Winner of six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, the 1951 MGM musical “An American in Paris” will always rank among cinema classics. Indelible images of its stars, Leslie Caron and Gene Kelly, still evoke strong memories. The concluding 17-minute ballet sequence, performed to the evocative sounds of the George Gershwin orchestral piece that gave the film its title, will always impress.
In December 2014, a re-imagined version of “An American in Paris” was unveiled — appropriately enough — in the French capital, this time as a stage vehicle. The show’s sold-out Parisian run was followed in April 2015 with a well-received Broadway production, which generated a national touring production that arrives this week in Baltimore.
Helping to fashion the vintage film into a stage musical was Craig Lucas, who wrote the book for the widely admired movie-based 2005 musical “The Light in the Piazza” and earned a Tony Award nomination. His book for “An American in Paris” earned him another.
After some producers suggested the idea of turning the 1951 film into a stage musical, Lucas didn’t immediately agree to write the book. He wanted to take a fresh, close look at the original first.
“It’s a strange movie,” he says. “It’s a rather light-hearted story set in [post-World War II] France about a young woman, Lise, who was in hiding during the war, but you don’t know why. She’s in a relationship with a very wealthy man, but he’s not the right man for her. Instead, the right man is an American GI, who stayed in Paris instead of going home to family after the war — and that’s weird.”
Lucas, whose long list of writing credits includes the popular 1988 play (and subsequent film) “Prelude to a Kiss,” the affecting 1990 film “Longtime Companion” and the libretto for Nico Muhly’s provocative 2011 opera “Two Boys,” became intrigued by what wasn’t in the celluloid “An American in Paris.”
“I wanted to dig into why these characters do what they do,” Lucas says. “Between the lines of the movie, there’s a three-dimensional story with historical muscle.”
To build up that muscle, the writer decided to push back the time-setting. In the movie, the war has been over for several years.
“Our show is set directly after the war,” says Allison Walsh, who stars as Lise (pronounced “leez”). “The first image you see is a Nazi flag being taken down. The movie is a little detached from all of that. Craig Lucas and [director/choreographer] Christopher Wheeldon wanted to really show Paris starting to come alive again.”
By making that moment of liberation the starting point, this version of “An American in Paris,” Lucas says, “goes from darkness to light.” And the historical context of a country shedding the weight of Nazi occupation adds an extra dynamic to the romance at the heart of the plot.
“These characters have seen their friends die,” says Walsh, who originally hails from Bethesda and got her first professional dance experience with the Washington Ballet. “And now they want to embrace life and love. Three men fall in love with my character.”
In addition to the GI named Jerry, who aspires to be a painter, there’s fellow war veteran Adam, a musician. Completing the trio of men in Lise’s orbit is the well-off Frenchman Henri, who wants to be an entertainer.
“Lise is a muse to these artists,” Walsh says. “And she’s an artist herself, a dancer. She has something of that Parisian je ne sais quoi about her, a combination of elegance and coyness. [Jerry] has a freshness and candor, this American energy, something she has never experienced.”
Lucas fills in details about the lives of Lise (“She was in hiding because she was Jewish”) and Henri (“I see him as a closeted gay man; he’s the last to find out, like most closeted people”).
But for all of the plot’s complications, “An American in Paris” on the stage remains, as it was on the screen — a vehicle for fusing lots of dance to Gershwin’s music. In addition to the title number, the score includes some other orchestral works by the composer, along with several songs.
“I had wanted to do a project with [Wheeldon], to work with a great choreographer on a project,” Lucas says, “where dance wasn’t just the icing on the cake, not just kick up your heels a little bit and call it a day.”
To go with Wheeldon’s dynamic, Tony-winning choreography (“Even inanimate objects dance in this show,” Walsh says), veteran Broadway designer Bob Crowley crafted vivid costumes and Tony-winning sets.
Walsh witnessed all of these features from development to fruition. She participated in the initial New York workshop, the Paris premiere and the Broadway production, where she was an alternate performer in the role of Lise.
“In the beginning, you could see it was such an unusual show,” Walsh says, “an amalgam of two worlds — ballet and musical theater, high art and sheer entertainment. It was a frantic process. We were scared to perform it in Paris for an audience that loved the movie and loved Leslie Caron and Gene Kelly. But they embraced our show wholeheartedly.”
Just a few eventful years since that Paris premiere, the musical, with its reminders of Nazis and threats, may strike stronger chords. Lucas, for one, hears them.
“The world always has these terrible slides into reactionary horror,” he says. “It’s exactly like 1933 now. Fascism is the enemy of life.”
Walsh sees a message in “An American in Paris” as freshly potent.
“One of the characters,” she says, “has a line: ‘If you can make the world a better place, why would you withhold that?’ The world right now is so dark. But we still have to find what is precious and worth fighting for.”
If you go
"An American in Paris" opens May 1 and runs through May 6 at the Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St. Tickets are $42 to $199. Call 800-982-2787, or go to ticketmaster.com.