Passion for American Musicals Is Strong in Paris; Sondheim, Lapine, Weill, Bernstein, Rodgers & Hammerstein Embraced
By Mervyn Rothstein
Jean-Luc Choplin, the director of the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, is continuing his love affair with the American musical — and, he says, Parisians are now having their own affaire de coeur with our theatrical trademark.
This season he is presenting four American musicals — all in English, with French surtitles, culminating with the Paris premiere of composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim and librettist James Lapine's Sunday in the Park With George, starring Julian Ovenden as 19th-century French Impressionist painter Georges Seurat. Choplin says that Sunday in the Park will have new orchestrations for a 46-piece orchestra by Michael Starobin, the musical's original orchestrator, and that Sondheim himself is to attend opening night in April.
Beginning Jan. 25, Châtelet will present The Opera Group/Young Vic co-production of Kurt Weill, Elmer Rice and Langston Hughes' 1947 Broadway opera, Street Scene.
Next season, Choplin is planning to present Into the Woods, Sondheim and James Lapine's 1988 adult take on fairy tales, and a revival for Christmas of Châtelet's 2010 production of My Fair Lady. He is also contemplating offering Carmen Jones, the 1943 Broadway musical based on the Georges Bizet opera Carmen and transplanted to an African-American, World War II-era setting using Bizet's music with book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II.
"We have done the classics, and at the same time we are doing Stephen Sondheim, a living and breathing composer," Choplin says from Paris, where his office on the Right Bank overlooks the Seine. "It's amazing for us to see that so many people are discovering that this music is phenomenal, fantastic, sophisticated. It's like suddenly opening a large window on a new world."
Sunday in the Park, starring Ovenden, the English stage, film and TV performer who appeared Off Broadway in 2011 in the musical version of Death Takes a Holiday, will play the ornate 2,500-seat theatre April 15-25. The Sondheim musical marks the next chapter in Choplin's successful effort to bring the composer's work to French audiences. It is a fictionalized account of the creation of Seurat's masterpiece "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte." The 1984 Broadway musical won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Parisians, Choplin says, "have discovered Stephen Sondheim as one of the last giants of the Broadway scene." And "this is almost like a new creation, with new orchestrations being made for a large orchestra."
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. In 2011, he presented Sweeney Todd to equal acclaim.
"There's big excitement in town about Sunday in the Park With George," Choplin says. "There's a buzz about having another Stephen Sondheim piece here." The Seurat painting, he says, "is very, very famous in France. It's a masterpiece which Paris is sadly missing. We're very happy it is well kept in [the Art Institute of] Chicago, but the Musée d'Orsay in Paris would do anything to get the painting one day for an exhibition. There is an excitement about Seurat, an excitement after the success of A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd."
Sunday in the Park will be preceded by Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1945 classic, Carousel, March 18-27; Street Scene, in addition to Jan. 25, plays Jan. 27, 29 and 31.
Weill called Street Scene his "American opera." It's set on a New York tenement street and based on the 1929 Elmer Rice Pulitzer Prize-winning play. "It's a musical, but at the same time it's Kurt Weill," Choplin said. "Weill is not very often performed here in Paris. The only piece very famous is The Threepenny Opera, which he did with Bertolt Brecht. But we have already sold most of the tickets, so we are very happy with the reaction of our public with a new piece."
When it comes to the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, "here in Paris, there is no idea of what Carousel is," Choplin says. "People now are trusting Châtelet," which has twice presented Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music (in 2009 and 2011). "They are looking at Carousel because we are saying it is one of the best musicals ever, and we already have very good sales. It's not at all a piece known, like West Side Story or Sound of Music or My Fair Lady. It's a very well kept secret."
This past fall, Choplin brought back West Side Story to Châtelet, where it had been a hit in 2007. "It was really a triumph," Choplin said. "We sold out 87 performances" between Oct. 24 and Jan. 1.
"It was a phenomenon," he adds. "Thousands of people were trying to get tickets and we could not provide them."
Choplin took over direction of Châtelet in 2006 and started presenting full-scale productions with big casts and large orchestras. He has 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 Candide, 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 productions of The Sound of Music and My Fair Lady, the classics had never been seen in France in their full original English-language versions.
When it comes to next season, Choplin says, he hasn't decided yet about Carmen Jones. He is "studying the possibility" because "it would be interesting to do Carmen in a jazzy English version in Paris."
Into the Woods is, he says, also a "family show — and we will continue to develop our relationship with this great artist."
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