Royal Ballet artistic director Christopher Wheeldon has been a fan of Gene Kelly’s “An American in Paris” since he saw it as a child, but avoided revisiting the movie until after his stage adaptation opened on Broadway. In prepping the 2015 Tony-winner, he paid a visit to the home of Kelly’s widow, Patricia Ward Kelly, to offer his respects and browse the movie legend’s archive. “He wasn’t really looking for anything,” Kelly tells Coast Magazine. “I think he’s been very intent on this notion of creating something new and not so much connecting to the original work.”
The touring production of “An American in Paris,” at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts through May 7, offers a slightly darker take on Kelly and co-director Vincent Minnelli’s 1952 Oscar-winning film. While it still glistens with Gershwin’s songs, Wheeldon’s adaptation is set in a city plagued by a post-war hangover.
Kelly first met her late husband back in 1985, when she was working on a documentary for Smithsonian Magazine. She was unfamiliar with the film icon at the time, but soon he invited her to Los Angeles to become his personal biographer and, in time, his wife. Recently, she sat down with Coast Magazine to compare Kelly’s vision with the Broadway musical, and look back at a legacy that inspired up-to-the- moment movies like “La La Land.”
COAST: I guess you’ve seen the play. What did you think Gene would say?
PWK: I hate to comment on it because it’s such a different beast. Gene never went to see versions of things that he did. For example, “Singing in the Rain,” when it was done on stage, he never went to see those. I think it’s hard when you take something that’s so iconic and try to translate it.
COAST: I understand the stage production is a little darker than the movie.
PWK: They felt it was important to share the dark side of post war. You have it in the movie. You know that Lise (played by Leslie Caron), was held and kept protected. They felt that you needed this contrast of the dark in order to celebrate the light. I think that’s up to debate.
COAST: The show seems antithetical to his efforts to translate dance into a cinematic form.
PWK: What he wanted to do was change the look of dance on film, which you see very prominently in “An American in Paris,” which is how you use the camera to capture dance. That became his whole raison d’etre. He was looking at different ways to use light and color and kinetic movement, like taking the camera literally into the street so that you’re constantly moving at the camera, taking it off a proscenium stage.
COAST: I understand in later years he choreographed the climactic ballet sequence for the stage at one point.
PWK: It was to have been at the three tenors in Los Angeles, to be part of that night. It was to involve multiple pairs of dancers. And we actually went to San Francisco to meet with the San Francisco ballet to discuss that. Unfortunately that didn’t come…