An American in Paris: how Gene Kelly's leap in the dark became a stage sensation

Vincente Minnelli’s daring MGM musical starred the 17-year-old Leslie Caron, had a staggeringly ambitious ballet sequence and became a surprise Oscar winner. Now it’s become a Tony-winning smash in London

When Vincente Minnelli and Gene Kelly were making the 1951 film An American in Paris, their schedule had to be tailored to the needs of their star, Leslie Caron. The 17-year-old, who had been spotted by Kelly dancing with the Ballets des Champs-Élysées in Paris when he was on holiday two years previously, had been so weakened by wartime malnutrition that she could only work on alternate days.

The closeness of the war to the movie musical was embedded in its heart. Caron had seen and suffered the privations and compromised values of the occupation. Yet not a glimmer of her experience finally made it to the screen. “The movie is so sunny with all those happy Parisian children, laughing and singing,” says the writer Craig Lucas, who has adapted the show for the stage in a new version directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, artistic associate of the Royal Ballet. It opened in Paris and went on to win four Tony awards on Broadway and has now reached London.

As Lucas and Wheeldon began to research the musical, they realised how fresh the horrors of the second world war had been in the minds of American audiences. “Everyone was afraid of the Holocaust,” says Lucas. “It was so immense and so unspeakable.” Wheeldon adds: “Everything was so raw. Everybody was sensitive, devastated by the trauma of world events.”

What Hollywood producer Arthur Freed was after instead was celebration, an all-singing, all-dancing explosion of colour and life with which his unit at MGM could rival musicals from before the war. He had heard George Gershwin’s An American in Paris (composed in Paris in 1928) at a concert and recognised that both the music and the title would make an excellent starting point for a movie musical.

Watch Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron in An American in Paris

Gershwin had died of a brain tumour in 1937 at the age of 38, but Freed bought the rights from his brother, Ira, for $158,750, over a game of pool. Ira insisted that the tone poem could not stand alone; it had to be surrounded by other Gershwin songs. In effect this makes An American in Paris an early jukebox musical – when Alan Jay Lerner wrote the script in three months he was working around established songs.

An American in Paris was a huge success, becoming the first Freed musical to take the best picture Oscar, controversially beating films including A Streetcar Named Desire and A Place in the Sun. Yet when people look back on it, they remember its beautiful sets, its daring choreography and Kelly’s charisma; they don’t often recall the plot.

Most memorable of all is the crowning 17-minute ballet sequence, in which Kelly and Caron waltz through a Paris depicted in the style of different painters. This was shot one month after the rest of the movie – which gave director Minnelli a chance to make another entire film, Father’s Little Dividend. The final ballet nearly didn’t happen, because MGM balked at the cost, a staggering $450,000. Yet Kelly’s instinct that this would confirm the artistic merit of the film was justified.

Wheeldon remembers watching it repeatedly on television as a child. “I was a huge fan of Kelly growing up,” he says. He wouldn’t revisit the movie until after the stage show’s first run in Paris. Instead his starting point for the adaptation was the music, going through the Gershwin songbook with Ira’s collaborator Rob Fisher to find a set of songs that would suit the new story he and Lucas were about to tell. They also researched the history of occupied and liberated Paris, seeking a more realistic setting in which the great soaring romance of Jerry, the GI who stays in the city after the war, and Lise, the girl he falls for, could develop.

Lucas says he grew up with men like Jerry. His father’s friends were all GIs, who had returned from battle unable to talk about what they had experienced. “Nobody went to therapists. That was for crazy people,” he says. “So they were the walking wounded, uniquely broken.” He wanted to reflect the suffering of the people under occupation, the complexity of collaboration, the dangers of the resistance.

‘Growing up, I was a huge fan of Gene Kelly’ … Christopher Wheeldon.
‘Growing up, I was a huge fan of Gene Kelly’ … Christopher Wheeldon. Photograph: Felix Clay for the Guardian Photograph: Felix Clay/The Guardian

These themes form a backdrop to the musical, but its darkness doesn’t make the stage show bleak; rather, it adds a layer of understanding to the vibrant celebration of love and life that An American in Paris represents. “If it had been the perfect film musical, like The Wizard of Oz, then it would have seemed almost unprofessional to attempt to translate it to the stage,” says Lucas. “But in this instance, maybe we could do something that would bring another angle to it that would allow people to see it afresh.”

The other way in which An American in Paris has been rethought is in its telling. Wheeldon is widely admired on both sides of the Atlantic, ever since he left the Royal Ballet for the New York City Ballet in 1993. He has worked on a Broadway musical – The Sweet Smell of Success, directed by Nicholas Hytner – and made a narrative ballet, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, that proved his ability to communicate character and story through the pure medium of dance.

So when it came to being solely responsible for a musical, he played to his strengths. Although An American in Paris is full of great songs and fluent acting, its special quality is the way in which, at key moments, the story is carried by the power of the dance. In this, it returns the American musical to an earlier incarnation when great ballet choreographers such as George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, creator of West Side Story among countless other hits, worked for the commercial theatre.

Wheeldon collaborated with Robbins at New York City Ballet. “By the time I got to him, he was quite mellow,” he remembers. “He had been fearsome in his early years, with a reputation for being quite uncompromising and getting performances out of people through intimidation and fear. But he was always lovely to me – a real inspiration.”

Charismatic … Gene Kelly with Leslie Caron in director Vincente Minnelli’s An American in Paris (1951).
Charismatic … Gene Kelly with Leslie Caron in director Vincente Minnelli’s An American in Paris (1951). Photograph: Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar Photograph: Allstar/MGM/Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar

Robbins’s expansive choreographic spirit hangs over An American in Paris. “There was always so much humanity in his work,” says Wheeldon. As there is in the masculine ease and laid-back sex appeal of Kelly, whose belief in dance as an art form for everyone was demonstrated by his work on the film.

In an example of pleasing symmetry, Robert Fairchild, on leave from his normal role as principal with New York City Ballet to star in the show, was originally inspired to dance by Kelly. “I loved to dance, but being from a small town in Utah it was hard to want to be a dancer because it singled you out and made you different from everyone else. Then, when I was about 10, I saw Singin’ in the Rain for the first time, and that was it. He was my role model.”

This sense of the stars of the past supporting and inspiring the protagonists of the present has been characteristic of the production. For Leanne Cope, a former Royal Ballet dancer who has left the company to play Lise, meeting Caron provided her with the key to her interpretation. When they met, Caron talked about the real-life experience that informed her sense of Paris, but which had never before been incorporated into the show. “It was incredibly helpful,” says Cope. “She had lived through what we were portraying – the bread lines and soldiers and barricades. She would sneak out to ballet class and one day one of her friends wasn’t there. She was a little Jewish girl and her parents had to explain to her why she had vanished.

“She told me that once she saw some German boots on the floor and knew that the person who owned them had been killed. And so when I am sitting on the Seine, with Jerry, and I am telling him about the war, that’s what my Lise is thinking of: those boots.”

An American in Paris opens on 21 March at the Dominion theatre, London W1T.


Sarah Crompton

The GuardianTramp

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