The Broadway musical and iconic film, An American in Paris, is set in Paris during the tumultuous time following the German occupation of the city beginning, June 14, 1940. Paris held its breath as it sat occupied by the Nazi’s, bracing itself for what seemed to be imminent destruction, until the city was liberated by French and American troops on August 25, 1944. However, the end of the war did not end the hardships for the Parisians. Rationing of bread continued until February 1948, and coffee, cooking oil, sugar and rice were rationed until May 1949. Paris in the Post-WWII aftermath was set in harsh contrast to the indulgent and decadent times of the twenties, but it is the 1920’s era that inspired George Gershwin to compose the musical suite “An American in Paris,” after an extended visit to the city in 1928. Both of these juxtaposed moments in history would eventually merge to become the influence for the iconic Gene Kelly film, An American in Paris.
Following World War II, Paris still served as the artistic capital of the Western World; a beacon of light for painters, writers, musicians and visionaries. Parisians, refugees, and American troops came pouring into the city desperate to experience beauty, art and culture after a time marked with darkness and terror. From 1946, the capital’s population grew by 50,000 people per year, reaching a total of 2.85 million in 1954. Many veterans chose to remain in Paris after the war as a place to start anew after gaining a new perspective on life and unwilling to return to the status quo at home. The anti-bourgeois attitude guided the city which found itself situated in a time full of contradictions—liberated yet burdened, timeless yet modern, bohemian yet refined.
Post-WWII served as an important turning point for many artistic ideals including: Existentialism, New Journalism, Bebop, and French feminism. Due to the cramped and dismal living conditions, artists often met in local cafés which led to a rich atmosphere of ideas and creativity being shared. Most notably, small New Orleans-style jazz clubs began creeping up in underground cellars where American blues was given a distinctly Parisian sound. All of the rich cultural, artistic and historical changes of the time became the perfect backdrop and inspiration for the film, and most recently the Broadway musical. While the show’s storyline is captivating, it would pale in comparison without the sweeping drama, beauty and mystery of the City of Lights.
Ira and George Gershwin were catalysts for the Jazz Age, and until George’s unexpected death in 1937, the brothers’ music and lyrics proliferated both Broadway and Hollywood. M-G-M Studios acquired the film rights to late composer George Gershwin's musical suite "An American in Paris" and also contracted with his brother and lyricist Ira for rights to use their songs in the film. Additionally the studio hired Ira Gershwin to write new lyrics for certain unpublished George Gershwin music for the film and hired Alan Jay Lerner to write the script. The music strives to capture the sights, sound and energy of the city as originally experienced by George Gershwin and transports the listener to the quaint cobblestone streets and Bohemian cafés sprinkled in the Lower Montemartre. The film swept the box offices and seized audiences’ hearts. In addition to beautiful cinematography and set design, what set the film apart at the time was the 17-minute ballet scene, choreographed by legendary Gene Kelly. Incorporating a complicated dance routine into a feature film broke cinematic ground and was lauded with audience and critical praise.
Inspired by the iconic film, a musical was created with a new book by Craig Lucas. The musical premiered December 10, 2014 fittingly at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, France. Realizing the captivating music and storyline, the show came to the United States and ran on Broadway from April 2015 through October 2016, amassing four Tony Awards and a Grammy Award. The imagery and emotional embodiment of Paris captured by the Gershwin’s continue to permeate modern-day film, novels and music and the era will forever be the epitome of romance and hope.
The Ogunquit Playhouse is delighted and honored to be the first regional theatre in the United States to produce this new musical. While remaining true to the original vision, Jeffry Denman, Director and Choreographer, has put his own distinctive touch on the show by combining traditional ballet with energetic tap dancing to create a fresh new look and feel to the timeless classic.