When Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's Gigi, featuring a brand-new book by British playwright and Emmy-nominated screenwriter Heidi Thomas, opens at Broadway's Neil Simon Theatre April 8, Vanessa Hudgens will be making her Main Stem debut.
Having been in the limelight since her teen years with Disney's hit "High School Musical" franchise — and seeing her personal life plastered across the Internet and in the tabloids — does she feel any pressure? "No," she said firmly. "You can't live your life through other people's eyes."
She sees things similarly to how Gigi sees them. Gigi, the carefree courtesan-in-training at the musical's core, is striving for authenticity.
"In this modern day and age, everything is so over sexualized, and young woman are very over sexualized — and that's what sells," Hudgens pointed out. "And, in this, it's not about that! It's about the purity and the strength that you have as your own individual and finding your own happiness. That's so much more powerful than anything sexual. Also, she is born in a time where society has young women in a box. Still, today, [if] you're a young woman, people want to push you into a box, and you're meant to be a certain way, [but] Gigi says, 'That's not right for me. I don't want to be that person. I'm not going to be. I'm going to make my own roles, and I'm going to be my own individual,' and that is just so empowering and will remind women and young women to be their own person — no matter how hard it may be." As Mamita Alvarez (Victoria Clark) and Aunt Alicia (Dee Hoty) groom Gigi and teach her about etiquette, charm and grace, she blossoms from a girl into a lady, and Gaston (played by Corey Cott, fresh off his run in the Disney hit Newsies) catches her eye.
"The cool thing about this show is I think it's more than a coming-of-age musical," said Cott. "I think it's a redefinition of what it means to be a woman and a man in society for every generation… I think everyone in the show is inspired by the pioneer that Gigi's character is, in terms of redefining what it means to be alive and be a woman in this time, which was a very hard time to be a woman. Men controlled everything. There wasn't much opportunity for them. If you wanted to have control as a woman, you had to be a courtesan or a mistress. It's been thrilling to watch that, but it's also been thrilling to go through [the coming-of-age story] in another way than I did with Jack [in Newsies]. Gaston also has…towards the end of the show, maturation — realizing that love [and] true passion are more important than materials, than gaining jewels or fame…"
All in the musical are searching for authenticity, as book writer Heidi Thomas pointed out. "Gigi wants an experience which feels authentic to herself," she said, "and I think so many of us are in search of authenticity in the modern world, and I think the test of a real classic is something that works in a different way equally fully for each new generation."
"Gigi" is, in fact, a real classic. Audrey Hepburn originated the title role in the 1951 stage play that Anita Loos adapted from the 1945 novella by Colette. And, the 1958 film, directed by Vincente Minnelli and starring Leslie Caron in the title role, received nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1991. A musical adaptation, starring Karin Wolfe, first hit Broadway in 1973.
What attracted Hudgens to be the next Gigi? "There are so many things, honestly!" she said with excitement. "I mean, the fact that there are some amazing women who have played Gigi — Leslie Caron, Audrey Hepburn — those are some pretty epic footsteps to follow in! I thought, 'Why not take that on? That'll be a good challenge!' Also, the Lerner and Loewe music is amazing. I grew up on My Fair Lady, so that energy that they have in their music lives on throughout everything that they do, so it has that same spirit in this. And, the character… I feel like it's rare that you get to find a character that has such an amazing transformation, character arc and someone who is so pure and honest and true to who they are. She's an amazing role model. I wanted to be her, so now I get to be."
When director Eric Schaeffer and book writer Thomas saw Hudgens at her audition, they knew they found "the one," even though their initial intentions were not to star-cast the role at all.
Schaeffer admitted, "I can say, as a director, it rarely happens [that] someone comes in, and they audition, and they leave the room, and you're like, 'That's the one.' And, that's exactly what happened with Vanessa. She came in, she memorized all this stuff for the audition, and she just had this thing. You can't bottle it, you can't make it, you can't manufacture it. I was like, 'Hire her. She's Gigi.' And, [when] we originally set out, we almost thought we were going to find an unknown and make that person…" Thomas interjected: "Audrey Hepburn was discovered. Colette, the novelist, saw her walking across a hotel lobby and said, 'She is my Gigi.' … I do think that with Vanessa, we have a worthy successor to Leslie Caron and Audrey Hepburn because she just has 'it.' We can't put our finger on it. We've been trying for weeks and months, and we're like, 'Why is she so magical?' She just is! Vanessa is Gigi."
How and why did Hudgens resonate so strongly with the character? "I'm such a kid at heart," she said, "and when I get to be a kid, that's when I'm happiest, and I think that's when I get to shine the brightest. I went and did an earlier scene where I am that younger version of Gigi and got to be exactly that. And, when I am that person, that's the happiest version of myself, and I think it shows. I think it's contagious, you know? So I did that, and I think that kind of made them excited. I hadn't prepared another scene, [but] they asked me to do it, so I went into a room by myself for ten minutes, worked on it, came back in and did that. I also know how to be the poised young woman… Being in this industry and going on the red carpets and having to be a little businesswoman, you know how to handle yourself and be poised. I think that they just got to see two sides of Vanessa, and that's also the two sides of Gigi, so it just worked hand in hand."
She added, "I'm happy. I'm in love with what I'm doing. I'm over the moon, and I think it's going to be absolutely wonderful."
The critics weigh in April 8!
(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)