By Peter Filichia
March 20, 1952. RKO Pantages Theatre, Hollywood. The 24th Annual Academy Awards. Finally, it’s time for the Best Picture winner to be announced. Ever since the nominations were released five weeks earlier, some veteran film observers have been betting that the winner will be A Place in the Sun, the much-acclaimed adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. Now, on the Big Night, it certainly looks that way, considering that the George Stevens film has already won six Oscars, including Best Director.
Still, others who predicted that A Streetcar Named Desire would be Best Picture don’t look silly. Although it’s “only” won four Oscars tonight, three have been in the four Best performers categories: Actress, Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress, which are among the most important awards a picture can get.
At this point, An American in Paris fits in between with five Oscars. But all of them have been for the less marketable awards. Wouldn’t you expect Art Direction/Set Decoration, Color Cinematography and Costume Design prizes to go to a picture shot in Paris (although only two scenes in the film were actually shot there)? The Musical Score Oscar was a cinch, too, with all those Gershwin hits and without any competition from the two front-runners, which didn’t sport any songs. And because Streetcar and Place couldn’t compete in Best Original Screenplay, Alan Jay Lerner was free to claim that prize.
So what will Best Picture be: A Place in the Sun or A Streetcar Named Desire? Jesse Lasky, the noted producer of 141 films, was given the honor of saying “And the winner is …” and opening the envelope. After he did, he said in an astonished voice “Good heavens! It’s An American in Paris!”
That brings us to the stage musical that’s now playing – and selling out – at the Palace Theatre. At the beginning of the 2014-15 Broadway season, no one would have predicted that An American in Paris would have been part of the Best Musical Tony race – not with such new-scored musicals as Doctor Zhivago, Finding Neverland, Fun Home, Honeymoon in Vegas, It Shoulda Been You, The Last Ship, The Visit and Something Rotten! An American in Paris was yet another jukebox musical that featured, yes, songs by one of the greatest songwriting teams in Broadway history: George and Ira Gershwin. But in the last thirty-two years, we’ve HAD “new” musicals of Gershwin songs: My One and Only (1983), Crazy for You (1992) and Nice Work If You Can Get It (2012). All of them dusted off old plots (respectively Funny Face, Girl Crazy and Oh, Kay!) and, yes, all were received well enough to average a fat 966 performances.
But hadn’t Broadway gone to the Gershwin well – well, too many times now? It seems that every time one of these shows opened, some critic would express enthusiasm by dragging out a famous Ira Gershwin lyric/cliché “Who could ask for anything more?” Indeed, Broadway could ask for quite a bit more, and seemed primed to get it with the aforementioned eight musicals with original scores.
Give those three previous Gershwin hits credit for trying something that this “new” Gershwin musical wasn’t doing. They at least tried to seem fresh by choosing new titles. An American in Paris was sticking with a title that’s been around for that last eighty-seven years. Didn’t the new team have any imagination?
What’s more, of these four Gershwin shows, this was the one with the least star-power. Tommy Tune (My One and Only) and Matthew Broderick (Nice Work) were Tony-winners, and although Jodi (Crazy for You) Benson wasn’t, she’d just had a great success as the voice of Ariel in The Little Mermaid film. An American in Paris was offering us Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope, who have their fans in the world of ballet, but were totally inexperienced unknowns to Broadway. And what’s a Brandon Uranowitz, anyway?
And if all this isn’t discouraging enough, Gigi – it too set in Paris, based on an Oscar-winning Best Picture and possessing an equally famous score — was to open on April 8th, getting a four-day jump on An American in Paris. If there were any thunder in either show, Gigi would get to make it heard first, leaving its Parisian competition to look like leftovers. Never mind that talented and acclaimed playwright and musical theater expert Craig Lucas was reworking the book; Gigi was getting reworked, too.
Well, to quote a Gershwin song, “Ho-ho-ho! Who’s got the last laugh now?” The reviews called An American in Paris “a triumph” (The New York Times), “a masterpiece” (The Wall Street Journal), “enchanting” (Variety), “sublime” (Associated Press), “a dazzling achievement” (USA Today), “exuberant” (The Washington Post) and “something special” (Newsday). You wouldn’t find such strong sentiments said about the other new musicals.
When the time came for the Tony nominations, no musical could best the twelve An American in Paris received. Now very few are betting against its winning the Best Musical prize; if it does, it will be only the second musical to win that Tony after its source material had won a Best Picture Oscar: Applause, based upon the 1950 winner All about Eve, did the trick in 1969-70. (To be fair, let’s mention Nine, the 1981-82 Best Musical Tony-winner, which was based upon the 1964 Best Foreign Film, 8 ½.)
And now comes the original Broadway cast album on Masterworks Broadway. It’s a nice amalgam of classical Gershwin (“Concerto in F,” “Second Prelude,” “Second Rhapsody,” “Cuban Overture” and – need we add – “An American in Paris”?) and pop Gershwin standards.
Some of the songs that Lucas interpolated into his new book have been heard in the other three revivals: “But Not for Me,” “I Got Rhythm,” “‘S Wonderful,” “Shall We Dance?” and “They Can’t Take That Away from Me.” Still, is there any denying that they’re worth another listen? More to the point, the musicians that play them have managed to replicate that marvelous sweet society band sound – and yet they pull themselves up by their strings and brass to sound like a genuine orchestra when playing Gershwin’s more classically-oriented pieces.
And while the other songs are hardly new, they haven’t made their way into any latter-day Gershwin book musical: “Fidgety Feet,” “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise,” “I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck,” “Liza,” “The Man I Love” and “Who Cares?” One cut — “For You, For Me, For Evermore” — makes its first appearance on any cast album (or even a soundtrack, for the movie from which it sprang – The Shocking Miss Pilgrim – didn’t get one).
Fairchild’s Jerry sounds as if he’s been singing all his life and Cope’s Lise has a voice that befits the adorable character she’s playing. Not bad for ballet people. Uranowitz plays “everyone’s best pal but no one’s lover” in the right “I don’t care but I do” way. Max von Essen portrays the man that Lise’s parents want her to marry and bears the burden of knowing that the young lass doesn’t love him.
They are, by the way, all Tony nominees. An American in Paris is the only musical of the season to have one representative in each of the four acting categories. Anything can happen on June 7, of course, but whoever gets the pleasure of opening that cute little folder in which the Best Musical’s name rests may well say “An American in Paris” – but he or she certainly won’t begin to think or say aloud “Good heavens!”
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.mtishows.com and www.kritzerland.com and each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.