French give blockbusters the OK

Succsessful films were previously unpopular tuners

PARIS — While successful movies have long inspired big-budget Broadway adaptations, in France the reverse is more often the case. It’s plays-turned-pics that mine Gallic box office gold.

But this year, two high-profile legit adaptations, both musicals, are starting to reverse the trend.

Last month, Emir Kusturica’s punk opera “The Time of the Gypsies,” a stage version of the film that won Kusturica director kudos at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival, opened to enthusiastic reviews. Accustomed to more conventional fare, the audience at the Opera Bastille looked as if it hadn’t had so much fun in years.

The show’s run through July 15 sold out, repping 40,000 ticket sales.

Another pic readying for the stage spotlight is “Kirikou and Karaba,” a legit version of Michel Ocelot’s hit animated kidpic “Kirikou and the Sorceress,” opening in Paris this fall before a nationwide tour.

Tuner, about a brave and preternaturally clever African boy, opens around the same date as the French version of “The Lion King.”

But although “Kirikou” isn’t as well-known internationally as the Disney toon, together the first and second “Kirikou” films grossed more than $28 million, and Kirikou DVDs and books continue to make steady sales in Gaul.

While the toons played in Euro markets, “Kirikou” is virtually unknown in English-speaking territories and parts of the world where the films’ ethnographically correct, bare-breasted African women made kid-friendly distributors nervous.

As stage adaptations, both “The Time of the Gypsies” and “Kirikou” have one obvious thing going for them — a notable score. Memorable folk tunes that make up the musical backbone of the “Time of the Gypsies” have been rearranged for the stage version, along with new music performed by the Garbage Serbian Philharmonia and Kusturica’s No Smoking Orchestra.

Dispensing with recitative, and with no spoken dialogue, “Gypsies” uses songs to tell the story of ill-fated lovers Perhan and Asra, and the gypsy community whose hardships lead to their corruption and demise. Show is as vibrant visually as it is musically, with the stage occupied by a circus-like troupe and a ubiquitous gaggle of live geese.

This being Kusturica, film excerpts shown on a giant screen also play a part in the storytelling, including excerpts from “The Time of the Gypsies,” “Taxi Driver” and a famous goal scored by Diego Maradona in the 1996 Soccer World Cup.

“Kusturica’s films are already musical tableaux, so bringing ‘Time of the Gypsies’ to the stage was an obvious step,” says Marc Di Domenico, the indie record producer of artists including Henri Salvador and the No Smoking Orchestra, who co-produced with the Opera de Paris.

Di Domenico’s only prior stage experience was French actress-chanteuse Arielle Dombasle’s shows with the New York Big Band at Gotham’s Supper Club last year.

As for “Kirikou,” the music in the two films was performed and written by world music stars including Youssou N’Dour and Rokia Traore. A similar roster of African talents has composed half a dozen new songs for the stage version, with lyrics by Ocelot.

Choreographed and directed by Wayne MacGregor, with stage design and costumes by Peter MacIntosh the E4.5 million ($6.1 million) musical was produced by Victor Bosch, the impresario behind French hit “Notre Dame de Paris,” and co-produced by EMI and Gallic pubcaster France Televisions.

“Kirikou” will bow for a short pre-Paris run in September at the Maison de la Danse in Lyon before transferring to the Casino de Paris Oct. 3.

Michel Liebermann, executive managing director of France Televisions Distribution, says the pubcaster has high hopes for the tuner.

“We think it’ll run for a year or 18 months,” he predicts. Liebermann adds that the pubcaster plans to invest in other Paris musicals, “as a co-producer and not just for DVD rights,” as part of its efforts to diversify.

Meanwhile, after Paris, “The Time of the Gypsies” will travel to Valence in the south of France, for a handful of performances, to one of the few national venues big enough to house the Opera production.

After that, outgoing Opera de Paris director Gerard Mortier is considering bringing the production to New York when he crosses the Atlantic to become director of New York City Opera in 2009.

“Producers from all over the world are coming to see the show here in Paris,” says Di Domenico proudly. “It is going to travel.”

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