How do you solve a problem like “Gigi”?
That’s the question tyro Broadway producer Jenna Segal asked herself as she set to work on a Broadway revival of the 1973 musical, based on the 1958 movie and the Colette novella. She’d loved the show since her mother introduced it to her as a child, but now as an adult, Segal recognized that parts of the tuner might prove offputting for contemporary audiences.
On the plus side, “Gigi” boasts a Lerner and Loewe score and a title that resonates with the older female demographic that buys the bulk of Broadway tickets. But it also has a stage full of courtesans and a potentially creepy song about little girls sung by an old man.
“A lot of people wanted to go dark with it,” said Segal, who approached several creatives about reworking the property with the permission of the original musical’s rights holders. “That wasn’t the story I was looking to tell.”
For Segal, a former TV development exec at MTV and Nickelodeon, the aim was to appeal to female audiences by emphasizing the light, the social innovation and the glamour of the Belle Epoque era in which the musical is set. “I wanted that electrified experience,” she said of the $12 million revival, which begins previews March 19 with Vanessa Hudgens in the title role. “I wanted the escapism.”
“Both Jenna and I wanted to return Gigi to center stage,” added Heidi Thomas, the “Call the Midwife” and “Cranford” writer who came aboard to revise the musical’s book. “That in itself alters the tilt of the piece,” she said, after earlier iterations onscreen and onstage allowed the men in the story to drive the narrative forward.
One way the production aims to highlight the tale’s essential glamour is to link up with high-end brands vying to connect with the largely affluent audiences who attend Broadway shows.
“When you talk about luxury goods, the Broadway demographic falls right into their core market,” Segal said. “I really do see Broadway as incredibly fertile ground for product placement.”
That kind of talk will raise eyebrows among the purists of Broadway’s old guard. But with the show just entering previews, it remains to be seen if such brand affiliations will strike audiences as glaring.
Swarovski, for instance, provided more than a quarter million crystals for the show’s costumes, and Veuve Clicquot champagne has signed on as a promotional partner. Neither seems a stretch for a fashion-conscious show that ends act one on a song called “The Night They Invented Champagne.”
Other brands tie in to the show through events surrounding the production itself. Couturier Alice + Olivia and pastry chef Payard are on board to dress cast members and provide nibbles, respectively, for opening night, while the Palm Court at the Plaza will sponsor pre- and post-show events.
Meanwhile, as Thomas returned Gigi to the driver’s seat of the tale, she also tightened the central lovers’ age gap in order to make the story, about a young courtesan-in-training who breaks out of the system to marry for love, more palatable for modern audiences. The writer has aged Gigi up from 15 to 18, and adjusted her paramour Gaston (played by “Newsies” alumnus Corey Cott) down from 33 to be only somewhat older.
She’s also reworked the song list, including the reassignment of one of the show’s best-known numbers, “Thank Heaven for Little Girls.” Originally sung by an older uncle, the tune is now given to Gigi’s grandmother and great-aunt (played, respectively, by Tony winner Victoria Clark and Dee Hoty).
Both Thomas and Segal first became acquainted with “Gigi” through their parents, and Segal aims to give her production the same kind of cross-generational reach. The casting of Hudgens, who boasts a young-skewing fanbase thanks to her starring role in the “High School Musical” franchise and her subsequent music career, looks to give the title a leg up in that regard.
Shepherded by Segal over seven years, the revival — directed by Eric Schaeffer (“Follies”) and choreographed by Joshua Bergasse (“Smash,” “On the Town”) — got off to a promising start earlier this year in its tryout run at the Kennedy Center. Reviews were mixed, but the production earned $3.25 million over its four-week run and, according to the theater, played to 91% of capacity and attracted 34,000 theatergoers.
New York, of course, represents a separate challenge, with the show coming in during a Broadway season in which another musical revival, Lincoln Center Theater’s “The King and I,” has attracted a lot of theatergoers’ attention, and another City of Light-set production, “An American in Paris,” also angles for business.
According to Segal, the almost-famous cultural profile of “Gigi” allows the show to benefit from both the fresh factor of a new musical and the name recognition of a familiar title.
“A lot of younger audiences don’t know ‘Gigi,’ but for a lot of others, it seems to have been a movie that was passed down from grandmother to mother to daughter, just like it was to me and Heidi,” Segal said. “It’s the Chanel bag of musicals.”