“Singin’ in the Rain is the most famous and beloved movie musical ever made,” Robert Carsen says. “And what you don’t want is an audience going into the theatre playing the movie in their head and wondering why the stage version isn’t as good as that.”
Carsen is talking about his stage version, a huge hit when it first opened in March 2015 at Paris’ Théâtre du Châtelet. While Châtelet is closed for renovations, the show is being brought to life again November 28 through January 11 at Paris’ famed Grand Palais (presented by Châtelet in English with French surtitles).
To make his audience focus on theatre rather than cinema, Carsen says, he looked at the theme of the movie, “which is about major changes in the movie industry, in the late 1920s, when the world of Hollywood was moving, in some cases painfully, from silent movies to sound. And of course the plot centers on Lina Lamont, a silent star who can’t make the transition because she has a terrible voice, and the Cinderella story of Kathy Selden, this nobody who becomes a star because she can sing. I realized that the shift to talkies took place before the shift from black-and-white to color, so I thought that maybe a rigorous way of holding this all together, and having fun with the late 1920s, was to make a stage production almost entirely in black-and-white and at least reflect the silver screen that way.”
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Carsen, 63, who directed productions of Candide and My Fair Lady at Châtelet but is primarily known for directing opera—his work includes critically hailed stagings of Eugene Onegin, Falstaff and Der Rosenkavalier at New York’s Metropolitan Opera—says the production at the Grand Palais, in a 2,400-seat theatre built expressly for the musical, will be the same as that at Châtelet. It will have the same 40-member cast and more than 20-piece orchestra. The cast includes many British musical performers: Dan Burton as Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly in the movie), Daniel Crossley as his sidekick, Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor in the film), Monique Young as Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds on screen) and Emma Kate Nelson as Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen in the film).
Sets are by two-time Tony winner Tim Hatley (Private Lives, Shrek the Musical). Anthony Powell, a Tony and three-time Oscar winner (Travels With My Aunt, Death on the Nile, Tess) designed the costumes. The choreography, including the signature prevalence of tap, was created by Tony nominee Stephen Mear (Mary Poppins). Musical direction is by Gareth Valentine, a West End veteran.
But Carsen’s homage to the black-and-white film era still has flexibility to match the vibrancy of the musical. “Of course, we bend that rule. We use sepia toning sometimes. If it’s in a garden, it’s tinted green. If it’s indoors, it’s tinted pink. In the fantasy section, when it’s not in Los Angeles anymore or making a movie but dreaming of being on Broadway, in the Broadway melody, that all goes into gold and warm tungsten stage lights.” (The lighting is by Carsen and Giuseppe di lorio.)
“And then, at the very end, when it’s all resolved, we do a big reprise of ‘Singin’ in the Rain,’ and suddenly we have moved forward in time and we’ve gone from black-and-white into full color.”
The production also recognizes the silver screen with use of video. “Starting from the overture, which is done as if we’re actually watching a movie in a cinema rather than a legitimate theatre, we do the overture with a whole montage as if you’re actually watching the opening credits of a black-and-white movie,” Carsen says.
Shifting the production to the Grand Palais—a Beaux-Arts architectural marvel constructed for the 1900 Universal Exposition—is challenging, he says. “We’re actually building a theatre inside the Grand Palais, which is being specially built for this production, so that the original sets can be used and moved.”
One thing that will be different, he says, is what happens before the show begins. Beginning two hours before curtain time, several options will be offered: tap-dance classes by Victor Cuno of Paris’s SwingTap school (one hour, 10 euros – about $11.60 – reservation only, tap shoes provided); free karaoke with musical tunes; a photo call to pose like Gene Kelly; a beauty salon with a makeup artist and hairdresser; and video projections. All the activities are designed to immerse audiences in what Châtelet describes as “the atmosphere of a movie studio backstage.”
Produced by Arthur Freed at MGM, the original movie was directed and choreographed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, with a screenplay by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who adapted their film work for a 1985 Broadway version choreographed by Twyla Tharp that ran for 367 performances. With songs by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed, Singin’ in the Rain harkens back to a bygone era.
A production of Singing in the Rain starring Derek Hough had been projected for Broadway, but never materialized. What about the fate of this Paris production?
“We would love to bring Singin’ in the Rain to Broadway,” says Carsen. “If we’re lucky somebody will come and see it during its run and be interested. In taking a show to Broadway, there’s always the trouble about being able to find the right theatre at the right time. And hopefully that might be able to happen this time.”