The Oscar and Tony-winning book writer reunites with composer-lyricist Brown, with whom he wrote Parade almost 20 years ago, to work on My Paris, a new musical chronicling the life of legendary French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Directed and choreographed by Tony winner Kathleen Marshall, the production is now in previews and will officially open May 11 at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre.
My Paris has been in development for about six years. It began with iconic French singer Charles Aznavour, who had written an earlier theatrical piece about the life of Toulouse-Lautrec. Often described as the Frank Sinatra of France, Aznavour was introduced to Uhry, and along with Marshall as director, they began working on a new version of the show: My Paris. Producers were in need of a lyricist to translate Aznavour’s lyrics from French to English, and Uhry suggested Brown for the job.
It was a long overdue reunion. The two, who were introduced by Harold Prince in the 1990s, had not had a chance to work on a new musical together since Parade. “Jason is very dear to me; he’s younger than my children, but we’re very close,” says Uhry. “He’s a very talented man and exciting to work with.”
Developing My Paris, which received a debut production at Goodspeed in 2015, has been unlike their previous collaborations. “It’s not like a normal collaboration because we’re not in the room together,” says Uhry. The theatre vet explains the order of operations: Once he wrote a scene, he liaised with Aznavour, who is based in France. The composer then sent over his music and lyrics (to match the scenes) in French. Brown, the third piece of the puzzle, worked with a trusted translator in the U.S. to re-write those lyrics in English.
“What he’s doing is very hard because he gets these stiff word-to-word French translations which don’t really mirror the French language,” says Uhry of Brown’s task. “[But he] turns them into English lyrics that go with the wonderful music Charles has written… He’s really good at it, so I’m lucky.” Uhry says that because Aznavour was still developing new songs during rehearsals, Brown had to work around the clock to get the translated material to the team. “I’ve never worked in this roundabout way; it’s interesting,” Uhry says.
One of the main things that drew Uhry to the project was a fascination with Parisian artists of the late 19th century, also known as the Belle Époque. Toulouse-Lautrec’s work is iconic of this period, depicting the elegance, eroticism and decadence of the era. “My mother was not an artist, but she was an art lover and she loved the Impressionists,” he says. “They had a lot of art books when I was a little boy, and I was particularly drawn to Toulouse-Lautrec because of his rather dramatic life.” The painter, played by Tony nominee Bobby Steggert in My Paris, stood at barely five feet tall and was the son of first cousins from royal lineage.
Uhry says that the music in the show is distinctly of that era, marked by the signature sounds of accordions and romantic string instruments. The playwright has visited Paris numerous times himself and admits that like most people, he finds it breathtaking. “It’s like a drug to be in Paris!” he exclaims. “You just walk around and think how beautiful it is all the time.” Uhry also had the opportunity to visit Aznavour in Paris, where the two walked around Montmatre together, Toulouse-Lautrec’s neighborhood. “It was thrilling,” he recalls. “[Charles] is a rock star over there. We were in his car and every time he’d get out, we’d be mobbed.”
As he prepares for the show to open in New Haven, Uhry hopes My Paris will live a life beyond New Haven, perhaps being fully translated into French one day and performed in Europe. Does Uhry know enough French to do his own book translations? “Un petit peu,” he answers. Only a little.
My Paris is scheduled to run through May 29 on the Claire Tow Stage in the C. Newton Schenck III Theatre. For more information or to purchase tickets, call (203) 787-4282 or visit LongWharf.org.