In American pop culture, there may be nothing as recognizable as the music of George and Ira Gershwin. From “Rhapsody in Blue” to “I’ve Got Rhythm,” the jazzy, catchy tunes have stuck around for almost a century.
Now they’ve been given a new life in “An American in Paris,” a Broadway musical based on the 1951 film of the same name that will leap across the Starlight Theatre stage starting July 11. Incorporating the Gershwin tunes with complicated ballet sequences, the 2015 show brings not only a new look to Broadway musicals but an old sound that remains refreshingly modern.
That’s partly thanks to the work of Bill Elliott, who helped orchestrate the Broadway score for “Paris” and tweaked it for the touring production. Elliott took popular tunes and songs meant as orchestra stand-alones and crafted them to support singers and highlight ballerinas, always preserving the brilliance of George Gershwin’s music itself.
“It’s completely magical to me, unlike anyone else’s music, in that every bar and every note makes perfect sense, and I know why every note is there,” Elliott said.
Elliott, Christopher Austin and Don Sebesky are the Tony-Award-winning team who took Gershwin’s 1929 orchestral piece “An American in Paris,” as well as various popular tunes, and crafted them into the Broadway score.
Despite Elliott’s experience with re-creating old movie musical styles, he was surprised to learn that the stage musical and its score were not intended to re-create the Gene Kelly/Leslie Caron film.
“It’s quite a bit different than the movie,” he said. “It’s broadly similar, but the story is different, the characters are different; it’s deeper and darker and a richer story, I think. The way that the music is used is quite a bit different, too.
“So, while I did bring in a bit of the sensibility of the MGM musicals … there’s very little in the Broadway musical that sounds like what’s in the movie.”
Instead, Elliott aimed to have the music reflect the setting by capturing the original spirit of the Gershwin music, which lends itself well to the joyous and classically beautiful choreography sequences.
In keeping with the movie, the show incorporates Gershwin’s orchestral scores for complicated ballet sequences. But the stage version adds an element that invites dancing. As in the film, an American soldier named Jerry stays in Paris at the end of World War II to become a painter and falls for a Frenchwoman named Lise. But whereas in the movie Lise is a shop girl, in the play she’s also a dancer. Sara Esty, a classically trained ballerina who was the Lise alternate on Broadway, has taken on the role for the touring production.
Esty, who danced professionally for almost 10 years (including as a soloist with the Miami City Ballet) before joining the cast of the Broadway show, had previously danced to classical Gershwin in the ballet “Who Cares?” But being a part of a musical theater production did come with challenges.
“It is a constant learning process, scary at first but very exciting and gratifying in so many new ways,” she said. “I love being able to offer the strengths I have as a trained ballerina and using them to gain more knowledge about the performing arts.”
The dancing isn’t all that’s choreographed here.
“What’s really remarkable about this show is what it looks like visually,” Elliott said. “When you see in front of you these ballets — and not just the ballets, but even the way the sets change and the way that the cast members move. … I see new things visually every time I see it.”
But despite the 88-year-old music, this isn’t solely a show for an older crowd. Elliott said he thinks the struggles of the post-war Parisian young people will resonate with anyone looking to follow their dreams.
“This is a young, vibrant, exciting theatrical production — it’s not an old museum piece,” he said. “I think it says a lot to young people, and it will really speak to them.”
“An American in Paris” runs July 11-16 at Starlight Theatre, 4600 Starlight Road. See kcstarlight.com or call 816-363-7827.
Also new onstage
In a co-production with Theater in the Park, the White Theatre presents “Beauty and the Beast” July 8-23 at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City. The musical tells the classic tale of the woman who is taken prisoner by a prince transformed into a beast and falls in love with who he really is. See thejkc.org.