PARIS MAKE ME THORNY
Of all the Oscar-winning films I’ve seen, AN AMERICAN IN PARIS is the one I like the least.
It probably squeaked through at the Oscars because the more acclaimed A STREETCAR NAME DESIRE and A PLACE IN THE SUN split the votes for Best Picture.
So the stage version with a new book by Craig Lucas was bound to be an improvement, and it is.
He’s retained only three George and Ira Gershwin songs from the film: “I Got Rhythm,” “Liza” and “‘S Wonderful.” I have no issue with the third, but the first two beg comments.
In the film, Gene Kelly sings “I Got Rhythm” to French children, having them “help” him along by singing “I got!” before he gets out the various nouns that Ira Gershwin used. Those who want to accuse GIGI’s “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” as pedophiliac would have a multi-whistle-blowing time with “I Got Rhythm.” Frankly, Kelly is innocent of any wrongdoing – he simply enjoys kids – but those with certain mindsets probably would balk if the 1951 production number were replicated on stage.
Of course, not enduring the expense of child actors, let alone a child wrangler, may have been the deciding factor. But notice that Lucas makes “I Got Rhythm” the first song in his show, as if to say to the audience, “Let’s get this baby elephant out of the room right now so you don’t have to worry about it.”
His THREE leading men sing it. One is Jerry Mulligan (originally Kelly, now Robert Fairchild), an American painter in Paris. Another is Adam Hochberg, a composer – whom the picture called Adam COOK when Oscar Levant played him. But Lucas has shrewdly set the action not in 1951, as the film seems to be, but immediately following the end of World War II. Needless to say, a Jew would have plenty to say and much to feel after the hated Germans had left town. What’s more, starting a musical with the liberation and reawakening of the world’s most beloved city is an excellent idea.
But the show should be called TWO AMERICANS IN PARIS, as both men vie for the love of ballet dancer Lise (Leanne Cope). She was, incidentally, surnamed Bouvier in the film but is Dassin here – perhaps because Bouvier is a name that has become overly familiar since the picture debuted.
And how do we know that Lise is the one dancer in the corps de ballet that we should be following and endorsing? Lucas shows us by the hoariest of conventions – by having her arrive late for ballet class.
Not until halfway through the film do we get a fleeting mention why Lise should love Henri: he took her and shielded her when the Germans were assaulting Paris. In Lucas’ version, Lise’s stern mother and father -- who weren’t in the film -- expect their daughter to marry Henri, for he helped them survive the war, too. This was smart of Lucas, for obeying and pleasing one’s parents was a vital European value back then. So can Lise possibly marry Jerry, to whom she’s attracted, or must she settle for the more earthbound Baurel, who’s proved himself dependable and trustworthy?
Alan Jay Lerner, the screenplay’s author, wanted us to be squarely on Jerry’s side. He arranged that after Jerry sings – after knowing Lise for no more than twenty-four hours -- “Our Love Is Here to Stay.” Really? WHAT love can be assured of “staying” considering that these people know nothing about each other? Of all who worked in musical theater, was there anyone less qualified to teach us the definition of True Love than the EIGHT-times married Lerner? (To be fair, he was only on Marriage Number Two when he wrote AN AMERICAN IN PARIS.)
Lucas tries to get around this cliché by having Jerry tell Lise “You’re all I’ve ever wanted” -- to which she replies “Life is not like your American movies.” Well, not ones like AN AMERICAN I PARIS, to be sure.
Jerry, in fact, should come to love Milo Roberts, the woman who takes a great deal of interest in his painting and arranges for him to have an exhibition a few months down the line. “I happen to have a little drive,” she tells him. “You’re a painter, and a good one. That’s a good combination.”
She’s right about their being a potent team. But you know the male ego: Jerry rejects the offer (at least at first), because HE has to be in control of everything and no one’s going to tell HIM what to do. What he should be is grateful – especially because he’s not much of an artist, not from the paintings we see in the film. They’re all literal representations of various Parisian sights, the type of “art works” that are mass-produced as placemats or 99-cent jigsaw puzzles.
We do suspect that Milo’s generosity stems from a belief that making life easier for Jerry will cause him to see the light and fall in love with her. But you know Hollywood: she’s tall, secure, accomplished and a bit antiseptic (and, as my colleague Michael Portantiere pointed out, older), so Lise wins because she’s young, attractive and seemingly innocent. And that, in bad Hollywood musicals (and quite a few Broadway ones, too) is all that apparently matters. So Jill Paice, now playing the re-surnamed Milo Davenport, experiences the same fate.
At least Lucas gets out of one sticky situation by making Henri a closeted gay. Henri LIKES Lise, and even in his own way LOVES her, but we know that’s not enough. Max von Essen nicely gets across Henri’s hint when he says “You Americans are famous for stealing our women” with a subtext of “Take me fiancée – Please!” Under these circumstances, we can now relax and root for Jerry.
Well, we could until Lucas makes a tragic misstep. In order to shoehorn in the Gershwin song “Liza,” Jerry tells Lise that she should change her name to “Liza.” Believe me, if Ira Gershwin had written a song called “Hortense,” Jerry would be telling her that that should be her new name.
But the point is that NO ONE has the right to tell anyone to change his or her name. Yes, in the fine musical of SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, J.J. Hunsecker tells Sidney Falcone to become Sidney Falco, which he does – but that is so we’d hate Hunsecker for being manipulative and abusing his power. What’s sad is than in AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, Lise doesn’t seem to mind and later in the show embraces the name Liza.
Just as we saw last week with GIGI, librettists who manufacture jukebox musicals tend to look at the opening line of a song, and if it fits, well, that’s good enough for them. So Jerry, Adam and Henri sing “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” – the song whose refrain begins “The way you wear your hat; the way you sip your tea,” all to describe a character who never wore a hat in a particularly distinctive way any more than she sipped her tea in any unique way.
“The way you sing off-key” soon follows, but that, thankfully, doesn’t happen when Leanne Cope sings her one solo: “The Man I Love.” In fact, considering that Cope is from the ballet world, she sings quite decently. Fairchild, also a ballet star, has much more to sing -- two solos and parts of five other numbers – and acquits himself nicely.
And what of Adam, who also wants Lise for his own? Ah, but’s he’s the comic relief character, the madcap type who never gets the girl. (Brandon Uranowitz excels and charms in the part.) To fully establish that Adam is not a romantic candidate, costume designer Bob Crowley occasionally has him in a bow tie – the universal symbol for The Awkward Loser. (Wish that Lucas didn’t have Adam say “Our French sucks.” It sounds too contemporary, and such a word would be considered very vulgar in 1945.)
Adam does feel that he has a chance with Lise, for “She’ll have to love me for writing a ballet for her.” She doesn’t, although he does -- and that, of course, is where AN AMERICAN IN PARIS shines. All night long, Christopher Wheedon directs efficiently enough, but the choreography he’s given Fairchild and Cope is as sensational as anyone could ask.
The other benefit, to say the least, is a generous portion of Gershwin’s second most famous classical piece. An orchestra of twenty pieces wouldn’t have passed Broadway muster when Gershwin was writing musicals, but it’s downright generous today.
One funny thing about Wheedon’s choreography. During “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise,” the cast sings the lyric “with a new step every day” while they’re doing the most antediluvian of dance moves: the kick-line. But let’s not kick AN AMERICAN IN PARIS while it’s down, for it’s far more often up, and certainly up on the 1951 film.
— Peter Filichia