BWW Interview: Ogunquit's AMERICAN IN PARIS: A Musical and Choreographic Conversation
"This is a period in history where art is rejuvenating the people. From a musical standpoint, An American in Paris depicts an interesting time in the European-American cultural exchange. The many colors of French, German, British music were being influenced by American sounds to create a new, singular musical aesthetic, and this, in turn, influenced American musicians who emulated these aspects. It became a snowball of invention."
Music Director David Lamoureux is talking about the exciting period of cultural cross contexts and artistic innovation that was Post War Paris. He is joined by two of his collaborators on the production, directed and choreographed by Jeffry Denman, which opened at the Ogunquit Playhouse on July 13: Assistant Music Director Patrick Fanning and Assistant Choreographer Ashley Marinelli. The trio waxes eloquent about the fertile, innovative artistic world of the play and its time period and the opportunity to bring this milieu and story to life at the famed playhouse which celebrates its 86th season.
"Working on a piece that has such a rich musical history, such a unique concept and such original staging is inspiring," says Fanning.
"There are so many firsts associated with this theatre for me," says Marinelli, who has previously worked with Denman at Ogunquit on Mary Poppins and West Side Story. " I associate Ogunquit with so many good things; it is like the beginning of an era for me." And in terms of An American in Paris, Marinelli adds that she is thrilled " to get to work on this show and to have received permission from the rights house to tinker with some of the choreography" - something she sees as a very special privilege accorded to Denman and her.
An American in Paris was inspired by George Gershwin's 1928 orchestral suite. It became a fabled movie starring Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse in 1951 and was eventually transformed into a Broadway musical staged by Christopher Wheeldon in 2015. Ogunquit's is the first regional production following the Broadway run.
Asked to talk about the Paris of 1946 that provides the setting and context for the story, each of the three creative team members approaches the question from his/her individual viewpoint. Lamoureux says the musical takes its inspiration from Gershwin who, in his musical suite, was "trying to assimilate the sounds of street life, of the city into a concert format. Moreover, he was trying to find an audience in the common person, to make a tangible connection to soldiers, workers, everyone - not just the classical concert-going crowd." He also sees the score as "an incredibly forward moving musical thread" which propels the story and becomes a backdrop for the decisions the characters make to move forward.
All three creatives stress that they and Denman, in helming the show, are committed to storytelling. They discuss Craig Lucas' book for the musical which adds a new dimension to the movie. Lamoureux explains: "The musical has a complexity that was absent from the original source material. The film's intention in 1951 was to convey a lightness, a sense of 'we're not in the war anymore; let's focus on the brightness of our memories.' But to put it on stage that way today feels disingenuous. Instead the show focuses on the characters' reasons for staying in Paris, the discomfort they may have felt at their wartime actions. This lends a gravity, and you can play a two-and-one-half hour show more cohesively from that viewpoint."
Marinelli concurs: "Our show is about how people deal with trauma and with the horrific thing [the war] that has just taken place a year before. They turn to their art to deal with it. Jerry dances, sings, woos women to avoid talking about what happened to him. Adam puts his moroseness and tortured soul into his music. Lise also works through her demons in art. The dance shows how these characters get beyond their trauma and through the stages of grief each in a different way."
Asked to talk about the score for An American in Paris which contains songs by Gershwin, including "I Got Rhythm," "'S Wonderful," "Stairway to Paradise," as well as his orchestral music like "Concerto in F," "Second Rhapsody," "The Cuban Overture," and, of course, "An American in Paris." Fanning, who plays the keyboards, says "From a pianist's standpoint, everything sits well in the hands, which is not always the case." He explains why Gershwin was so revolutionary a composer: "He uses jazz idioms which we later hear in Bernstein and Copland, and looking at what was happening around him like Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, Gershwin's music was accessible to the audience. At the same time it is really thorny harmonically, a bit like [Richard] Strauss - chromatic yet accessible."
Lamoureux continues: "Even though there is a great deal of complexity in the music, he uses a lot of motifs where he takes a simple idea and revisits its again and again changing rhythms [and harmonies]. So even the lay person understands what is being done; these are variations on an idea, and that makes you want to keep listening."
Marinelli agrees that the rhythmic nature of the music makes choreographing the show very exciting, and she says the entire feel remains "bright - not as dark as some other things from that era."
Marinelli talks about how Denman's vision and staging choose to layer onto the movie musical idiom new dances. "We wanted to bring in American styles like tap and jazz into the show. In 1946 the cultural exchange going on between America and France was a meeting of old and new world influences. We use the jazz and tap to signify the newness of the American style and the ballet to signify the language of France. We also use social dances like the jitterbug, and we take some liberties to bring some more contemporary elements into the ballet than would have existed in the post war era, where the ballet was more subdued. In 1946 modern dance was just coming into its own, so we draw a little from that and use a number of different styles to tell the story in the way we think it should be told."
Lamoureux makes an interesting observation about the organic relationship between the dance and the live musicians playing the score. He notes that in this show "Sometimes the dancers seem to be conducting the orchestra more than I am because the music must be coordinated with the movement. You cannot lock in every arm movement to a swell of music. You have to feel it and play it so it breathes and is not overly calculated. Jeffry Denman understands this and makes it vibrant."
This live, breathing quality is something shared not only by musicians, but by the dancers as well, Marinelli observes, "This is one of the hardest shows to count because the rhythms are so complex; as a dancer you have to feel the phrasing and the melodic figures."
So how does the creative team work with such complex music and staging and such a layered book and yet making it seem effortless? And how do they adapt what was a larger scale Broadway production to Ogunquit's venue, which has its own constraints and requirements? Lamoureux feels the chamber size of the orchestra "is compelling and suits the piece well," and he notes that the musicians have to be extraordinarily virtuosic to create the sound they do. "No one has any breaks, and Patrick plays some 50,000 notes each show!"
Though the ensemble track uses sixteen and though the show has been orchestrated for seven musicians, "It feels big," Marinelli says. She accounts for this in the choreographic sense because, unlike her work on West Side Story or Mary Poppins which used unit sets here at Ogunquit, in An American in Paris "the stage is largely open and for the big ballet, the entire space is available. So it feels danceable." And she notes, because the musicians at Ogunquit are backstage (not in a pit), when the performers cross behind the scenes they can wave to the orchestra, giving them a sense of connection.
Fanning seconds that, saying, " Being backstage, we musicians connect more than we might normally do when we are playing in that pot hole in the ground. It is super exciting to see more of the inner workings of the play."
All three hope that this new iteration in its regional premiere will inspire more productions of An American in Paris. Marinelli comments that this production- "all credit to Jeffry Denman, the captain of our ship, has demonstrated what can be accomplished even with only ten days rehearsal."
She and Lamoureux sum up what they believe to be the enduring appeal of the material. Lamoureux says, "Today's audiences crave content" and appreciate the level of daring involved in the show's format which "moves seamlessly from underscore to song to ballet."
Marinelli attributes the success to several factors including " a huge nostalgia for the movie version, a seemingly simple story line that is embellished to give it greater resonance for a modern audience, and the sheer romanticism of the piece. The show reflects the complexities of the time, yet it feels very contemporary."
Photographs courtesy of Ogunquit Playhouse, Gary Nyg, photographer, and the artists' websites
An American in Paris runs at the Ogunquit Playhouse at 10 Main Street, Ogunquit, Maine, from July 13- August 4 www.ogunquitplayhouse.org 207-646-5511