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An American in Paris, an Indescribable True Musical: Interview with Producer Stuart Oken
After delighting audiences in Paris and Broadway the London production of An American in Paris opens at the Dominion Theatre in London's West End this evening. With award-winning sets, stunning choreography and a highly accomplished company of performers the show brings a new element of performance to the West End, offering audiences a blend of traditional musical theatre and classical dance, thanks to the talents of director-choreographer Christopher Wheeldon.
Despite being a critical and commercial success in New York, producer Stuart Oken and his team were not unaware of the challenges of bringing the Tony Award-winning show to the West End. Having had the opportunity to refine the book and artistic elements in two different productions, mounting an already verified hit in another market is certain not without fresh demands.
“The intimidation of the history of London, the demand for excellence, finding the right theatre where the show will look beautiful but also have scale were all factors” Oken explained, speaking mid-dress rehearsal days out from the first preview. “I would have imagined casting, not that we worried about London having great actors, just finding a way to put a company together that has the skills to handle the variety – most of the cast have to tap, do ballet and sing – it's hard to do. Like any producer we're nervous about what they're going to think of us here. We had always hoped that London might be the very natural home for this show because of your history, your placement in Europe and at least some of your people having lived through wars, and dance being such a part of your culture, even classical dance, which it's not in America”.
Opening a brand new musical requires tenacity across the board, not just from the cast and creative team but from the producers, general managers and administration who all have their unique role to play in the journey to opening night.
“There's one thing we're not doing here and that's figuring out the show” Oken comments. “We did that for the first five years of this journey until we opened on Broadway, every day was this plus rewriting scenes, so that pressure is off. We're fine tuning it for this audience book wise, but that overall pressure is off. As a Producer I can't control what the audience is going to think, but I just want it to be great. You don't want to ever walk away and think we could have done a better job.”
It's hard to imagine the level of intimidation felt nurturing a new musical to life on Broadway, but to American producers the transition across the pond can be just as, if not more daunting.
“You may think Broadway is intimidating, and it certainly is when you're doing it for the first time, but as a Broadway producer coming to London...not all American musicals come over here and are successful” Oken comments. “This is a relatively expensive and ambitious show and we wanted to make sure that we did it right.”
In terms of An American in Paris' being created for the stage the show has had a long gestation period which has been aided by developing the work away from the shadow of the original film.
“We first were terrified but we discovered a few things along the way that made it possible” Oken laughs. “The first was that the movie had a happy backlot Hollywood feel before the arts were willing to really embrace World War Two, they wanted to get away from it. We realised that the story really was about a group of Americans and Europeans – young people – they were supposed to be soldiers who had fought in the war. By creating an authentic world, a world which emanates from young people trying to figure out their lives after a big event, we were onto something that could be a lot more real. Our director often says the love, joy and art that can come out of a darker period can be so much higher and brighter and joyous than if it's not really come from something – we were able to tap into a place where the characters could be real.”
In terms of assembling a creative team who could bring the show to life Oken explained how it was vital to find someone who could handle all the different elements of dance and make the language of movement bring the show to life.
“We needed a choreographer who made movement, all kinds of movement, part of the same language. Quite miraculously we twisted on Christopher Wheeldon until he said yes. He started working on the project for over a year before he committed to direct it. We did a lot of stuff until he said 'okay I'm ready'. With all of that surprise and all of New York thinking 'what are they doing', the product ended up being award-winning and dare I say inspiring, because it became that musical that's closer to the musical that Jerome Robbins might have made as opposed to the Vincent Minnelli movie, both valid but this one has a real reason to have come to life on stage”.
Rather than open cold on Broadway the production premièred in Paris, allowing it to first be seen by the audience around whom the show itself is set. The show opened to critical success, but it also allowed the creative team to change and develop the production before its New York opening.
“We changed 50% of the show between those two productions – we used Paris as our 'tryout', so we took about seven weeks between them and during that time we substantially rewrote the show, we changed the whole end of act one, we cut about 25 minutes out. When we got to New York we did it again – we kept writing up to the day we opened, once we opened I think that part stopped. There wasn't anything huge that we changed to London – it was giving the company the authentic experience to let them come to it in their own way, let them own it. It's emotional as well as it's comedic and physical.”
The New York production ran for 623 performances at The Palace Theatre and has recently begun its first National Tour. In a post-Hamilton age where musical theatre as a genre continues to be pushed and evolved in terms of its music, audiences are continuing to respond to these changes in form which An American in Paris also provides thanks to its hybrid-type fusion of classic Broadway and classical dance. Part of the show's success comes from it being somewhat indescribable – it really demands audiences experience it for themselves.
“I think it's a story of love, art and hope between a group of young people trying to put their lives together after a very difficult time. You're right about the show not being describable – it's a true musical, it combines music, movement and words to always tell the story. If you asked me what it is I would say it's a musical – it's what musicals should be, great stories driven by movement, music and words, and so that's what I think it is. I also agree with you that our best advertising for the show are the people who come to see it – they're the ones who have to walk out and tell people that you've not seen anything quite like it. It doesn't lend itself to being easily described!"
An American in Paris tickets are on sale to 30 September 2017.