13 November 2015

'An American In Paris' (Part 2)

by Kirk Woodward

[As Kirk points out below, I posted a report on the Broadway movical An American in Paris on 2 August.  I’d seen the performance of 9 July and almost 10 weeks later, Kirk, who’s contributed frequently to ROT (and has another post in the pipeline), saw the show for himself.  It turns out we had divergent responses to the production—not really diametric, but decidedly different.  Besides being an actor and director—including musicals—Kirks knowledgeable about writing reviews, so I asked him to write out his take on AAiP and contrast it with my report.  (Like me, Kirk makes a distinction between my blog “reports” and reviews.)  Just to remind ROTters, Kirk published a book called The Art of Writing Reviews in June 2009 (available on line at http://www.lulu.com/content/paperback-book/the-art-of-writing-reviews/6785272; the same site can be accessed from Kirk’s own website, Spiceplays, http://spiceplays.com/id7.html).  I also blogged a commentary on Writing Reviews on 4, 8, 11, and 14 November 2009.  I’m very pleased to be able to post this “op-ed” report on An American on ROT as a sort of oblique companion piece to my own comments.  ~Rick]

On 2 August 2015, Rick posted a report on Rick On Theater, the blog you are now reading, on the Broadway musical An American in Paris, which opened in New York City on April 12, 2015 (http://rickontheater.blogspot.com/2015/08/an-american-in-paris.html). That report illustrates the strength and importance of this blog: it is comprehensive and detailed, with extensive descriptions of the book, music, and lyrics; the acting; and the critical response to the show. All in all, it is an excellent place for anyone to turn who wants to know about the experience of the show.

The report was not particularly enthusiastic about the musical An American in Paris. It said, in part:

Overall, the show was enjoyable (like my evening at On the Town, it rained again, but not until we left the theater—and even then it stopped quickly)—but American’s not as good a play as On the Town.  Craig Lucas’s book is very weak and there are lots and lots of inserted songs (“I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck” from Shall We Dance; “Who Cares” from Of Thee I Sing, a 1931 Gershwin play), so many—nine at my count—it’s hardly still An American in Paris any more!  Some of the “new” songs don’t really seem to fit, like when Jerry decides, for no apparent reason, to call Lise “Liza” (cyber reviewer Zachary Stewart compared him to “a particularly aggressive Ellis Island immigration officer” renaming a new arrival)—it never comes up again—just so he can sing “Liza” from the Gershwins’ 1920 stage musical, Show Girl

I don’t think I’m misrepresenting the report to describe its feeling about An American in Paris as tepid. The reason for the report you are reading is that I also saw the show, at a matinee on September 16, 2015, and had a significantly different response: I loved it, leaving the theater with the feeling sometimes described as “walking on air,” and have since described it to people as “nearly pure bliss.” The differences in opinion between Rick and me illustrate some issues in evaluating a show, and I want to spell some of them out here.

A good place to start is to recognize that two people very well may legitimately feel differently about the same show, even if they see the same performance. No two people are the same, and no two people have exactly the same sensibilities.

For this reason, incidentally, a reader who takes any single review of an event as gospel is taking quite a risk. The reviewer may just have been criticized by the editor, and therefore in a bad mood . . . or drunk, or sleepy . . . or not in the frame of mind to be entertained or, depending on the show, enlightened . . . or opposed at some level to the kind of event being described . . . the list of possibilities is practically endless.

More to the point, an event – say, a show – can be as easily defined by what it is not as by what it is. Any work of art is a series of choices made by the artist(s) involved, and any yes to one choice is a no to another. Even a virtually formless work of art like John Cage’s famous composition 4’33”, in which a pianist sits in silence at a piano for four minutes and thirty three seconds, will at some point take a shape of its own, as choices (for example, coughing, muttering, shifting in seats) are made.

So one review may describe what a show is (that is, the choices it made), and another describe what it is not (that is, the choices it declined to make), and both may be correct, nevertheless still giving radically different impressions of the event.

The classical answer to the problem this situation poses was laid out by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), who suggested that a work of art should be criticized – or reviewed – using the following three questions (my words, not his):

1.      What is the work (or, perhaps, the artist) trying to achieve?
2.      Does it achieve it?
3.      Was it worth doing in the first place?

Here I need to point out a linguistic shift I’ve made in this discussion. First I talked about the “report;” then I changed the terms to talk about “reviewing” (or, as Goethe has it, “criticizing”). This shift is significant, because ordinarily Rick’s pieces about shows in this blog are “reports,” not “reviews.” They explicitly do not stick to Goethe’s criteria; they include whatever details the writer feels appropriate, for the purpose of presenting one observer’s experience as fully and clearly as possible.

My aim here is a little different. I will briefly “review” the show, and then point out a few contrasts between my attempt and the report.

Before beginning, as a matter of full disclosure, I will mention that one of the actors in the show, Brandon Uranowitz, who plays Adam Hochberg, the Narrator and the “Gershwin figure” in An American in Paris, is a friend of mine and a close friend of my daughter’s. I thought his singing, dancing, and in particular his acting were splendid, and I can even claim a bit of objectivity for my opinion, since he was nominated for a Tony Award for his performance. Still, it’s quite possible that his being in the show affected my opinion of it. Take that as you will.

Here’s a very brief review, then.  I won’t summarize the story of the musical, as most reviews would, since the report has already done so in detail; please click on the link above if you need to refresh your recollection of the plot.

I would say (as a reviewer) that An American in Paris has as its intention the aim of presenting a romantic picture of love blossoming under difficult circumstances. Some of those difficulties include: the devastation, both physical and emotional, caused by the recent Nazi occupation of Paris; the struggles of any artist to do first class work; and the complexity of romantic relationships, especially where more than two people are involved.

I said “a romantic picture” and that is significant, because much of the story is told in dance – primarily ballet – and song. The ballet is choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, an “artistic associate” of the Royal Ballet, and it is sumptuous, dreamlike in its effect, which in turn is magnified by the sets (by Bob Crowley) and the lighting (stunning, by Natasha Katz), both of which won Tony Awards. 

And the music of course is by George Gershwin (1898-1937), whose “symphonic poem” “An American in Paris” was the inspiration for, first, the film of that name, and now the musical.

The lyrics were written by Gershwin’s brother Ira (1896-1983). It’s true that a Gershwin song or two has to be shoehorned into the book, by Craig Lucas, like “Liza,” but the songs are quintessentially American - ideal for the characters of the former GI’s, now bedazzled residents of Paris – and romantic as well, so I don’t see the stretched introduction of an occasional song as a serious fault. It happens in musicals all the time, and besides, I like a Gershwin tune. How about you?

So I conclude that An American in Paris does what it intends to do, and does it splendidly. And I don’t see any reason to belabor the question of whether or not such a result is worthwhile. I know that I have been affected by the atmosphere of the show ever since I saw it; I can recall a great deal of it, always with pleasure.

That’s my slightly simple-minded review. (Ordinarily I would say at least something about the acting in the show, but the Roger report covers that subject thoroughly.) Out of several possibilities, let me mention just two ways in which my perspective differs from the report.

One is the issue of the post-World War II setting.  The report is not amused:

Lucas’s resetting the story to 1945, right after the liberation of Paris, makes it almost imperative that the war be a presence in the lives of the city and its inhabitants.  But it seems perfunctory to me, obligatory references rather than true character motivations or plot drivers.

From my point of view, however, the setting is justified. It’s a question of what the art work is trying to achieve. If I’m correct that the musical is trying to give us a picture of “love blossoming under difficult circumstances,” then the milieu is thematic, drawing us into a world where even ballet doesn’t guarantee happy endings. (The actual end of the musical, described in the report, emphasizes this point.)

And a second issue where we disagree, and possibly a more significant one, is the relation of An American in Paris to the movie of the same name (1951) that inspired it. (“It’s hardly still An American in Paris any more!” the report complains.) The report frequently compares the musical with the movie. There are plenty of examples. One that struck me was, “The lead actor, Robert Fairchild, though he’s very good, is no Gene Kelly.”

But too many reviewers dismiss one actor’s performance by saying that another actor was better in the role, without coming to terms with what the first actor is trying to do. That’s too easy a way to evaluate a performance (or any other aspect of a work). I haven’t seen the movie (except for the “American in Paris” dance) and I don’t know how Kelly did the part. I’m sure he was splendid, and he can be seen on film. However, he’s not on Broadway.

I’m not claiming that An American in Paris is perfect. (For example, I agree with Rick that the hints that Henri is gay are merely confusing.) And there definitely are issues raised when a new version of a well-known piece appears that I’m not prepared to address here, since they involve a discussion of the whole field of popular art, and of the sources of our responses to it.

But if the report were a review, I would object to its comparison of the musical to other works, and I would urge looking at the piece for itself, in particular taking another look at its intent, pretending for the moment that the show has no antecedents (and no other actors) associated with it. I believe that’s the only way a review – as opposed to a report – can fairly estimate the worth of a work of art.

Seeing the show from the perspective I describe, I find it a lovely success. Ultimately, of course, these judgments are subjective. So, in the case of An American in Paris, take the word of the report for what it’s like. Or take mine. Or, best of all, see the show and decide for yourself. That’s the American way!

[In addition of my commentary on The Art of Writing Reviews, which I mentioned in the introduction, Kirk’s other contributions to ROT are: “How America Eats: Food and Eating Habits in the Plays of Suzan-Lori Parks,” 5 October 2009; “Race,” 3 May 2010; “Kirk Woodward’s King Lear Journal,” 4 June; “The Most Famous Thing Jean-Paul Sartre Never Said,” 9 July 2010; “Broadway Angel,” 7 September 2010; “The Beatles and Me,” 7 October 2010; “Making A Movie,” 27 October 2010; “A Lawyer and a Life,” 11 November 2010; “Directing Twelfth Night for Children, 16 and 19 December 2010; “Bob Dylan, Performance Artist,” 8 January 2011; “A Year in Korea,” 18 January 2011; “A Playwright of Importance,” 31 January 2011; “The Scottsboro Brecht,” 12 February 2011; “Herbert Berghof, Acting Teacher,” 1 June 2011; “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Waterfall,” 12 September 2011; “Theatrical and Popular Songs,” 2 October 2011; “The Jukebox Musical,” 7 October 2011; “Lady Gaga: Artist for Our Time,” 1 November 2011; “Saints of the Theater,” 30 December 2011; “Notes on Reading,” 24 January 2012; “Look Back in Anger,” 23 February 2012; “Noel, Noel,” 24 March 2012; “The Best Man,” 19 July 2012; “Beach Boys,” 3 August 2012; “Bernard Shaw, Pop Culture Critic,” 5 September 2012; “The Beatles Box,” 30 September 2012; “Bob Dylan at Woodstock – And a New Album,” 14 November 2012; “Eric Bentley – An Appreciation,” 4 December 2012; “The Beatles Diary,” (with Pat Woodward), 8 January 2013; “Leonard Cohen,” 2 February 2013; “Reflections On Directing,” 11, 14, 17, and 20 April 2013; “William Goldman’s The Season,” 30 April 2013; “Theatre Alley,” 20 May 2013; “Eugene Ionesco,” 2 July 2013; “Creative Dramatics,” 30 September 2013; “Religious Drama,” 19 January 2014; “Reflections on Theater Etiquette,” 11 February 2014; “Lady Gaga and Once,” 5 May 2014; “Act One,” 25 June 2014; “Bullets Over Bullets Over Broadway,” 29 August 2014; “Bertolt Brecht and the Mental Health Players,” 21 October 2014; “Beth Henley and Ridiculous Fraud,” 20 November 2014; “Curtain Calls,” 3 February 2015; “Memoirs of a Desperate Actor,” 3 March 2015; “Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials,” 13 May 2015; “Some Of That Jazz,” 7 June 2015; “Simon Callow,” 23 June 2015; “The Beatles’ Influence,” 13 July 2015; “Henry Fielding’s Theater,” 16 September 2015; and “Great Notch Inn,” 21 October 2015.  (At the time I compiled this list, Kirk had just sent me a new article on Eric Bentley and G. B. Shaw which I’ll be posting on the blog shortly.)  Well, that’s quite a catalogue, isn’t it?  Not to mention, a very broad spectrum of topics.  But it’s perfectly reasonable that Kirk should be such an avid (and generous) contributor to ROT: starting this blog was largely his idea.  I am eternally grateful, as I’ve often told him, for both his initial suggestion and his continued interest.]


  1. On Wednesday, 27 January, Time Warner Cable's NY1 news channel reported that legendary Hollywood actress Leslie Caron was in New York City recently to catch a few shows on Broadway--'An American in Paris' being one of them. NY1's Frank DiLella sat down with the performer and her on-stage counterpart, Leanne Cope, to chat about the Gershwin property that launched her career. The NY1 website has a video of the meeting at http://www.ny1.com/nyc/all-boroughs/on-stage/2016/01/26/-an-american-in-paris--star-leslie-caron-visits-broadway-for-trip-down-memory-lane-.html.


  2. On 2 March 2016, the New York Times ran an article by Michael Cooper on a potential new discovery about the French taxi horns George Gershwin wrote into his original score for "An American in Paris," the 1928 tone poem which became the centerpiece of the 1951 Gene Kelly film 'An American in Paris' and Christopher Wheeldon's current Broadway movical derived from it (the subject of Kirk Woodward's report, above). Ever since 1945, when Arturo Toscanini recorded the composition with the NBC Orchestra and interpreted Gershwin's labels for the horns, circled letters A, B, C, and D, as the pitches to which he wanted them to be tuned, that's been the way "American" has been performed. But Mark Clague, an associate professor of musicology at the University of Michigan who is editing a critical edition of the works of George and Ira Gershwin, argues that the labels in Gershwin's score are only a way to designate which horns to play, not what notes they should sound. One piece of his evidence is a 1929 recording made under Gershwin's direction, so presumably the horns played the notes intended by the composer: A flat, B flat, a much higher D, and a lower A. (Gershwin had bought taxi horns for the piece while he was in Paris, but those have been lost.)

    The music world, including instrument rental outfits that supply the French taxi horns for "American," is not in agreement about the proposed change. (Some are even split within their own minds: Rob Fisher, who adapted the score and supervised the staging of the current Broadway adaptation of 'An American in Paris,' agreed that the letter labels were names and not pitches, but nonetheless used the traditional horns for the show. He's not even convinced that the notes on the 1929 recording are dispositive.)

    Cooper's New York Times report, headlined "Gershwin's ABC's Might Not Be What They Seem" in the print edition, is available on line (as "Have We Been Playing Gershwin Wrong for 70 Years?") at http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/02/theater/have-we-been-playing-gershwin-wrong-for-70-years.html.