GIGI’S NEW GIG
Nine nominations yielded nine Oscars. Never before had a film with so many nominations made a clean sweep. But that’s what GIGI achieved when it won the Academy Award for 1958’s Best Picture, Best Song (the title one) for composer Frederick Loewe and lyricist Alan Jay Lerner and seven other statuettes.
And yet, GIGI was only the thirty-eighth highest-grossing picture of that year. How could such an acclaimed film meet with that much audience indifference?
My guess is that John and Jane Q. Public didn’t quite understand what GIGI really said. Because we were still in the Eisenhower era, librettist Lerner had to pussyfoot around what had really been on the mind of original author Colette: Gigi was being groomed by her grandmother Mamita and Aunt Alicia to be a courtesan – meaning a sweetheart, a mistress -- but not a wife.
So the film had plenty of implication and much interrupted dialogue before anyone could spill the beans. As a result, I’ll bet that many in the 1958 audience didn’t even know that two grown women were grooming their relative to represent the next generation in the family business. Moviegoers may well have just assumed that Mamita and Aunt Alicia were transforming a little girl into a fair lady who would be enchanting enough to land the man of her dreams.
Many in the 2015 audience at the revisal at the Neil Simon probably reach the same conclusion. After all, Mamita does speak of “grooming, etiquette and table manners” but nothing more salacious than that. The key hint comes when Alicia points out that “instead of getting married at once, it sometimes happens we get married at last.” It’s a witty line, but it got nary a chuckle of acknowledgement at Tuesday’s performance.
Not until deep in the second act does new librettist Heidi Thomas come down to brass tacks. By the time she does, everyone knows that Gaston, who’s always enjoyed “little Gigi,” would “do the right thing” and make an honest woman of her. Gigi would be married at once rather than at last.
Thomas goes for the most basic ways of conveying information. Honore starts the show as a blatant narrator, a positon that he rarely occupies again. That Honore asks Mamita: “How is my nephew?” and she answers with a question -- “Gaston?” – is a banal and not-true-to-life exchange. Moreover, why does Thomas choose to have the gossip that Alicia discusses “on page six”? Mentioning the famous page of a New York tabloid takes us out of 1900 France and onto the streets of contemporary Manhattan.
There is a point where Thomas seems to be ready to enhance the piece. Gaston makes an off-hand remark about the future of air travel, and, encouraged by Gigi, decides to invest in air balloons. Nice – Gigi is helping him, which bodes well for her as a mate. However, we never hear if Gaston makes or loses a fortune. Thomas is content to let the matter drop after that one mention.
Director Eric Schaeffer offers a good deal of artificial musical theater staging. After Honore finishes a number, he starts to go off, hesitates, and then jauntily starts off again. The scene in which Honore and Gigi play cards? He has them standing and not sitting while playing. Who does that?
We often hear the complaint that a director or cast “doesn’t trust the material.” One has to wonder in this case if orchestrator August Eriksmoen does. Three times -- in “The Parisians,” “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” and “I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore” -- he modulates before the last section, as if to imply that each number alone wouldn’t be enough to hold us.
Each would have. This is a marvelous score which Lerner and Loewe enhanced by four songs for the original 1973 stage production. One, “Paris Is Paris Again,” now opens the show, but seven scenes later, “Paris Is Paris Again” is reprised. Again? What is this, A NIGHT IN THE UKRAINE in which the moonstruck lover sings the word “Again” twenty-seven times?
The best 1973 addition was “The Contract.” The melody comes from the film’s background music, but Lerner provided it with his final great lyric. Aunt Alicia would do battle with Gaston’s two lawyers on precisely what Gigi would get as the man’s mistress. Almost eight minutes of negotiations pass before everyone agrees to terms and each decides that “Little Gigi is fin’lly in love.”
While this GIGI is terrible in most every way, “The Contract” is the unabashed low-point. Schaeffer brings on multiple lawyers who overact fussily the way middle-schoolers would have assumed they should perform act until a sane director would yell “Stop that right now!” At one point, Alicia’s demands are made to seem so stringent that they make one lawyer faint. Need I say more?
Yes, I must. Perhaps feeling that the attention span of Broadway audiences isn’t what it used to be, Schaeffer castrates “The Contact” almost in half, ups the tempo and adds such busy staging that Lerner’s delicious witticisms (Lawyer: “Madame, I practice law.” Alicia: “Go out and practice more!”) are lost. Those who know the original masterpiece will recall that Gaston’s lawyers offer seven thousand a year while Alicia wants that sum each month. It takes quite a bit before they settle on thirty-four thousand a year. Not here; all that numerical negotiation is omitted.
Some songs have been reassigned from one character to another. When this happens, creators often feel that if the opening line of the lyric applies to a new character, the entire song can easily be appropriated. No – having Mamita join Honore in “I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore” means that she sings “the feeling you’re only two feet tall” -- a lyric that really has more punch when delivered by a man, for men are far more height-conscious than women.
What’s more, those deliciously saucy lyrics that Lerner added in 1973 – ones that wouldn’t have passed muster with the 1958 censors – are gone. Most of them appeared in an encore, which is not offered here. To my Washington friends: during the tryout, WAS there an encore that was omitted when the audience applause indicated that an encore wasn’t earned or warranted?
“Say a Prayer for Me Tonight” is now Mamita’s “Say a Prayer for Her Tonight” in which she sings about Gigi’s big date with Gaston. When Gigi sings in the film that “she’s much too young to die,” we’re amused, because she’s overstating the case in typical adolescent fashion. When Mamita sings the same line, it’s odd and forced, because this feet-on-the-ground woman knows that death is not an option here.
But the worst reshuffle goes to “Thank Heaven for Little Girls.” Once again, the creators must have only looked at the first line and decided that if Honore sang it (as Maurice Chevalier did in 1958 and Alfred Drake in 1973), there would be cries of pedophilia. Didn’t anyone trouble to read the second line: “For little girls get bigger every day.” Honore establishes that “ONE DAY” these little girls will be alluring, which lets us see that he is NOT talking about the here and now. Besides, the line “Without them, what would little boys do?” maintains the innocence and clearly shows that Honore is not talking about having any of these young girls for himself.
Frankly, by now giving the song to Alicia and Mamita, the song IS on the salacious side. What they’re implying is “Thank heaven for one little girl, for if we didn’t have one, we’d have no up-and-coming mistress to train.” Did anyone anyone listen to THIS lyric in its entirety? Why would Alicia and Mamita sing the inclusive “Thank heaven for them all, no matter where, no matter who” when they’re only concentrating on Gigi?
Catherine Zuber’s costumes are lovely, but follow the template that every woman just happens to wear a different color dress. One thing good about Derek McLane’s unit set is that its enormous and stationary staircase automatically pushes the action forward, which makes everything easier to see. When we go to Maxim’s, a few tiny set pieces fly in and lighting designer Natasha Katz floods the stage with red to really create the illusion that we’re in a different locale.
However, what McLane places directly under the proscenium arch is ironwork that makes us feel we’re under the Eiffel Tower. That isn’t a problem in itself, but every now and then a replication of the tower slides onto the stage making us wonder what that stuff under the proscenium represents.
Choreographer Joshua Bergasse has his ensemble overdo the gestures and has given more musical staging than choreography. The one number in which he goes all out is “The Night They Invented Champagne,” but taking it from a modest three-person number to an outdoor extravaganza makes no sense. Only Gaston, Mamita and Gigi should be celebrating this moment in their lives. What’s even stranger is that the number brings the first act to an abrupt end with no cliffhanger. The curtain seems to come down simply because an hour and fifteen minutes have passed.
With a pan such as this, you’re probably waiting for me to come down hard on Vanessa Hudgens’ Gigi. No -- she has the right clomping, all-arms-and-legs body language for her girlish period, and adapts nicely to elegance when that time comes. Best of all, she doesn’t show a smidgen of HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL’s Gabriella Montez. It’s a terrific and secure debut, but not quite enough to warrant a curtain call where she’s the only one to enter at the top of the l-o-n-g staircase and make us wait for her to come front and center.
Corey Cott has a high speaking voice that often makes him seem as young as Gigi. He does give a thoughtful performance, however, one that takes the dialogue and lyrics into careful consideration. When he challenges Honore to “name two” of the “the captivating fascinating things there are to do,” as Honore insists, he says it in a case-voice that shows he truly believes that Honore won’t think of any.
Victoria Clark does well by Mamita in dialogue and song, but Schaeffer makes Dee Hoty overact even for the imperious and histrionic Alicia. Howard McGillin is a fine Honore, but when he’s asked to say “No one knows what happens in the heart,” he can’t help sounding as if he’s Bela Lugosi in one of Ed Wood’s movies.
In the end, we must ask ourselves if Heidi Thomas and Eric Schaeffer was each a fool without a mind or has each merely been too blind to realize that she and he have taken a decent movie and have made it less than mediocre. GIGI will be lucky if it becomes the thirty-eighth highest grossing show of the 2014-2015 season.
— Peter Filichia