He has been called the “Châtelet Enchanter.”
For a decade, as director of the Théâtre du Châtelet in the heart of Paris, Jean-Luc Choplin made the American musical increasingly popular in the City of Light, a venue that until his arrival had not been known for its embrace of the genre.
Now the 67-year-old Choplin has left Châtelet (which is closed for renovations) and become the first artistic director of the Seine Musicale, a large new theatre complex on the 'Île Seguin, an island in the Seine by Boulogne-Billancourt, a suburb just beyond the western end of Paris easily reached by the Paris Métro subway. And he intends to continue imbuing his fellow Parisians with his love of the American musical theatre tradition—first with a revival of one of Broadway’s greats, West Side Story.
“Every five years, for a new generation, we have to bring back West Side Story,” says Choplin, whose official title is chairman of the Seine Musicale programming committee. “It’s a production I did twice at Châtelet, with great success. The last time was in 2012, so I thought it was time again. It’s also a preliminary to next year’s celebration of the 100th anniversary of its composer Leonard Bernstein’s birth.” It’s also the 60th anniversary of the show's original Broadway opening, in 1957. The musical will be seen October 12 to November 12.
Choplin, who also co-produced the Tony-winning musical An American in Paris on Broadway, says that his motto has always been “popular and sophisticated. That’s what I did at Châtelet, and that’s the concept we want to develop on this music island, with big, major projects. West Side Story is something that is difficult to classify. It’s a piece which is classical, with great, extraordinary music, and at the same time it reaches everybody. It’s what I call popular and sophisticated—or sophisticated and popular.”
It’s the third time Choplin has presented West Side Story—the first time was at Châtelet in 2007. The show—music by Bernstein, book by Arthur Laurents and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, his first Broadway credit—is directed and choreographed (reproducing Jerome Robbins’ original) by Joey McKneely, a Robbins protégé. The production, presented in English, with French surtitles, is the same as the 2007 and 2012 ones, but with a new cast, and is on a world tour.
This is just the beginning of Choplin’s goals for the new theatre, which itself is the opening salvo of a plan to transform the island—home to tanneries and dance halls in the 19th century and then, from 1929 to 1992, a giant Renault automobile factory—into an island of culture, “a completely cultural destination,” Choplin says, including venues for art.
Does he hope to do at Seine Musicale exactly what he did at Châtelet—make it at least in part a showcase of the American musical, old and new? “Yes sir,” he says. “Absolutely.”
At Châtelet, he presented the first Parisian production ever of a musical for which Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics: A Little Night Music, in 2010, starring Leslie Caron and Greta Scacchi. It received much acclaim and was followed the next year by Sweeney Todd, and then by Sunday in the Park With George, Into the Woods, and Passion. There was a new musical version of the hit 1952 movie Singing in the Rain—which is being reprised this season at Paris’ Grand Palais, beginning November 28. And then there was the Châtelet production of An American in Paris, which moved on to Broadway in 2015 and won four Tony Awards.
Other American musicals Choplin offered at Châtelet include My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, Kiss Me Kate, Carousel, Street Scene, Show Boat, Candide, 42nd Street—and West Side Story.
“My name is a kind of trademark for this,” Choplin says. “I have to continue trying to think of what I can do. I’m waiting a little bit to make a decision about exactly what. I have to see how West Side Story is going to work. I have particular musicals in mind, but I don’t want to announce them yet because I want to be able to test the waters with West Side Story. But I want to continue developing and bringing new versions of famous classic musicals, and also new creations, like we did with An American in Paris.”
Advance ticket sales for West Side Story have been very good, he says. “It’s amazing how you can attract an audience to a new place. This is different. It’s not in the center of Paris, like going to Châtelet, which is the best possible location. You have to go west, to the outskirts. And it’s also going to be interesting to see the kind of audiences we’re attracting, to see their reaction. This is a different kind of space.
“I was happy that when we had the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre, an American company, this summer, the public came. It’s a very good sign of what we’re going to be able to do in this new space.”
The Seine Musicale consists of two theatres: a 1,200-seat concert hall that is home to a classical music orchestra and a children’s choir, and the main hall, which seats 4,000 but will be configured to hold 2,500 for West Side Story. Seine Musicale will feature much more than musical theatre—the main hall opened on April 21 with a concert by Bob Dylan, and Choplin has said the complex will present all music, from Baroque to rock.
The 170 million euro (about $204 million these days) ultramodern complex was designed by the Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, winner of the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize, and the French architect Jean de Gastines. Visitors come to the 'Île Seguin just to see the structure, Choplin says. “It’s iconic. It looks like a spaceship. Everybody wants to visit. It’s wonderful to take something as classic as West Side Story and link it with this good place.”