Almost as large as the sizeable cast is the roster of 22 producers and production companies it took to bring the classic movie to the stage, including Van Kaplan, one of the lead producers. Fans of the film will find a lot that is familiar and a lot that has changed.
“We didn’t want to do another movie-to-the-stage transfer,” says Kaplan of himself and his producing partner Stuart Oken. “So we watched the film together and we decided if we could find a way into the story that we could make it come alive onstage. We knew it wouldn’t be as simple as taking the movie and putting it onstage.”
The show, like the movie, does focus on an American soldier, Jerry Mulligan, who stays on in Paris after World War II to indulge his passion for painting. And since the city inspires romance, he quickly falls for an alluring French ballerina named Lise Dassin. But complications arise, of course, when Jerry learns that an acquaintance Henri, the son of a wealthy industrialist, intends to propose to Lise.
The movie came out in 1951, as Hollywood was making many spectacular musicals to divert audience attention from the war years. What Kaplan asked himself as he guided the creation of the stage show is what would An American in Paris have been like if it went to Broadway initially, instead of Hollywood.
“At the time, MGM was making big Technicolor films to please the masses, to get them to forget the war,” notes Kaplan. “Whereas on Broadway, you had musicals like ‘South Pacific,’ dealing with really deep subjects infused with dance and storytelling and great acting. So we thought, ‘What would have happened had this piece been made for the stage at that time?’ And that’s what kind of cracked the book for us.”
To write the script, he turned to playwright Craig Lucas, a Tony nominee for his book to Light in the Piazza. That show from 2005 is “very similar in themes to ‘An American in Paris,’” says Kaplan. “That one took place in Italy, this one in Paris, not a big stretch.”
The stage show has basically the same characters and storyline as the movie, but Lucas “really dug down and tried to deepen and broaden his characters, so that we cared about them,” notes Kaplan. “What we wanted to do was create a story that certainly would pay homage to the film. We revere the film. We imagined that you would see our show, then want to rush home and see the film. And you’d enjoy both, but for different reasons.
“One of the things we discovered, which is really quite interesting, is that most people hadn’t seen the film,” says Kaplan. “They think they have, because every time they do a retrospective of the MGM musicals, you see Gene Kelly singing ‘I Got Rhythm’ with a bunch of kids and you see him dancing with Leslie Caron. But if you ask people about the story of ‘An American in Paris,’ they can’t tell you.”
The producers felt certain that they needed a director who was also a choreographer, and the show was truly launched when they zeroed in on Christopher Wheeldon. The British-born dancer came up through the ranks of the New York City Ballet, but had previously choreographed for Broadway in 2002’s Sweet Smell of Success.
“Christopher creates these incredibly large and lavish story ballets,” says Kaplan. “And he works with Broadway designers – Bob Crowley, Natasha Katz – all over the world. We knew that we needed someone who could approach this material in a way that could be a great storyteller and use dance to help tell the story. There are only a handful of people who fit that bill.”
Among the risks that Kaplan and the producing committee took was taking the show first to Paris to test it on French audiences. “We rehearsed first in New York, and we had a partnership with Theatre de Chatelet, which has been doing American musicals for nine years. In Paris, in English. So this unusual out-of-town tryout really prepared us, because we were trying to put Paris onstage in Paris. How dare us.
“They thoroughly embraced it,” he reports with pride. “And it gave our cast the opportunity to spend six-eight weeks in Paris, drinking up that culture, to live there and feel it. That came across onstage and it still does.”
The show opened on Broadway to the acclaim of audiences and critics, eventually earning 12 Tony nominations and winning four – for Wheeldon’s choreography, Crowley’s sets, Katz’s lighting and the orchestrations. Not long after that, a national tour was announced.
“I think touring is always in your mind,” concedes Kaplan. “Anyone that invests in Broadway thinks about all the elements that come along with it. Although the design is very complicated, it’s very mobile. There wasn’t any adaptation needed for the road set.”
Because of the popularity of the film — or at least the familiarity of the title — presenters were eager to book the tour, which Kaplan estimates will be out on the road for two years.
“First of all, it’s for the whole family. I think this show is incredibly uplifting. The characters are trying to find themselves after they’ve struggled through this time, as the city of Paris is putting itself back together,” he says. “It has this great ballet, it has ‘Stairway to Paradise’ with great tap dance and an incredible Gershwin score. It’s everything you want in a musical.”
AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, Kravis Center, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach. Tuesday through 11. Tickets: $27 and up. 561-832-7469.