In 1959, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's "Gigi" had the rare distinction of being nominated for and winning nine Academy Awards including Best Picture, making it one of the most honored movie musicals in history. In 1973, Lerner adapted the piece for Broadway, but the lackluster production closed after just 103 performances. Lerner reworked the piece yet again for a West End production in 1985, but it, too, lacked the elegance and Gallic charm of the film.
A brand new, totally reconsidered Broadway-bound production opens at the Kennedy Center Jan. 16, directed by Eric Schaeffer and adapted by Heidi Thomas. "There's a clause in my contract which I've actually taped to the wall above my desk, and that is to capture the spirit of the movie," says Thomas, who grew up adoring the film. "That's quite an amorphous thing; it's kind of like carrying champagne in your hands. But that was my mantra."
Based on Colette's popular novella, Gigi takes place at the turn of the 20th century and tells the story of a young girl being groomed by her aunt and grandmother, former courtesans, to follow in their footsteps. But Gigi has other ideas about romance, love and marriage. The musical stars Vanessa Hudgens in the title role; Corey Cott as the bored playboy, Gaston Lachaille; Victoria Clark as Mamita; Dee Hoty as Aunt Alicia, and Howard McGillin as the aging and ageless Honore Lachaille.
The movie featured another major character: Paris. "It's one of the things about the film that's so transporting," says Thomas. "The two earlier stage productions took place almost entirely indoors, but I think we really have managed to put Paris onstage because we're not confining ourselves to interiors. Derek McLane has designed a very beautiful, fluid set inspired by the 1900 Paris Exposition. It's very Belle Époque." The show evolved over two and a half years and was periodically put before audiences along the way. Their feedback led to some major changes. "Lots of people felt very uncomfortable with Honore singing 'Thank Heaven for Little Girls' as the opening number," says Thomas. "They think of pedophilia; I was shocked at how deep seated that reaction was." The song remains in the show, but is sung at a later time by Alicia and Mamita as a reflection on their relationship with Gigi.
In the movie, the age gap between Gigi and Gaston is never specified, but it's roughly 20 years. In the book, Gigi is "nearly" 16. "At workshops, audiences were recoiling at this," says Thomas. "In our version, Gigi is a naïve 18-year-old and six years younger than Gaston, who was her childhood friend."
These modifications seem to change something very fundamental about the piece, but Thomas says she believes they have taken Gigi "further back" to Colette. "If there is a disconnect between a historic piece and the way it is received by a modern audience, it can go nowhere," she says. "I'm a big admirer of Colette, but in the novella Gigi's not even of legal age. You cannot put that story before a modern audience without gently recalibrating it. I think what we've done is reinforce what Colette most wanted of her heroine, which is for her to make an autonomous decision and be in charge of her own destiny. There's a wonderful line in the novel, where Alicia says to Mamita, 'Don't you think she has already gone beyond us?' And I very much kept that spirit. Gigi is someone who takes possession of her own destiny in a way that feels modern but also evokes Colette's perception of her own creation."