An American in Paris leaps from screen to stage.
About halfway through Vincente Minnelli’s 1951 film An American in Paris, we glimpse a sign: À LOUER—APPARTEMENTS STUDIOS DE GRAND LUXE—RENSEIGNEMENTS AU FOND DE LA COUR. We see it in a courtyard through which Milo Roberts, the beautifully appointed parvenue, leads Jerry Mulligan, the scrappy, penurious painter; they ascend a staircase into an artist’s atelier that anyone would dream of. In addition to the essentials—a double-height wall completely of glass, new brushes and paints in every imaginable color, a sturdy easel—the room boasts a marble mantelpiece, fresh flowers, and an enormous sofa upholstered in red toile de jouy. That’s part of the allure of Minnelli’s film: it wrings every drop of naive charm out of the Paris of myth and cliché. Despite its legendary status, though, the movie’s charms are often enforced with a lead pipe—or perhaps a pipette of the kind geese are fattened with to produce foie gras. I couldn’t help but read too much, then, into that sign advertising rooms for rent. The movie itself can feel like a rented room; there’s plenty of space for someone else to move in, to make it deeper, better, more accomplished. That’s what the new musical on Broadway attempts, and—though not without its longueurs and contrivances—on many levels it has the film beat by a mile. A plot refresher, if you need it: Milo plans to underwrite Jerry’s artistic success—to introduce him around Paris, arrange a show of his work in a leading gallery, and, not incidentally, to canoodle along the way. But Jerry is torn between his painterly ambitions and his affections for Lise (Leslie Caron), a Parisian shopgirl, the daughter of French Resistance fighters who disappeared during World War II, leaving her in the hands of a classy cabaret performer named Henri Baurel. Now that she’s a woman, Henri wants to marry her. Add to the mix one expat classical composer, also competing for Lise’s affection, et voilà, you have the story, both the long and the short of it. It will come as no surprise that, in the end, Lise and Jerry are in love, and love conquers all.
The musical’s changes start with the book, by Craig Lucas, which converts the sunshine-bathed picturesque gaiety of the film’s postwar Paris into a history lesson about the aftermath of war. Thus the film’s smiling old ladies in long skirts and sweaters, and smiling children in pinafores and short shorts, and smiling waiters with napkins on their shoulders, and smiling charwomen scrubbing the stairs, and smiling, wimpled “flying” nuns who nod with good-natured tolerance at Gene Kelly’s antics—everyone in the film is always smiling at Gene Kelly’s antics—become, in the musical, a series of verismo panoramas on the deprivations of a city released from Nazi occupation. Lise, though still a shopgirl, is now a trained, aspiring ballet dancer, too, and also a Jew; Henri Baurel and his parents hid her during the war. Baurel pere et mere, new to this stage adaptation, are righteous Christians who secretly funded the French Resistance. If their wartime activities are made public, they fear, they won’t be viewed sympathetically by former collaborationists, many of whom still hold power in France. As to Henri—well, he’s in the closet. And what he really wants is to be a hoofer. That’s another concern of his parents’: he’s not exactly le bon ton.
These plot and character points add gravitas to the musical, something notably missing from the film, which contains, among other oddities, an oompah-pah tribute to lovely olde Vienna and a reference to Charlie Chaplin’s Great Dictator. (What were they thinking?) But the real news about the musical is the choreography and dancing. Not so much the jazz dancing, which is merely acceptable and fills the first act. And not the tap-dancing “Stairway to Paradise,” which is a poor man’s tribute to Radio City (as opposed to the film version’s, which features human “chandeliers”—surely a nod to Cocteau—and a self-illuminating staircase filled with fabulously gowned chorines sporting mile-high starched Breton lace headgear). But the ballet dancing: ooh-la-la! Robert Fairchild (Jerry) and Leanne Cope (Lise) are astonishing, and the chemistry between them is utterly believable. Christopher Wheeldon, who both choreographed and directed the show, gives them everything they need to shine, and shine they do in the second-act ballet. That beautiful, demanding, serious composition holds the audience’s attention entirely on the basis that the dance alone is a major coup de théâtre, one deserving of the standing ovations it received at the performance I attended. It will certainly become a repertory classic along the lines of Balanchine’s “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” which was eventually extrapolated from Broadway onto the high-art stage.
By comparison, Kelly’s choreography is derivative and thin, and his performance is, apart from the technically impressive tapping, mainly mugging and shtick. It’s hard to reconcile that with the integrity of his character in the film. In Jerry Mulligan, Kelly found the signature role of his career, but his strategy, both as a performer and a choreographer, is simply this: take the audience by force. Leslie Caron, on the other hand, is winsome on and off pointe. You want to hug her and wipe away her tears. Inspired by George Gershwin’s composition of 1928, the film won seven Academy Awards, among them best film and an honorary achievement award for Gene Kelly for “his versatility as an actor, singer, director and dancer, and specifically for his brilliant achievements in the art of choreography on film,” though he wasn’t the only choreographer involved in its making. It’s notable in the annals of cinema largely for the wordless, seventeen-minute fantasy dance sequence with which it ends. The costumes for that magnificent showpiece, by Irene Sharaff, and the sets—by Edwin B. Willis and Keogh Gleason, referring to work by French painters such as Utrillo, Lautrec, Douanier Rousseau, Manet, and others—are justly celebrated; they secured Oscars as well.
Jerry and Lise are an iconic screen couple, and onstage, Fairchild and Cope—accomplished, young, fresh, sympathetic—are more than able to step into their shoes. We wish them well as they wander off into the misty future along the Seine embankment. (Let’s hope that future includes a long run at the Palace Theatre.) Can we say the same, ultimately, of Caron and Kelly? I worry not. As they trip down the stairways of Montmartre, heading off into the night, she’s just one more lovely gal with stars in her eyes—and on her gown, as it happens—who fell for a narcissistic schmuck.
Jeff Seroy is senior vice president at Farrar, Straus and Giroux.