A new adaptation of An American in Paris, the great MGM musical starring Gene Kelly and featuring the songs of the Gershwin Brothers, has opened at the Dominion Theatre in London’s West End. The film version, directed by Vincente Minnelli in 1951, was the most ambitious of the MGM movie musicals, and the nearest the studio ever came to producing high art.
The film’s greatest strength is the contrast between the ‘real’ scenes in Paris, where characters perform spontaneous, compact musical numbers on the street, and the Technicolor fantasies inside the characters’ heads. The movie is inconsistent, but it does climax with an extraordinary ballet – a freewheeling, impressionistic, beautiful sequence that takes place entirely in the imagination of Gene Kelly’s character, Jerry. Its endless sets, dream logic, sensational choreography and sheer length (17 minutes) make it the most formally brilliant sequence in any MGM musical.
The new stage version does away with all that. It has a puzzling new book written by Craig Lucas. It keeps the Gershwin numbers but it has a completely different story and characters who are barely comparable to their movie counterparts. At least it’s still set in Paris, I suppose, and there’s an American in it.
The book seems to have been written deliberately to evoke the corniness of Golden Age musical comedies: the silly plot devices, the shallow romances, the cheesy lead-ins to songs, etc. We’re meant to laugh, because that’s how musicals used to be! Only, the original movie wasn’t like this. Where that marvellous film strove for modernity, this new adaptation is aggressively old-fashioned and knowingly clichéd in a way the film never was.
It starts similarly enough. Jerry Mulligan is a former soldier and aspiring artist. He’s friends with Adam, a fellow American who plays piano. Adam is friends with a French cabaret singer named Henri, who’s in a relationship with a girl named Lise. What follows from this familiar outline, however, are trite plots that didn’t feature in the original film, a smattering of ‘idiot plots’, and the most clichéd kind of backstage musical.