In 1952, Gene Kelly starred in Singin’ in the Rain, widely considered one of the greatest movies of all time. It got two Oscar® nominations, winning neither.
It might be tempting to say that the Academy of Motion Arts and Sciences doesn’t treat musicals kindly, but the previous year, another Gene Kelly movie – An American in Paris – won six Oscars®, including Best Picture, beating A Streetcar named Desire and A Place in the Sun.
Until recently, An American in Paris was largely forgotten. It would not have surprised me if some people thought it was the sequel to a video starring a certain Ms Hilton. But now it’s a Broadway musical. I saw it in New York in September 2015.
It claims to be ‘A New Musical’. Technically, that’s right, but the movie was released before Queen Elizabeth II – the longest serving monarch in British history – ascended the throne. The composer, George Gershwin, died in the year that the Queen’s father was crowned. Even Ira Gershwin, the lyricist, has been dead for over 30 years.
The people who greenlight Broadway musicals are sometimes criticised for being risk averse by falling back on old material, but things have become expensive to stage. I would think twice, and then some more, about risking my money on something genuinely new. Did they make the right choice here?
To date, my main contribution to show business has been an appearance on Rose Porteous’ reality TV show, so I am wary of criticising anything made by such obviously talented people, particularly if it has received some considerable artistic success. But what the hell!
Alan Jay Lerner, who later co-wrote My Fair Lady, Gigi and Camelot, won an Oscar® for his screenplay, but in retrospect, the plot of the movie is thin. Three men in post-war Paris are involved with the same woman.
Many new Broadway musicals have a queer sub-plot, so in the stage adaptation, one of the men is strongly suggested to be gay. It’s clear who the leading lady truly loves, but the leading man says ‘I love you’ to her far too early. Perhaps it was meant to be a throwback to the days of innocent and instant love stories, but it sounded a bit creepy in the second decade of the twenty-first century. It also jarred against the backstory of the Nazi occupation of Paris, and the implication that the parents of one of the characters died in the Holocaust.
The show centres around a ballet. Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope superbly filled the shoes left by Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron. What surprised me was the imaginative use of computer graphics that were projected onto the back of the stage. The vivid but simple blues, purples, greens and yellows complemented the performers’ movements. The audience laughed at the splash of a man falling into the Seine; the grey shifting clouds against the city lights reflected the changing fortunes of the love-struck couple.
Unusually, it was more than ten minutes until the first song. In retrospect, this was not totally surprising, because it would not have been easy to fit established songs into the show, and the composer and lyricist were not on hand to write more. ‘But Not for Me’ and ‘I Got Rhythm’ are among the songs that survive from the movie. Surprisingly, ‘Nice Work if You Can Get It’ (the theme from the sitcom Cybill) doesn’t. ‘They Can’t Take That Away From Me’ and ‘The Man I Love’ are notable additions.
The previous time I was in New York, I saw the Israeli movie The Bubble. Not the happiest of plots (boy meets boy, boy falls in love with boy, boy becomes suicide bomber and kills them both), but Ivri Lider, an Israeli pop star, sings a gay version of ‘The Man I Love’, in which he combines the coy innocence of young love with hints of the fanatical horror that is to follow. In An American in Paris, Leanne Cope does a perfectly fine rendition, but without the same complex set of emotions. It’s not her fault: the plot does not give her as much to work with.
As I sat in the theatre, I kept thinking about how Mamma Mia! was about a woman who had been romantically involved with three men, one of whom ends up being gay. Was it sacrilege to suggest that a Gershwin jukebox musical might be some sort of prequel to an ABBA jukebox musical?
I gave The King and I a standing ovation because it was the best revival I’d ever seen. I gave An American in Paris a standing ovation because the people in front of me were doing so, and I wanted to see what was happening on stage. I certainly didn’t feel ripped off. It deservedly won Tony® awards for its scenic and lighting design, choreography and orchestrations, but I think voters were wise not to give it Best Musical.
George Gershwin died far too young. His work needs to live on where it can. This show is flawed, though not as much as Rose’s reality TV show, and I’m glad it got the greenlight.