After Broadway-Bound American In Paris, Théâtre du Châtelet Flirts With Sondheim's Passion

By Mervyn Rothstein
October 22, 2013

Jean-Luc Choplin, director of the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, talks with Playbill.com about his upcoming production of the musical movie "An American in Paris" and the possibility of presenting Stephen Sondheim's Passion in Paris. 



PARIS – Jean-Luc Choplin may soon be crowned the French king of American musical theatre.

Choplin, the director of the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, has brought many American musicals to his Paris stage in recent years, with a focus on the work of Stephen Sondheim, all in English with French surtitles. Last week, it was announced that he is venturing to Broadway, with a first stop in Paris, by co-producing a new musical version of the Oscar-winning 1951 MGM movie "An American in Paris," with music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin.

And this week, sitting in his conference room near the Seine, Choplin said that he is thinking of presenting another Sondheim musical, the 1994 Tony Award-winning Passion, at Châtelet in the 2014-15 season.

"I am flirting with the idea of Passion," Choplin said. "It's such a great score — probably one of Sondheim's best, though they're all great. I will start a discussion with Sondheim about it. I already sent him a message. He is excited about the idea. It's just the beginning — but yes, it's in my plans for the 2014-15 season."

Châtelet has long had links with Broadway. It presented Show Boat in 1929, two years after its Broadway premiere. Under Choplin, its presentations of American musicals have included West Side Story, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, Candide, Carousel, Show Boat again and Sondheim's A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd and Sunday in the Park With George. This season it is offering the return, in December, of My Fair Lady, as well as new productions of Sondheim's Into the Woods in April, and Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I in June.

An American in Paris is to begin at Théâtre du Châtelet in November or December 2014, with a planned move to Broadway in spring 2015. The co-producers are the Pittsburg CLO (Van Kaplan), by special arrangement with Elephant Eye Theatrical (Stuart Oken, Michael Leavitt and Five Cent Productions), and the creative team includes a veritable list of Tony-winning Broadway all-stars. The director and choreographer is Christopher Wheeldon, making his Broadway directing debut; the libretto is by Tony nominee and Pulitzer Prize finalist Craig Lucas; sets and costumes are by Tony winner Bob Crowley; lighting by Tony winner Natasha Katz; sound by Tony winner Scott Lehrer; and the Tony-winning Bartlett Sher is artistic consultant. The score will be adapted and supervised by Rob Fisher, widely known for his work for the Encores! revival series of Broadway musicals at City Center.

Choplin and his co-producers have emphasized that the show will have "new ideas" to make it somewhat different from the movie. "The musical has to be the movie, but it has be at the same time more than a movie," Choplin said. "It's a star movie about stars and dance, but there is no theatre without a great story, and we are working on a great concept with Craig Lucas."

The story will be set in 1944-45, at the liberation of Paris by American and Allied troops, Choplin said. "We have to remember that in 2014 we are celebrating the 70th anniversary of the liberation," he said. "There will be big events in Paris. And this theatre is financed by the city of Paris. Independent, but really it's the music theatre of the city of Paris."

The characters, he said, "will have been through, for different reasons, difficult situations. The stories between the characters can be more developed than the story that we see in the film. The book part is going to be much stronger." But given that, he said, "romance is the key — the fun, the dance, all kinds of dance, jazz, tap, the classical ballet, for sure, are going to be the key elements of this project."

The film, which won six Academy Awards, including best picture, was set in post-World War II Paris and starred Gene Kelly as a former GI seeking success as a painter, and Leslie Caron as the French girl with whom he falls in love. Development of the musical starts later this month in New York; Dancers Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope have the workshop's lead roles, though Choplin emphasized that the parts for the Paris and New York runs have not been cast.

Choplin said that he had been thinking for more than a year about creating a new musical at Châtelet, after presenting revivals of classics since he was named director in 2006. He was attracted to "An American in Paris," he said, "because of the title," the iconic nature of the film "and because of the fantastic quality of the music, the universal sound of the music."

He contacted the estates of George and Ira Gershwin. "They have been absolutely fantastic. They said, 'There are a couple of American producers who are also seeking the rights. Why don't you guys meet and see if you can do it together?'"

In February 2012 in New York City, "It was cold outside. The temperature must have been -20 degrees Celsius. I remember losing my voice the day after, having spoken too long on the phone in the street. I met Stuart Oken and Van Kaplan. They told me that like me they had been working a year and a half, two years on the project. We had a long, long discussion about what would make us do it together, what would stop us — we have two different cultures — and basically I said the only way we could do it together would be if we agreed on the artistic team. I said we have to find the right director-choreographer, because the structure of the piece is that the story is being told with dance."

They agreed, and after a couple of months, Choplin said, "they said they wanted to work with Christopher Wheeldon. I said he was exactly the one I had in mind," in part because Wheeldon had done full-length ballets and excelled at storytelling and developing characters in dance.

Wheeldon, a former dancer with the New York City Ballet, created a ballet for City Ballet in 2005 set to George Gershwin's orchestral tone poem "An American in Paris." He also choreographed a full-length Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in 2011 for London's Royal Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada. His Cinderella, with a new book by Lucas, is being performed by the San Francisco Ballet this week at Lincoln Center.

Wheeldon's sole Broadway experience was choreographing the 2002 musical Sweet Smell of Success. He is to create a ballet sequence for the musical that is different from the movie's famed version.

The producers have declined to discuss the cost of the production, but Choplin said that his theatre's "financial responsibility is limited to the Châtelet run, and to provide the physical production for the Châtelet run. Then the production is going to be taken by Stuart and Van to Broadway." Châtelet, he said, "is not assuming any financial risk in taking the production to Broadway."

"It's our American dream," Choplin says, "to get such a production, and such big exposure in New York."