How the French Invent American Musicals

Paris audiences have developed a taste for American musical comedy—in English! Now Théâtre du Châtelet is repackaging American movies and sending them to Broadway.

PARIS — Singin’ in the Rain is a classic American movie musical about that quintessential American industry: movie making. Released in 1952, starring Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds, it captured the singing, dancing, “that’s entertainment” essence of American escapism. And now, some 63 years later, it’s been revived on stage, in Paris, where appreciation for things made in the USA, or at least the French notion of them, is running very strong.

Indeed, for the past 10 years, the Théâtre du Châtelet, built more than 150 years ago in the heart of Paris, has been presenting American musical classics—in English—as stage productions for French audiences. And watching a Broadway-style musical at the Théâtre du Châtelet is quite an experience. It’s a little like going to the opera, but audiences swing in their seats and tap their feet.

The grand (some would say grandiose) theater, inaugurated under the reign of the Emperor Napoleon III, has a huge stage, elaborate sets and a full orchestra. Châtelet Director Jean-Luc Choplin says the the theater’s mission is to be “sophisticated and popular.”

The formula has worked. Elaborate shows prepared by world-class directors, choreographers, and artists, have been drawing in crowds since Choplin arrived in 2006.

But the focus on American, English-language productions was not, at first, an easy sell. When Choplin broached the idea 10 years ago he was told the shows would flop for sure.

He took that as a challenge. “When someone tells you something won’t work, you set out to prove them wrong, and you defend what you believe in,” Choplin told The Daily Beast. And so he did.

The first production was, rather slyly, Candide, which is Voltaire, of course, by way of Leonard Berstein. Choplin then went on to produce 13 more American Broadway musicals, including West Side Story, On the Town, A Little Night Music, My Fair Lady, The King and I, and Into the Woods—all to sold-out audiences.

What sets the Théâtre du Châtelet’s productions apart from many on Broadway, said Choplin, is their sheer size. Each original production is worthy of the world’s opera houses, with up to 50 musicians in the orchestra pit, dozens more on stage for the company numbers, and several dozen more backstage.

“We gave nobility to musical comedy, like an opera,” said Choplin. “There was a certain snobbishness toward ‘entertainment,’ but I knew that a show doesn’t have to be boring to be good. One can have beautiful music, a good story, a certain lightness, and be universal.”

Putting it another way, Choplin calls the shows “haute couture musical comedy.”

“It was a revolution,” he says. “We take the mainstream population seriously. We’re not going to serve them tacos, but smoked salmon and caviar.”

The crowning glory of Jean-Luc Choplin’s venture into American musicals (so far) was Christopher Wheeldon’s stage version of An American in Paris, adapted from the original 1951 Hollywood film, starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron, with vintage music by George Gershwin (“I Got Rhythm,” “Our Love Is Here to Stay”). The story takes place soon after World War II when a young America GI turned wannabe painter, living hand to mouth in Montmartre, meets a mysterious girl who, unbeknownst to him, is loved by his good friend.

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The stage version’s world premiere was at the Théâtre du Châtelet in November 2014, before it opened in April 2015 on Broadway, where it racked up four Tonys (including best choreography) and three Outer Critics Circle awards, including “outstanding new Broadway musical.”

And now comes Singin’ in the Rain, here in France, with bubbly advertising visible all over town on the fronts of city busses.

If An American in Paris was a caricature of the expat artist in a stylized Montmartre, the movie Singin’ in the Rain was a brilliant send-up of Hollywood energy, extravagance and incoherence: In the heyday of silent movies (the same period we saw recently in the 2011 Oscar winner The Artist) Lina Lamott is a glamorous movie star, but behind the scenes she is churlish and insecure. Her costar, Don Lockwood, who claims to have always lived with “dignity,” is also perpetrating a myth. One might say it’s a metaphor for the way the French sometimes view America: shiny on the surface, but deeply flawed if you peek beneath.

Years ago, in the 1980s, when I was a student teacher in Paris, the topic of poverty and food stamps in America came up during a class discussion. The high schoolers I was teaching did not believe that poverty existed in America. “But all Americans are rich,” one student insisted. My assurance to him, and the class, that this was not the case was met with skepticism.

And the mythical image of Americans seen by the French doesn’t stop at wealth. After all, we produced Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, John Wayne, Elvis, Chuck Berry, Gibson guitars, Harley-Davidsons, Hells Angels, and, yes, Jerry Lewis—all icons embraced, one way or the other, on this side of the Atlantic.

One French idol who has kept the American myth alive is the die-hard septuagenarian rocker Johnny Hallyday. He has been featured for years on the pages of the magazine Paris Match riding through the American West on his Harley. Now 72, Hallyday is still giving concerts and publishing autobiographies. His latest book, The Promised Land, is about, yes, his travels through the United States.

Meanwhile, the hard news that reaches France from America is often about violence, and what seems to the French to be political madness. The heroic Wild West image of America has morphed into the impression that every man, woman and child in the U.S. is toting a semi-automatic.

In fact, since World War II , the relationship between France and America has often been, “Je t’aime, moi non plus” (I love you, me neither). The French loved Americans for liberating them from the Nazis. But in the years that followed, America was the target of criticism for everything from rampant commercialism to invading Iraq.

A little like the fictional Lina Lamott in Singin’ in the Rain, we were supposed to be uncultured, ill-mannered, and have “no history,” because “400 years of history is equivalent to none.” (I have actually been told this by more than one French person.)

The Châtelet musicals produced over the last decade have been, not least, reminders to the French of how much energy and excitement are still associated with the United States, and over the last year, as the French and Americans have found themselves facing the common terrorist enemy, there’s been more than ever a willingness to embrace what may be real affinities, or, at least, comforting myths about each other.

Immediately following the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, people were afraid to go out. But it didn’t last. Most French and Parisians are giving the proverbial “bras d’honneur” (“Up yours”) to the terrorists, saying, “You won’t stop us from living, eating at cafés, and watching shows, in which our sole purpose is to enjoy music, laugh, and have fun.”

As it happened, rehearsals for Singin’ in the Rain were to start at the theater that same weekend of the attacks. They were delayed by a few days. Following the full dress rehearsal, just 10 days after the slaughter, the orchestra played “La Marseillaise” and the mostly English cast and audience sang together. It was not just defiance, people who were there told The Daily Beast, but community, solidarity, support for art, music, joy, love.

A retired French couple who had never been to the Théâtre du Châtelet, despite their many decades in Paris, went to Singin’ in the Rain early last month. Madame was a huge fan of the Hollywood movie, which she admitted to having watched multiple times. They loved the show, but Monsieur had what he thought was a more pressing question. “What do you think of your president?” he asked. U.S. President Barack Obama is far more popular in France (approval ratings in the 80 percent range) than he is in the U.S. (under 50 percent), and the French don’t understand why Americans don’t love him as they do.

But these sorts of misunderstandings can be met with a classic Gallic shrug. We have long since moved away from the abysmal days of slinging insults like “cheese eating surrender monkeys” and “hamburger eating imbeciles.” Americans know that French food is outstanding, and the French, these days, also love a good American burger. In point of fact, it’s hard to find a bistro or café in Paris now that doesn’t feature a gastronomic cheeseburger on its menu.

Our cultures are intertwined in so many ways. And since Nov. 13, with a little inspiration from an old movie turned into a new musical, the French have been “laughing at clouds, so dark up above.” They’re just singin’ in the rain.