Paris Catches Sondheim Fever: Sunday in the Park With George Expected to Get Its French Premiere

By Mervyn Rothstein
28 Oct 2011

Jean-Luc Choplin
Jean-Luc Choplin
Photo by Denis Lacharme-Théâtre du Châtelet

Jean-Luc Choplin, the director of the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, said in an interview this week that he is planning a 2012-13 season that includes a production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Sunday in the Park With George, as part of his pioneering efforts to introduce the works of Sondheim, in English, to Parisian audiences.

A spokesperson for the company that has made English-language musicals popular in the City of Light clarified that there are discussions but no official announcement about producing the show — a fictionalized musical account of the creation of 19th-century impressionist painter Georges Seurat's masterpiece "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte." The 1984 Broadway musical won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Choplin, sitting in his office overlooking the Seine, said that he was also considering adding the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel to his schedule for the same season, following his successful 2009 production of The Sound of Music, which returns to the elaborate 2,500-seat theatre for a holiday run this December.

Sunday in the Park With George was a natural fit for his theatre, Choplin said, because it is set around Paris and deals with French painter Seurat. Its French premiere will be presented in English with French surtitles, as are all Châtelet productions of American musicals there.



A Sondheim musical had never been performed in Paris until 2010, when Choplin presented A Little Night Music, starring Leslie Caron and Greta Scacchi, for one week. The production was highly praised. Earlier this year he presented Sweeney Todd to equal acclaim.

"Stephen Sondheim was a name nobody knew in Paris — or maybe a couple of hundred people," Choplin said. "Maybe as a reference — he was the guy who wrote the lyrics for West Side Story. When I said I was going to present A Little Night Music, people thought, oh, it's a Mozart show."

A scene from Théâtre du Châtelet's Sound of Music.
photo by Marie-Noëlle Robert-Théâtre du Châtelet

All that has changed now, he said. "Now Sondheim has a reputation here. He has been such a success."

Choplin has been responsible for a flourishing of English-language American musical theatre in Paris since he took over direction of Châtelet in 2006 and started presenting full-scale productions with big casts and large orchestras. He said he fell in love with American musicals when he began traveling to New York City in 1972 and seeing them on Broadway.

His producing started with a production of Candide. Others have included West Side Story (a return of which, he said, is being planned for the 2012-13 season), My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music. An engagement of the classic Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein II musical Show Boat, presented in 2010 by the Cape Town Opera company of South Africa, was met with standing ovations.

Before Choplin's acclaimed productions of The Sound of Music and My Fair Lady, the classics had never been seen in their full original English-language versions in France.

The cliché has long been that Parisians are not interested in American musicals. That seems to be changing.

How was it persuading Parisians to come to see his shows? "It was very tough," Choplin said. But he is succeeding.

An official announcement about Théâtre du Châtelet's 2012-13 season is expected in spring 2012.

Act One of Sunday in the Park With George is set on a series of Sundays from 1884 to 1886 in a park on an island in the Seine just outside of Paris, and in George's studio. Act Two is set in an American art museum and on the island in 1984. The musical's libretto is by Lapine. Sondheim penned the music and lyrics.

For more about the Paris company, visit www.chatelet-theatre.com.

Merv Rothstein is a frequent contributor to Playbill magazine and Playbill.com. Read his recent Letter From Paris.