By Alison Baumgartner
Playful, and imbued with a little bit of la vie bohème, An American in Paris is a classic tale of romance and adventure. The story follows Jerry, a veteran of World War II looking for a fresh start in post-war Paris as it starts to rebuild itself. When he meets a French shop girl named Lise, he falls in love—only to find that she has two other suitors.
Though the show takes place in the mid-1940s, An American in Paris came to life through a song created nearly two decades before Jerry stepped foot in Paris. Written in 1928, Gershwin explored Paris through the eyes of an American, conjuring up markets and noises of the street by combining the style of French composers like Debussy with elements of American blues and jazz.
23 years later in 1951, this song became the basis for one of the best-loved musical films in America. While George Gershwin died in 1937, his brother Ira was insistent on protecting his brother’s legacy. When the musical was created, Ira insisted other Gerswhin songs be included, making An American in Paris essentially one of the first-ever jukebox musicals, featuring Gerswhin favorites like “I Got Rhythm” and “S’wonderful.”
Combined with the screenwriting skills of a very young Alan Jay Lerner (Gigi, My Fair Lady), the movie went on to win six Academy Awards. The 20-minute ballet sequence by Gene Kelley using Gershwin’s 1928 composition, where Jerry and Lise wander Paris as seen by different artists like Monet and Toulouse, is still cited as one of the most beautiful sequences in cinema.
Despite the romanticism of An American in Paris, the movie itself was plagued with many of the same problems that the post-war Paris setting could bring. Leslie Caron, who played Lise, was only able to film every other day as she was still recovering from severe malnutrition. Even gripped with the realities of post-war France, however, the film is unapologetically optimistic, which is perhaps why it has stayed in the American consciousness for so long.
There were attempts to revive the show on stage, but none were as successful as in 2014. Originally premiering at Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, starring New York City Ballet principal dancer Robert Fairchild and British Royal Ballet star Leanne Cope, the show had a limited two-month run before landing on Broadway to critical success.
Using stunning choreography and vivid imagery that mimicked classic Parisian artists, An American in Paris was a smash hit in New York. It went on to receive 12 Tony nominations and was also nominated for 12 Drama Desk Awards and a Grammy.
Among its four Tony wins, An American in Paris stayed true to its roots by winning Best Choreography. While that was a prize in itself, the musical also went home with the coveted Best New Musical from the Outer Critics Circle Awards.
For over 90 years, An American in Paris has been a musical favorite. Come experience the S’wonderful National Broadway Tour January 23-25 at The Lincoln Center. Seats from $20 at LCtix.com.