Heart-Stopping Production Numbers Make Up For A Thin Plot In 'An American In Paris'
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Our classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz lives in Boston and caught the beginning of the national tour of the new Broadway musical "An American In Paris." The show was inspired by the hit 1951 Hollywood movie starring Gene Kelly with music by George Gershwin. Here's Lloyd's review.
(SOUNDBITE OF AN AMERICAN IN PARIS ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF GERSHWIN'S, "CONCERTO IN F")
LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: When George Gershwin died in 1937 at the age of 38, he'd written more than a dozen Broadway musicals with his brother, Ira, one of which won a Pulitzer Prize plus film scores, concert pieces and an opera that has become a national treasure. His music jazzy, brash or romantic captured something very deep in the American consciousness. Since his death, his music has been reused in new and different contexts. The most beloved of these projects was "An American In Paris," the 1951 movie with the rare distinction for a musical of winning a Best Picture Oscar. The stars were dancer-choreographer Gene Kelly and a radiant newcomer, a young French ballerina named Leslie Caron.
The film has a much praised, but pretentious dream ballet. But what nearly steals the movie is a hilarious sequence in which pianist Oscar Levant, who is also a famously sarcastic raconteur and a real life friend of Gershwin's, not only plays the "Concerto In F" but also appears as the conductor, the orchestra players and even the audience. The film rescued from oblivion one of Gershwin's last and greatest songs. Kelly, who plays an American artist named Jerry Mulligan who decides to stay in Paris after the war, sings it to the French girl with a mysterious past, played by Caron. Their dance on the banks of the Seine is the film's emotional high point.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE IS HERE TO STAY")
GENE KELLY: (Singing) But, oh, my dear, our love is here to stay. Together, we're going a long, long way. In time, the Rockies may crumble, Gibraltar may tumble. They're only made of clay. But our love is here to stay.
SCHWARTZ: Last year, "An American In Paris" was turned into a new Broadway show with essentially the same plot as the film and some of the same music. It won Tony Awards for its inspired scenic design and lighting, imaginative orchestrations and dazzling choreography by Christopher Wheeldon. There are several reasons I hope a lot of people see this show. The main one is, of course, Gershwin's enduring music which includes such standards as "The Man I Love," "S'Wonderful," "Who Cares" and "I Got Rhythm" alongside some less familiar tunes and such instrumental works as the "Concerto In F," "The Second Rhapsody" and the big orchestral piece that gives the show its title. Appealing performers really put them across.
Here's Robert Fairchild, a star of The New York City Ballet gamely singing "I've Got Beginner's Luck" on the show's original cast album, a song the Gershwins wrote for Fred Astaire.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'VE GOT BEGINNER'S LUCK")
ROBERT FAIRCHILD: (Singing) I've got beginner's luck. The first time that I'm in love, I'm in love with you. Gosh, I'm lucky. I've got beginner's luck. There never was such a smile or such eyes of blue. Gosh, I'm fortunate. This thing we've become is much more than a pastime for this time is the one where the first time is the last time. I've got beginner's luck, lucky through and through. For the first time that I'm in love, I'm in love with you.
SCHWARTZ: The show is almost nonstop dancing. Garen Scribner, who replaced Fairchild on Broadway, now plays Jerry Mulligan on the tour. His leap onto the stage during the climactic "American In Paris" ballet is heart-stopping. But all the production numbers are terrific beginning with "I Got Rhythm."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "AN AMERICAN IN PARIS")
GAREN SCRIBNER: (As Jerry Mulligan) Look. Look at their faces. People need to laugh. Paris needs it.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Who said music has to cheer people up?
SCRIBNER: (As Jerry Mulligan) I say it. (Singing) All my trouble, I don't mind him. You won't find him 'round my door. I got starlight. I got sweet dreams. I got my gal. Who could ask for anything more? Who could ask for anything more?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character, singing) I got rhythm...
SCHWARTZ: An unfamiliar song like "Fidgety Feet" gets an irresistibly witty and charming run around. "I'll Build A Stairway To Paradise" which is also in the film is worthy of Ziegfeld with a rockettes-like kick line on a set that looks like Radio City Music Hall in all its glory. I wish I could say the whole show was more than the sum of its best parts. The weakest element of the movie is its thin and sentimental plot. And instead of refining it, playwright Craig Lucas has expanded it and made it even more heavy-handed. The revelation about the heroine's past takes only a few seconds in the movie.
In the show, it's a scene without music and a big dead spot. The songs here seem even more pasted together than they are in the movie. And even more damaging, there's no central love duet - nothing with the emotional resonance of "Our Love Is Here To Stay," which is surprisingly not in the show. George Balanchine made a memorable ballet called "Who Cares" that uses many of the same Gershwin tunes. It has no plot and no characters, but it's got more human feeling than anything in "An American In Paris." Still, what the show has is the dancing, the terrific production numbers and all that wonderful Gershwin music.
GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz teaches poetry in the MFA creative writing program at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and writes about classical music for New York Arts. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be longtime LGBT rights activist Cleve Jones. He worked with Harvey Milk in San Francisco, co-founded the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and conceived the AIDS Memorial Quilt. He's had AIDS for many years. Few of his old friends survived the epidemic. His new memoir is meant to document what his generation fought for, won and lost. I hope you'll join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.