The Evolution of Gigi and the Dawn of the Modern Woman

News   The Evolution of Gigi and the Dawn of the Modern Woman
 
Her name is actually Gilberte, but she is known around the world by her sobriquet, “Gigi.”

Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette
Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette

What is there about her tawdry/romantic story—an underage girl being trained as a high-class courtesan, whose life is redeemed and legitimized by a bourgeois marriage to a rich playboy—that has sustained her through a novel, a film, a stage play, an Oscar-winning über-glamorous musical film (the form in which most people know the story), a Broadway musical…and, coming this spring, a full Broadway musical revival with a revised book?

Gigi was born in the mind of French writer Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (1873-1954), one of the most complex writers of the 20th century, and first appeared in an eponymous novella written during the Nazi occupation of Paris, and published in 1944. But the story draws on her life in the demimonde of Belle Époque Paris four decades earlier, when she was married and treated as virtual property by her husband, Henry Gauthier-Villars, who put his own name on her early literary works.

There were few career options open to women of her station, short of being a wife or being, as it was euphemistically called, a “concubine.” Colette (the single pen name she adopted once she freed herself from Gauthier-Villars and struck out on her own) observed closely the strategems these high-society “kept women” to find as high-status a “keeper” as she could.

The original Gigi tells the story of a long-legged and beautiful 15-year-old who is being groomed for the life of a concubine by her grandmother, Mme. Alvarez, and her “Aunt” Alicia, who were courtesans before her, Aunt Alicia much more successfully.

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The target of their campaign is the wealthy man-about-town Gaston Lachaille, a friend of the family who has brought Gigi caramels and licorice since she was a little girl, and retreats to their home to escape the social whirl (and his mistresses) to play cards and relax with Gigi. He believes it is the one place where no one wants anything from him. For her part, Gigi treats him like one of her playmates and resists the older women nudging her to eat and dress and speak and adorn herself “properly” for her future role in the world. But Gigi is becoming a woman, and Gaston begins to notice her. The older women begin to notice his interest, and everyone seems aware of what’s changing–except Gigi.

The original Colette novelette ends with a dramatic scene. Gaston tells Gigi he loves her and wants her as his mistress. Gigi responds by flying into a rage, calling Gaston “a terrible man” because he would condemn the woman he loves to a life of “horrible adventures, ending in separations, quarrels…revolvers and laudanum [drug abuse].” Affronted and embarrassed, Gaston walks out.

Louis Jourdan and Leslie Caron
Louis Jourdan and Leslie Caron

Mme. Alvarez is aghast that the girl seems to be throwing away the chance to land a loaded keeper, but the more experienced Aunt Alicia holds her back, saying, in one translation, “Leave well alone. Don’t meddle any more. Can’t you see she [Gigi] is far beyond us?”

Sure enough, Gaston returns, gets down on his knees and begs Gigi to be, not his mistress, but his wife.

In the celebrated film musical this scene, performed by Louis Jourdan as Gaston and Leslie Caron as Gigi, is presented as a romantic transformation. In the novel, the implication is that Gigi, far from being a childish fool, has all along been the master game player of them all.

The story sounds like something out of a misogynistic male fantasy, but the “Gigi” tale has proven fascinating to women. It was created by one woman, was directed on film by another (Jacqueline Audrey) and then adapted to the stage by a third, Anita Loos (who also created the character Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes). The new Broadway version is getting a revised libretto by Heidi Thomas, scriptwriter of the hit British series “Call the Midwife.”

Because of its tricky subject matter, the “Gigi” story has also evolved with each incarnation. The short non-musical 1948 French film version (starring Danièle Delorme and Gaby Morlay) aged Gigi to 16. That age was retained for the 1951 Broadway play version that introduced (and immediately made a star of) Audrey Hepburn. Playwright Anita Loos translated Alicia’s fateful comment as “Let the child go! Can’t you see she has a method to her madness?”

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The French film also introduced a new character, Gaston’s father Honoré, who had kept Aunt Alicia as his mistress many years before. A tiny role in the film, and non-existent in the 1951 Broadway play, the role was enormously expanded by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe for their 1958 film musical, as a vehicle for Maurice Chevalier, who narrates the story and sings standards “Thank Heaven for Little Girls," “I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore” and half of “I Remember It Well,” the latter based on lyrics Lerner had written a decade earlier for the failed musical Love Life.

Lerner and Loewe wanted Audrey Hepburn to recreate her role in their film, but settled on Leslie Caron. Hepburn would later snatch Lerner & Loewe’s Eliza Doolittle away from Julie Andrews when they made the film of the team’s My Fair Lady, and the two films look a great deal alike, both being variations on the Cinderella story about young women who are transformed and make dramatic entrances in beautiful dresses.

As with My Fair Lady, Lerner & Loewe changed the ending to make it more romantic. Now, when Gigi tosses Gaston out of her home, we go with him and see him undergo an epiphany, singing the title song and realizing his love for her is true. He returns to her and proposes marriage. The “She is far beyond us” scene is gone, along with any implication that Gigi may have been playing any kind of cynical game. It’s just about the awakening of true love.

Vanessa Hudgens in rehearsal for the upcoming revival
Vanessa Hudgens in rehearsal for the upcoming revival Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Directed by Vincente Minnelli for the legendary Arthur Freed unit of MGM and sumptuously designed by Cecil Beaton, the movie was rapturously received as the final word in elegance (overlooking the fact that Gigi was still underage), and won nine Oscars including Best Picture. Film historians consider it the last of the big musicals of Hollywood’s golden age.

Lerner & Loewe wrote one more musical after Gigi, 1960’s Camelot, which had a cataclysmic tryout that nearly killed the creative team (director Moss Hart died of a heart attack the year after it opened). Composer Frederick Loewe merely retired from songwriting, breaking up one of the most successful songwriting teams of the mid 20th century. Lerner, however, was not ready to hang up his hat. He tried teaming with Richard Rodgers and Burton Lane on various projects. But in the early 1970s Lerner enticed Loewe out of retirement for two projects, the 1974 film musical The Little Prince, which was a failure despite an all-star cast, and a 1973 stage adaptation of Gigi, which had a mixed response and ran just three months.

The Broadway version starred Karin Wolfe as Gigi, Daniel Massey as Gaston, Agnes Moorehead as Aunt Alicia and Alfred Drake as Honoré (Drake’s final Broadway musical appearance). In adapting his own screenplay to the stage, Lerner added four songs and a ballet, but it didn’t help. Stephen Holden of The New York Times called the production “mechanical” in its rote recreation of the film

Perhaps for that reason, producers of the 2015 Broadway revival (which will try out in Washington, DC), brought in Heidi Thomas (BBC/PBS’s “Call the Midwife”) to write a completely new adaptation, which will be directed by Eric Schaeffer (Follies) and choreographed by Emmy Award winner Joshua Bergasse (TV’s “Smash” and the 2014 revival of On the Town).

Thomas said she is making several key changes in the story. For one thing, Gigi is no longer 15; she’s been aged to a more acceptable 18. “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” a song perceived as sexualizing young girls by the elderly Honoré, has been given to Mme. Alvarez and Aunt Alicia. The show opens with a new number, “Paris Is Paris Again,” which sets the scene better. Thomas told Entertainment Weekly that she is also restoring Gigi (played by Vanessa Hudgens) to the heart of the story. “Nowadays, a girl with Gigi’s intelligence and wit and perspicacity and energy probably would make a very good career for herself in some sort of business,” Thomas told EW. “She just has this wonderful verve. Her mentors perceive that as being desirable for her, but she actually doesn’t want to be the commodity. When she ultimately chooses love and marriage, it’s not [an] anti-feminist thing—it’s a very feminist thing for me because she is doing what’s right and what’s comfortable for her in the face of what everybody around her wants. I seize that as evidence of the dawning of a modern woman.”

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