'S Wonderful: Dance as Perspective in 'An American in Paris'

The very nature of musical theatre makes it challenging to fully show the world from a character's perspective. Unlike prose, there are limits to limited perspectives: theatre tends to show events precisely as they happen (and then characters sing their feelings about those events). On the occasion we are given the chance to dwell inside of a character's mind, it is more often than not a dream ballet, a literal peek inside their imagination or dreams. This is where An American in Paris, currently touring the country after its Broadway run, pulls off a creative and technical feat: allowing the audience to experience objective story events from a subjective perspective.


The story of AAIP is similar to the 1951 Gene Kelly film on which it is based. Jerry, an American GI (McGee Maddox, alternating with Ryan Steele), decides to stay behind and become an artist in post-WWII Paris, where he befriends foppish showman Henri (Nick Spangler) and sardonic composer Adam (Etai Benson), gets entangled with Milo (Emily Ferranti), a wry American heiress, and falls in love with the mysterious, ethereal Lise (Sara Esty, alternating with her twin sister Leigh-Ann). However, bookwriter Craig Lucas made several smart changes to the narrative that elevate the story from a frothy romance to a thoughtful and timely rumination on the place of art in a reeling society. By moving up the setting to the months immediately following the liberation of Paris and the end of the war, Lucas forces us to see a broken city in which even decent people are mistrustful, in which habits of caution and self-preservation are not easily broken.


Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

But then, Lucas and director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon do something utterly magical: they break free and seamlessly shift into moments in which the events actually "happening" onstage are filtered to the audience to see them as characters do.

The first instance occurs midway through the opening ballet sequence. As Jerry roams the streets of Paris, he watches flags rise and couples reunite, and sketches them all "as is." But then he stumbles across a woman being turned away from a bread line, and a young woman - Lise - offering her some of her own bread. In that instant, the scene stops as the light and choreography literally frame Lise, letting us see what Jerry sees: nothing but her, nothing but this one act of kindness.

It is not until Act 2 that we come across another instance of seeing actual events through the eyes of a character. Henri finds himself unexpectedly nervous performing in a jazz club, and stumbles his way (literally) through the first verse of "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise," awkward and fearful. Then the number opens up and the club fades away, replaced with a stage and chorus worthy of the Ziegfeld Follies, with Henri in a top hat and tails at the center of it all. Henri has a choice to give into his fear, or imagine something that will get him through. He chooses the latter, and we are allowed to see every detail of how his imagination transforms the scene and transforms his ability in the "real" world of the jazz club - the number finishes in "reality" but Henri performs there just as spectacularly. Although his audience there did not see his visualizations, we did, and we can tell just how much that perspective shift altered the course of actual events.


Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

The final instance is perhaps the most iconic and significant: we see the "An American in Paris" ballet from Lise's perspective. It is worth noting that this is already a big change from the film, in which the ballet was a true dream ballet and told from Jerry's perspective; here, there is an actual ballet performance in the story in which Lise is the principal dancer. In the scene immediately preceding, Lise confides her fear to Milo, who suggests she remember when she felt deep emotion and reconnect with those feelings as she dances. Minutes later, we see exactly what Lise associates with that passionate emotion: her partner for the romantic pas de deux is Jerry. Of course, Jerry is not actually there; in the world of the story, she is dancing with her unnamed partner. But we see the effect imagining Jerry has on her: she dances perfectly and passionately. Instead of presenting the ballet as a pure show-within-a-show, Wheeldon stages it to again layer a character's subjective experience onto an objective reality.


Robert Fairchild & Leanne Cope (original Broadway cast)

This is a nice technical feat, to be sure, but the question remains: why does this matter? I believe that, in the world we live in, the specifics of these perspectives suggest a template for us all. In each of these scenes, the characters are faced with a reality that is hard. Unpleasant. Challenging. And they get through it with the power of their creativity and joy, bringing their reality into being. Art is healing, art is love, art is connection, and this is what we as creative people can aspire to.

To clarify, this is not to discredit protest art or creative work that comes from a place of anger and frustration and revolution; indeed, those are incredibly relevant and provocative. But what AAIP reminds us is that the opposite is true too: we must not discard art that tries to be joyful, because joy can heal and unite. Even the cynical Adam comes to this realization after spending much of the story defending his melancholy style of music: "Life is already so dark. If you have got the talent to make it brighter, to give people hope, and joy, why would you withhold that?" 


Photo credit: Matthew Murphy
Some of us may not create work that protests overtly, but creating joy is an act of protest against those who would strip it away. If we take our cues from the characters of AAIP, and present the world through a perspective of possibility, then we build our own stairway to paradise. 

A Truth Timelessly Acknowledged

It is a truth universally acknowledged that there are more Pride and Prejudice adaptations than there need to be. I say this with the utmost affection for the story (and several vintage copies of it sitting on my bookshelf): although it is perhaps the perfect English-language novel, it's also often adapted in ways that don't necessarily capture the "bright, light, sparkling" tone or that simple contribute to culture fatigue. Daniel Elihu Kramer's Pride@Prejudice, running at Southwest Shakespeare Company through Saturday, is not one of those; indeed, it is a warm, witty comedy that is alternately genuine and tongue-in-cheek.
Photo: Southwest Shakespeare



6 Takeaways From Worlds 2017

The World Figure Skating Championships just wrapped up this weekend in Helsinki, Finland, and pretty much everyone is slightly confused and slightly happy. Here are a few lessons to be learned when all is said and done:

The logo for Worlds 2017 (helsinki2017.com)


A Tale As Old As Time Returns

In recent years, Disney has seemingly taken up the project of remaking many of their classic animated hits into live-action films. The latest in this series, Beauty and the Beast, hit theaters last Friday, and I was in the audience on opening day. Admittedly, I have a bit of a biased view, given that this has long been my favorite Disney movie, but even I didn't expect the film to be as wonderful as it was. From filling in plot holes that have bothered fans for decades to rounding out the characters and their world, this remake beautifully balanced a devotion to the original and a desire to bring it into the modern world.


'La La Land' Is More Modern Than You Think

For the first time in decades, an original film musical is the darling of Hollywood critics and awards season. Damien Chazelle's La La Land, with a score by Justin Hurwitz and Broadway duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, is a well-crafted musical in the vein of the MGM musicals of old: a showbiz tale mixed with a love story. For a wide array of reasons, however, there has been a fair amount of criticism leveled at the film since its release. While it's certainly worth considering the relative social importance of La La Land when set against groundbreaking, equally well-crafted tales like Moonlight and Hidden Figures, it's also worth looking at La La Land in the context of the genre it joins and that musical language. When viewed through this lens, it becomes apparent that La La Land isn't just an old-school musical: it's a reinterpretation that pays homage to classic style and tropes while simultaneously calling them into question in the modern world.



On Theatre, Creating Art, and a Changing World

The day after the election, a friend of mine - a fellow artist - posted on Facebook a list of adjectives describing the art they would no longer consider acceptable. Among those adjectives were "cool," "cutting-edge," and others, but the one that bothered me was "beautiful." I saw similar sentiments repeated across my social media as much of my extended community cycled through fear, anger, confusion, and even rebellion. "Beauty," it seemed, was no longer something to strive for, no longer something worthy. As 2017 kicks off and the prospect of immense change looms, it's time to have a discussion about the role of art and its creators going forward.



Making Your Home Merry and Bright For the Holidays

For many of us, it doesn't really feel like the holidays until we've put up our decorations. As much as we all love the classics - a tree, a wreath or two, and some lights - it can get easy to get stuck in a decor rut. Perhaps you're tired of the same old ideas, or perhaps you live in a small space that doesn't fit a big tree. Whatever the case, here are some ways to add holiday cheer to your space!