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‘An American in Paris’ Musical Brings Ballet to Broadway with French Flair

Is Paris the next New Haven?

The producers behind “An American in Paris,” the $11.5 million Broadway musical currently in previews and opening April 12, are betting that now that other Stateside producers have gotten a look at the show, there’ll be interest in following its unusual route to Broadway — a path that saw the show arrive in New York via the farflung tryout town of the City of Lights itself.

But while all the elements of “American in Paris” came together in way that made the pre-Broadway run in Paris a logical move, it remains to be seen whether such an international venture will make sense again — on either side of the Atlantic.

In the old days of Broadway tryouts, new shows bowed in closer-to-home locales like New Haven and Boston and Chicago. But as Broadway musicals have become a global business and more international producers have showed interest in getting into the game, intercontinental arrangements have begun to flourish. “Rocky,” for instance, opened in Hamburg before landing on Broadway last season.

For producers of “American in Paris,” the first step came in deciding that their developing stage version of the 1951 MGM musical might have trouble raising the funds for a commercial tryout model.  The project was a tough sell in part because of an ambitious, sophisticated concept that would make dance central to the show — climaxing in a 14-minute ballet, a far cry from the jaunty jazz-hands sequences on which most musicals rely.

“There was no way to run away from the importance of ballet and dance to that film’s existence,” said producer Stuart Oken, in reference to the pop-culture profile of the Gene Kelly movie musical. “We were pretty sure we couldn’t capitalize the show with a commercial out-of-town tryout.”

Enter Jean-Luc Choplin, the director general of Paris’ Theatre du Chatelet. He’d been sniffing around the rights to “An American in Paris” too, after making U.S.-bred musicals popular in Paris with grand productions of “Candide,” “My Fair Lady” and “A Little Night Music,” among others.

“I was told musicals never worked in Paris,” Choplin said. “In France there is a big wall between culture and entertainment, and my fight has been to tear down that wall. My way with the musicals is to do them like operas, to create a feeling that these shows could be taken as seriously as opera. The huge production values we could give really had an impact.”

With the Gershwin estate playing matchmaker, the American producers of “American in Paris” teamed with Choplin and the Chatelet, aiming to create a classy dance-centric musical staged by ballet-world veteran Christopher Wheeldon in his first Broadway credit as director-choreographer.

The Chatelet, which presents the work of international creative teams regularly, ponied up some $3 million to stage the Paris production, shouldering expenses that included cast housing and set construction.

“You have to look at Chatelet as a nonprofit with an enormous base of support,” said American producer Van Kaplan. “We got much more bang for our buck, and the company got an authentic experience in Paris.”

There were a few stumbling blocks, to be sure, in blending the American and the French crews, and in adjusting to the Broadway constraints that kept the orchestra size of “American in Paris” down to 19 (rather than the 45-plus Choplin would have likely employed on its own). Besides that, the French contingent had trouble getting their heads around the idea of pre-opening preview performances.

“Our deal fell apart for three months because there was no concept of previews,” Kaplan remembered wryly.

But with all those obstacles overcome, “American in Paris” had its official opening night at the Chatelet Dec. 20 with 520 American visitors in attendance. The run in France essentially sold out its 40 performances in the 2,500-seat venue, and on Broadway, the show has pulled in almost $1 million in its first full week of eight previews despite facing Broadway competition from shows that are similarly dance-focused (“On the Town”) or Paris-set (“Gigi”).

It’s not yet certain, of course, that “American in Paris” will earn the kind of word of mouth and critical praise that will keep building sales momentum. The Stateside producers, for their part, believe they’ve put together a sophisticated, beautiful show. “It’ll be interesting to see if the word ‘beautiful’ translates on Broadway to ‘you have to go,’” Oken admitted.

Whether “American in Paris” finds Broadway success or not, Oken thinks the joint venture with Chatelet smoothed the way for future Broadway-bound shows to try out there. “The growing pains were real, but it’ll be better the next time,” he said.

Whether there’ll be a next time remains to be seen. Choplin said he likes the idea of having a hand in shows whose Broadway lifespan might yield royalties for the Chatelet. And he’s aware that the robust resources he can offer U.S. producers must seem attractive.

“I think now I will be very busy with New Yorkers,” he joked, but was quick to add that he’d only strike up a new partnership for the right project. “I’m not sure I would do something more commercial than ‘An American in Paris,’” he noted. “It has to be kind of high class in a sense. Popular, but sophisticated.”

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