by Wesley Doucette
Comédie Nation is a small theatre on an outer arrondissement of Paris. Its usual seating, numbering somewhere north of 50 and south of 100, was augmented this past November with a few folding chairs as well as a small smattering of spectators seated in the aisle floor. The audience features an arrange of expats, anglophilic French, and musical theatre enthusiasts. On the stage is My Life is a Musical, Adam Overett’s musical comedy brought to Paris by way of the company Broadway au Carré. Performed entirely in English with inter-scene French narration, the play is farcical in nature, a fact amplified by the cast’s compacting on the postage stamp stage. It is the rare breath of new in the French musical theatre scene.
Musical theatre in Paris has two established stages: Théâtre du Châtelet and the Théâtre Mogador. The only cross over success perceived by US audiences in recent years is Châtelet’s lavish An American in Paris. The theatre, apparently under the impression that they’ve happened upon their muse, will be presenting another Gene Kelly classic, Singing in the Rain, at the Grand Palais this year. Outside of cinema classics brought to stage, the company has also created operatic presentations of Broadway masterpieces such as Candide and high gloss stagings of Sondheim.
French perceptions of musical theatre are similar to a lot of the American public’s. It’s seen as frivolous escapism. The work is populist fluff who’s highest virtue is its ability to divert its audience to an alternate, happier, reality for two to three hours. The Châtelet doesn’t set out to argue against this accusation of “frivolity.” Its rehabilitation of the art form for the European public is found in the culinary. I admit I am one of many who were happy to see Fun Home, an intimate bio-musical dealing with childhood, homosexuality, and suicide, win the day over An American in Paris, who’s thematic ambitions were muddled to the point of malice. However, even I had to concede that the Gershwin orchestrations, Wheeldon’s Tony winning choreography, and the dazzling costume design had nearly no equal on the Broadway stage. The musical made for excellent culinary spectacle. The assertion that American musical theatre is worth analysis on a thematic or structural level isn’t, as of yet, the intention of the Châtelet programming. Musical Theatre is instead an aesthetic extension of golden aged cinema, in the same manner that we might stage late 19th century Opera as a representation of Belle Époque aesthetic. The programming at Châtelet is that of a highly funded regional theatre. Sondheim, Bernstein, and Hammerstein are all available. I offer this not as a complaint but as a recognition of the service they’re offering in the exportation of American culture abroad. It’s an America that has been heavily vetted and which doesn’t require too much adaptation to extend itself to the foreign culture.
Then there is the Théâtre Mogador. Rather than the Châtelet’s opera house programming schedule, Mogador produces one major commercial hit a year. This year it’s Grease. This is, as far as I can perceive, a commercial theatre that is therefore risk averse. An understandable malady, and one that New York theatre should have an excess of empathy for. Next year the theatre is performing Chicago. One might have knee-jerk misgivings as the New York production has run out of steam years ago. However, the musical remains in my view one of the all time American theatre masterworks and I have hope that this will serve as a marvelous introduction to the epic musical theatre of Kander and Ebb to the French public. However again, as with all pieces of theatre referenced thus far in Châtelet and Mogador, a great deal of the success of the piece relies heavily on cinematic adaptation. How much of the staging relies on the cinematic rendition? It is still too soon to say. However, for musical theatre to find a space of legitimacy in the French theatre society, daring staging is a necessity. Staging is often, if not always, prioritized over the text. This doesn’t just mean the grace of Wheeldon’s choreography but daring interpretations which we’ve seen in America by directors like Doyle, Chavkin, and Taymor.
Outside these two theatres the staging of musical theatre has been nearly universally commercial. The choices by producers are generally nostalgia based: Dirty Dancing, The Bodyguard, and The Addams Family stand out as examples. These are all to be, or have been, staged in Paris over this year. Pieces like these, while funded better than regional theatre are received, as far as I can tell, with the same glum satisfaction of low expectations. Save the Sondheim renditions at the Châtelet, the artistic bar for musical theatre abroad is set uniformly quite low. This is admitting that execution of these works is generally quite high. I’d compare most to high quality cruise ship productions, a comparison here not intended as derogatory but rather as descriptive.
Capitalism in art makes an easy target of itself. We’ve been told that Europeans, with their relatively high government funding for all art including live performance, is a safe haven from the demands of commercialism. Yet the companies that are freed from craven capitalism have maintained their aversion to American theatre in general, especially musical theatre. This is not an aversion that is found in rapport to other cultures: German, Italian, or even English if we’re counting Shakespeare, find homes on numerous French stages. This cultural distaste comes in part from an egregious over-saturation of American Media around the world. American cinema, music, and television are incredibly omnipresent in non-English speaking nations. The question then perhaps arises that why should we, as Americans, not be satisfied by this? Because the commercial media represents a very broad and shallow portrayal of American aesthetic and culture. Theatre, unlike cinema and music, can’t be mass produced and is generally produced in an ae-commercial fashion. It has to be locked in time space and therefor is made with a unique audience in mind. There is little complexity in the media that gets delivered to Europe because moral complexity might alienate an international audience. The side effect of this is that Europeans believe American culture to be shallow and anti-intellectual by extension. That’s not to say there is no validity to that critique. There is no major media which counters this argument. Directors in Europe are not staging the works of Baker, Wilson, O’Neill, Nottage, and Vogel in the same way they are staging the works of the European geniuses. These writers are American, a culture which is synonymous more with Rhianna, Disney, and Netflix. I love all three and will defend them, but European directors reasonably believe they don’t need to propogate their culture further than they’ve achieved on their own.
This brings us back to the small theatre in the Nation area. The lead character, as portrayed by artistic director Lisandro Nesis, makes the reveal that his life is, indeed, a musical in an all too literal way. The premise is ludicrous but the staging is inventive and the actors more than game enough to sell the piece. The creative team drinks to a job well done after their all too short run. One can only imagine what their funded ambitions might look like if their shoestring is conceived with such sincerity. Broadway Au Carré is one of the rare musical development spaces outside The United States and United Kingdom. The artists volunteer their time for the love of the art. They offer a perspective on musical theatre that is often missing in European circles. This work is not beneath them, nor is is their the usual contempt for the audience. The theatre offered by Broadway au Carré is done uniformly with the sincerity in the belief in their product. The production lacks the funding and by extension the gloss of the Châtelet and Mogador, but it holds a sense of invention that the others lack. We need craft shops like this for English speaking theatre abroad.
We also need European theatre companies who have sufficient funding to consider the playwright based theatre structure of American culture. Ivo Van Hove’s A View From The Bridge should be just the beginning of an exploration. Until Europeans learn to say Sondheim in the same breath as Chekhov or Kander and Ebb in the same conversation as Brecht without irony American culture will continue to be considered remedial. The advances of American theatre over the past 20th century have gone relatively unmined by European nonprofit theatre companies with their star directors. I look forward to them making the belated discovery.