From Montmartre to Midtown: Encores! Presents Irma La Douce, the Original Hipster Musical

By Jack Viertel
09 May 2014

Jennifer Bowles and Rob McClure
Photo by Joan Marcus

Monnot's career with Piaf having effectively ended, she decided to try her hand at a book musical that still had one foot in the world of cabaret, and Irma La Douce was the result. The show's semi-enduring standard, "Our Language of Love" could easily have been a hit for Piaf had the two remained collaborators — and the entire score is easily recognizable as the product Monnot's particular way with an existential French head-toss. (In the 1963 Hollywood movie of the show, which starred Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, the entire score was tossed out — the movie has no songs, only underscoring provided by Andre Previn).

Despite its hipster profile, the show itself — seen today — is basically an antic French farce re-tooled for the Gauloise and beret set, an intimate jape. But on Broadway, it created a sensation. There was nothing really dangerous or revolutionary about it — it just felt adult, while telling a story that was preposterous enough that it might have originated as a somewhat stoned Off-Broadway sketch. It gave audiences a chance to witness something they didn't see every day — the comically reimagined world of sex-for-pay in Paris, where men and women seemed to know something that had long-eluded Eisenhower's America. In this, it shared its success and worldview with the film "Never On Sunday," which opened in the U.S. two days after Irma, and also featured an exotic musical theme that was considered the height of European sophistication.

The producer David Merrick moved Irma La Douce from the West End more or less intact, including the two English leads, Elizabeth Seal and Keith Michell. Seal took the town by storm, and took the Tony that year for best leading actress in a musical, besting Julie Andrews, Carol Channing and Nancy Walker.

The American production featured a few improvements from London, including a new overture orchestrated by the great Robert "Red" Ginzler (who had orchestrated the Gypsy overture with Sid Ramin), and new dances by Onna White, necessitating new dance music, which was written and arranged by a young John Kander.

The new dances were also orchestrated by Ginzler, who took no mercy on the percussionist in the small, café-style band that played Irma's score, complete with an accordion for Parisian color. We have been faithful to the original instrumentation of the piece, giving several sections of the Encores! Orchestra a little time off after the herculean challenge of The Most Happy Fella.

Irma La Douce marks the first time that Encores! has presented a musical that didn't originate on American soil, but it seemed like the time was right. After two decades of fealty to shows that were written directly for Broadway, we felt entitled to look across the water, where writers and directors have, for a century and more, been turning out shows both in tribute, and in answer to, what Broadway originally created. It's unlikely to become a habit for Encores!. But, as Irma preaches, it's a good thing to break the rules once in a while and see what transpires.

Jack Viertel is artistic director of Encores!.

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