Before the Tony-nominated version arrived on Broadway this season, a previous incarnation (which was Broadway-aimed) of the musical premiered at the Alley Theatre in Houston, TX during the 2007-08 season. That production, which told its own unique version of the story, was penned by Tony Award-nominated Crazy for You book writer Ken Ludwig.
Playbill.com recently spoke with Ken Ludwig — who earned a Tony nomination for his book for Crazy for You — as he returns to familiar Gershwin territory as the book writer for The Gershwins' An American in Paris.
"The Gershwin estate asked me to do a straightforward stage musical of 'An American in Paris,' but I hated to just do a retread of the same story with the same characters," Ludwig says. "Why bother when you can watch the DVD and see Gene Kelly and those glorious Vincente Minnelli numbers in Technicolor?" Ludwig set out to pen "a new American musical in its own right," he states, describing the work as a behind-the-scenes look at the making of a fictional 1950's movie entitled "An American in Paris." In Ludwig's adaptation, Parisian music-hall star Michel Gerard (Groener) fails to arrive for filming of a new Hollywood musical in which he is set to star. As filming in Paris is halted, the film's producer sends his reluctant secretary, Rebecca Klemm (Dilly), to locate the missing star.
While the 1951 MGM movie-musical presented Gene Kelly as the American in Paris, Ludwig has turned the tables so that Dilly's character – Miss Klemm – is now the stranger in a strange land described in the title.
Throughout the stage adaptation, Ludwig tips his hat to moments from the iconic film. "What I've tried to do in the show is echo the film of 'An American in Paris' as much as possible. The story, after all, is about the making of the movie," he offers. As the Hollywood characters encounter Paris, Ludwig states, "they see things there that they take back into the film. For example, the café where Gerard lives (and where Miss Klemm takes a room) is exactly like the café in the movie. And Gerard's club where he does his act — I've called it The Crème Brûleé — is like the club in the film where George Guetary performs: In fact, one of Gerard's big numbers in the musical is 'Stairway to Paradise.'"
Actress Felicia Finley will portray the "tough, glamorous Hollywood starlet" Hermia Chase, who was once engaged to Gerard. Chase's arrival in the musical sets Gerard into a tailspin as he discovers his former flame has been cast to star opposite him in the film. Also confirmed for the production is triple-threat Jeffry Denman, who according to Ludwig, will portray a character akin to Cosmo from "Singin' in the Rain."
Representatives for the Alley Theatre state that complete casting will be announced in the near future.
For An American in Paris, as with Crazy for You, the Gershwin estate gave Ludwig free-range to incorporate any songs penned by George and Ira Gershwin to augment the score for the stage production – Porgy and Bess was the only exception.
Ludwig explains, "I've drawn heavily on later Gershwin, the Gershwin when he was in Hollywood when he did 'Damsel in Distress' and 'Shall We Dance.' Early Gershwin, middle Gershwin and late Gershwin all have their own slightly different sounds in a way. And I thought it was right because of the tone of this musical, that the slightly more sophisticated or more complex Gershwin of 'Let's Call the Whole Thing Off' was right for this piece."
Ludwig has included many of the film's original songs, while incorporating such Gershwin gems as "They All Laughed," "The Man I Love," "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" and "Love Walked In." One of the most beloved moments of the 1951 film is the "An American In Paris" ballet, which Ludwig pays tribute to, having it "swirling around the characters when Michel shows Miss Klemm Paris for the first time. I've tried to work those things into the musical to try to make it in a fresh fun way," says Ludwig.
Asked whether he incorporated moments of the original screenplay by Alan Jay Lerner, Ludwig responded that some specific moments had been incorporated as a result of his familiarity with the work. He adds, however, "I wanted to write a new American musical in its own right, somehow basing it on 'An American in Paris' from some original viewpoint… It's been adjusted here and there," Ludwig says. "It didn't seem right to me to literally stage it. I hope it feels fresh and new and exciting and vital."
Alley Theatre artistic director Gregory Boyd will direct the new musical, with a creative team that boasts choreographer Randy Skinner (42nd Street), set designer Doug Schmidt, lighting designer Paul Gallo and costume designer Carrie F. Robbins. Rob Berman — of the City Center Encores! series — serves as musical director with orchestrations by three-time Tony Award winner Doug Besterman (The Producers, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Fosse).
While a definite Broadway timeline has not been set, Ludwig says it is "our plan to head to Broadway. The great opportunity is to put this up in a magnificent first-class production, look at it and get it just right."
Rehearsals for The Gershwins' An American in Paris begin March 11 in New York City, prior to an April 26 world premiere at Houston's Alley Theatre. The production officially opens May 18 and plays a limited engagement through June 1.
Tickets are available by visiting www.alleytheatre.org or by calling (713) 220-5700.
The Alley Theatre is located at 615 Texas Avenue in Houston, TX.
This article was originally published Feb. 1, 2008.