Breaking into song: How France is tapping its toes to American musicals

'American in Paris,' a musical adaptation of a 1951 film, has its official world premiere tonight in France before transferring to Broadway next spring. 

Charles Platiau/Reuters/File
General view of the auditorium of Chatelet Theater in Paris, February 22, 2013.

The French have long looked down on musical theater, a staple of American culture, dismissing it as corny, over-the-top, or simply “too American,” as one historian puts it.

But that’s started to change, with an opening in Paris tonight marking a key moment in the genre's trajectory: The French are finally starting to see – and like – it.

The new Broadway musical “American in Paris” has its official world premiere in the city of lights. And it’s got the art world abuzz: This is the first time the Oscar-winning 1951 film starring Gene Kelly as an American soldier in postwar Paris hopelessly in love with a French girl, has been adapted into a musical for the stage.

Theater director Jean-Luc Choplin is in large part to thank for the rise of musical theater here. Mr. Choplin, the director general of the Chatelet Theater, was behind the co-production of "American in Paris," which transfers to Broadway next spring. He says Paris can not only put on productions that rival those on Broadway or London's West End, but become a place to stage musical theater you can’t see anywhere else.

“It’s exactly what I said to Stephen Sondheim,” says Mr. Choplin, from his office at the 150-year-old Chatelet Theater that looks onto one of the prettiest stretches of the Seine.  “Why don’t you create your next musical here, rather than do it in the States.”

It’s a proposition that would have been unheard of ten years ago. Musicals were staged here from time to time, but they were usually second-rate shows that did little for the genre's reputation in France. And while shows like “Les Mis,” based on the novel "Les Miserables" by Victor Hugo, might be a French creation, the musical flopped in France. It was its adaptation into English for the London stage and Broadway that turned it into a quintessential musical.

During the intermission of a recent preview of "American In Paris", Domitille Vielle, a local lover of musicals, says she has always had to travel to New York or London to see a show, and says the genre still isn’t widely known here. “In Paris, people haven’t known the real musicals, like you can see on Broadway.” 

Mr. Choplin is on a mission to change all that. He took over the city theater eight years ago, and has made introducing top-rate musicals to French audiences a priority, from productions of "The Sound of Music" to "Sweeney Todd".  

“We like to put things in boxes. For us there is a difference between culture and entertainment,” says Choplin. That means a musical isn't seen as cultured, like the opera or ballet. Instead, it’s entertainment. “Now, they have to think what we are offering is culture.”

It’s still a hard sell. Patrick Niedo, a retired French dancer and author of “Stories of Musical Comedies,” says that musicals, to many French, are inherently jarring. “(The French) don’t like that someone is talking and then all of the sudden starts to sing. They think it’s too American,” he says. “Musicals stick to the way of thinking of Americans. You are more dreamers than we are, you like to have fun in different ways than we like to have fun." 

Still, he says "American In Paris", inspired by the music and lyrics of George and Ira Gershwin – “I got Rhythm” and “S’Wonderful” – shows how far France has come in accepting the genre.

First adaptation for the stage

The Paris production, which runs through early January, is sold out. Directed by acclaimed British choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, artistic associate at The Royal Ballet, it follows the film's storyline but adds new historic and cultural nuances. The setting takes the audience from the banks of the Seine, where the romance of the piece plays out, to the art world and cafe culture of postwar Paris.

Choplin says he was surprised when he learned "American In Paris" had never been adapted for the theater and saw a unique opportunity. He says he approached the Gershwin estate and found that two American producers had already had the same idea, which led to a transatlantic collaboration.

“For French people I believe the message is very positive, because something which is created first in France will go to Broadway,” he says. “It’s a successful France, a France that can be entrepreneurial.”

It’s also, he says, a tribute to a city that has long enchanted Americans, but whose mood has darkened recently with economic uncertainties.

“This show is an homage to Paris,” he says. 

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