An American (musical) in Paris. Once seen as lowbrow, Broadway shows now ride high in France


Outside Paris’ magnificent Grand Palais, just off the Champs Elysees, theatergoers stood in the drizzle to see “Singin’ in the Rain.”

It was cold and wet, but the Christmas lights were sparkling and those in line seemed in the mood for a little American song and dance.

France has taken the Broadway musical to its collective heart, and none more so than “Singin’ in the Rain,” a stage adaptation of the 1952 Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds movie that is on its third sell-out run in Paris in less than three years.

It took the French a while to warm to the American “comedie musicale,” as it is known here, long dismissed by Paris’ highbrow as low art. Today, tickets for shows produced and performed in English by the Chatelet Theater usually disappear weeks before the shows open.

Standing in the rain outside the Grand Palais — the Chatelet is shut for renovations and has taken the Grand Palais as its temporary home — Marc Andre, a computer programmer, said dismissing Broadway musicals as lowbrow was nothing but outdated snobbery, which is “very French.”

“You know we love to hate anything from America,” he said with a smile. “It’s true, musicals are not Moliere or Shakespeare, but they merit being recognized in their own right. They have everything, music, drama, dance, singing…. I love them.”

Parisian Isabelle Prat, an air traffic controller, accompanied by her parents, Daniel and Jocelyne, from the southern French city of Bordeaux, agreed the musical offered “everything.”

“There’s the decor, the costumes, the songs, it’s all so grandiose,” she said.

“And we just loved the film,” her mother, Jocelyne, added.

Camille Pellissier, who works in communication and public relations, said she had seen “42nd Street” at the Chatelet last year and “just adored it.”

“I’m so looking forward to this show. There’s a feel-good factor to it that people love.”

Jean-Luc Choplin, former director of the Chatelet, is the man credited with single-handedly bringing Broadway to the boulevards of Paris. Choplin, now 77, fell in love with Broadway in the 1970s after seeing a revival of Leonard Bernstein’s operetta “Candide” in New York. Wandering the city streets afterward, he found himself singing numbers from the show and vowed if he ever had the chance he would bring the genre to France.

That chance came when he was appointed to run the Chatelet in 2004. The theater was surviving — only just — on the glories of a past repertoire of opera and classical masterpieces that included ballet legends Vaslav Nijinsky and Anna Pavlova and Les Ballets Russes, and composers Debussy, Ravel, Tchaikovsky and Strauss. It couldn’t compete with Paris’ two bigger opera houses.

Choplin’s idea of staging musicals was not well received. The French press pointed out he had previously worked for Disney and accused Choplin of setting out to destroy the Chatelet’s reputation and, worse still, being a merchant of popular entertainment as opposed to culture.

“People were horrified, they told me, ‘You cannot do musicals,’” Choplin said.

More than a decade on, Choplin’s gamble has paid off.

The Chatelet has received rave reviews for its productions of “An American in Paris,” co-produced with Broadway, which won four Tony Awards in the U.S., as well as stagings of “My Fair Lady,” “Kiss Me Kate” and “The Sound of Music,” not to mention “West Side Story” and “Sweeney Todd,” among others. Before its current run, “Singing’ in the Rain” was staged in 2015 and 2016. And all are staged in English — with French surtitles.

Groups of French schoolchildren studying English and American culture, are regular visitors. English language teacher Marie-Helene Tarnawski , accompanying a group of 20 high school students to “Singin’ in the Rain,” said it was educational as well as fun.

“We’re studying American history and the Roaring ’20s and the moment, so Broadway and the musicals are all part of that. It’s a great way of helping us understand the Anglo-Saxon culture of the period,” Tarnawski said.

In the current show, the lead role of Don Lockwood, played by Gene Kelly in the Hollywood film, is played by English singer and dancer Dan Burton, who has described Kelly as his inspiration and idol. “He is manly and graceful and his dancing is effortless and mesmeric,” Burton told an entertainment blog.

The best-known and most magical scene in the musical, when the main character twirls his umbrella and tap dances through the puddles singing the title song, has come to epitomize the golden age of the American musical.

At the Grande Palais, Burton gave a faultless dance routine on a drenched stage while being soaked with water from sprinklers and a drainpipe, a performance which earned him rapturous applause and which Ruth Mackenzie, the British director who replaced Choplin at the Chatelet this year, declared worth every clap.

“Gene Kelly could do several takes on set. Dan has to dance on a wet stage, and get it right night after night,” Mackenzie said.

After the finale number, a reprise of the title song belted out by all the cast in yellow raincoats, gumboots and umbrellas, and accompanied by the Chamber Orchestra of Paris, the audience leaped up for a standing ovation.

On the way out, it was still drizzling, but a close look showed more than one theatergoer twiddling an umbrella, humming and skipping around a puddle.

Willsher is a special correspondent.



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