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Miss Klemm (Kerry O'Malley) finds her life turned around as a result of her assignment in Paris.

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An American in Paris Opens May 18 at The Alley Theatre!

The Alley builds a new home for the Gershwin's fascinating rhythms and embraceable rhymes

By EVERETT EVANS
Copyright Houston Chronicle 2008

Today, 81 years after composer George Gershwin's premature death (at age 38, of a brain tumor) and 25 years after the passing of lyricist Ira Gershwin (at 86), the brothers are revered, their enduring songs enshrined as peak achievements of the "Great American Songbook."

Vocalists and musicians of all stripes continually re-interpret such beloved standards as They Can't Take That Away from Me; I Got Rhythm; Someone to Watch Over Me; Embraceable You; Fascinating Rhythm; The Man I Love; Lady, Be Good!; Love Is Here to Stay; A Foggy Day and Strike Up the Band.

Porgy and Bess is considered the great American opera of the 20th century.

"Lost" Gershwin scores and songs are rediscovered — as when Michael Feinstein's 1996 CD, Nice Work If You Can Get It, introduced such previously unrecorded gems as Ask Me Again and Will You Remember Me?

Talented people keep seeking ways to build new shows around those great Gershwin songs — which brings us to the Alley Theatre and its world premiere musical, The Gershwins' An American in Paris, which bows May 18.

The last time playwright Ken Ludwig created a libretto to frame Gershwin songs, the result was the Tony-winning 1992 Broadway smash Crazy for You.

Obviously, Ludwig and all concerned with the Alley premiere are hoping theatrical lightning strikes again.

That lightning has struck more than once already. Other shows created to frame Gershwin standards include the 1983 Broadway hit My One and Only (directed by and starring Tommy Tune) and the Oscar-winning 1951 movie An American in Paris.

Ludwig's current project began with a request from the Gershwin estate to create a stage musical "somehow based on" An American in Paris.

"They had the rights to the movie and had been trying to get an adaptation on for years," Ludwig says. "I hadn't thought about doing another show with the Gershwins' songs. But I had a ton of fun doing Crazy for You. It gave so much joy to so many people. There were still a lot of wonderful Gershwin songs that hadn't been used in Crazy for You. So given the offer, I thought, 'Why not?'"

Yet Ludwig quickly decided a stage adaptation of An American in Paris was not what he wanted to do.

In Alan Jay Lerner's screenplay, Gene Kelly plays an ex-G.I. who stays in Paris after World War II to study painting and juggles relationships with a wealthy older woman who wants to subsidize his art and the young Parisian (played by Leslie Caron) whom he loves.

"I watched the movie afresh, and terrific as it is, the idea of just putting that story on stage didn't appeal to me. I felt there was nowhere to go but down. How could we possibly equal that rendition? The second point was the plot itself; there just wasn't that much to it."

Moreover, the film lacked the farcical elements that have been central to most of Ludwig's stage work. "It also was one of the rare MGM musicals not about putting on a show," Ludwig says. "But I wanted to have that element because I could use it farcically and it would let me bring in more songs."

Ludwig hit on a more promising approach: an imagined, behind-the-scenes story about the making of the movie.

"I wanted a story that's inately comic, but where you feel something for the characters. There's such genuine feeling in the Gershwins' songs that the story had to have that, too. When I hit on the notion, 'What if the American of the title were a woman?' that was when the idea began to fall into place."

In Ludwig's scenario, Monumental Pictures boss Louis Goldman sends his no-nonsense secretary Rebecca Klemm to Paris to locate French music-hall legend Michel Gerard, who's slated to make his movie comeback but has gone missing just days before shooting is to start. When Rebecca locates Michel, fireworks, love and complications ensue.

"Our heroine has led a sheltered life; she never really came out of her cocoon and spread her wings," Ludwig says. "The story is how her life changes because she's thrust into this new world called Paris; how her soul is saved by this wonderful, glamorous, funny experience."

As Ludwig's story begins, the movie being planned is nothing like the film as we know it. "We see things that will inspire it, that will actually end up in the movie. My story is how they end up making the movie we know."

The Gershwin estate opened the entire catalog to Ludwig for the project — excepting, as always, the score for Porgy and Bess. Only a few of the songs used in the film turn up in the new show. With one or two exceptions (such as Nice Work If You Can Get It), Ludwig avoided songs he'd used in Crazy for You.

"My foremost consideration was finding songs that told the story as best I could," Ludwig says.

Among the best-known songs included are 'S Wonderful, Funny Face, Love Walked In, They All Laughed and Fascinating Rhythm. Among the not so well-known are Meadow Serenade, Isn't It a Pity?, Wake Up Brother and Dance and Home Blues, Ira's setting of the "homesickness" theme from the tone poem An American in Paris.

Though Alley artistic director Gregory Boyd has directed musicals, they've been the pop shows of Frank Wildhorn, such as Jekyll & Hyde. American in Paris marks his maiden voyage at the helm of a traditional musical comedy.

"For years, I've wanted to find something we could do with the Gershwin songbook because it's a classic part of American theater literature," Boyd says.

It seemed inevitable that American in Paris, in development the past couple of years, would test its wings at the Alley. For one thing, all the Alley's premieres of the past few years have been Ludwig's: the comedies Leading Ladies and Be My Baby and his dramatization of Treasure Island. For another, Boyd's been itching to get back to new musicals, having done three (all by Frank Wildhorn) in the 1990s.

"This show is a 21st-century valentine to the great MGM musicals," Boyd says. "It covers a lot of ground in its moods, from farcical to very emotional. That's something we wanted to explore — the emotional range of the Gershwins' songs. Ken's really nailed the half-dozen or so crucial book songs so that they seem to have been written for that exact spot in this show."

Boyd has assembled a team of top Broadway veterans: leading man Harry Groener, a three-time Tony nominee who starred in Crazy for You; production designer Douglas Schmidt (Into the Woods, 42nd Street); Tony-winning orchestrator Doug Besterman (The Producers); music supervisor Rob Berman; and Tony-nominated choreographer Randy Skinner.

Skinner says the show stresses traditional virtues audiences most enjoy.

"People respond to a beautiful melody," Skinner says. "That never goes out of style. And people love dancing — especially tap dancing. So there's a lot of that."

The Alley's American in Paris extends the trend of new shows built around old songs — and not just in Broadway's surge of jukebox shows built on pop catalogs.

San Diego's Old Globe Theatre this spring produced its big premiere musical Dancing in the Dark, a retitled stage version of the MGM musical The Bandwagon, keeping its slew of standards by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz.

Chicago's Goodman Theatre in September will produce its world premiere Turn of the Century, Tommy Tune's first directorial project in years, with a new book by Jersey Boys scripters Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, and a score made up of hits by not one songwriter, but many greats: Berlin, Rodgers and Hart, the Gershwins and others

For now, everyone at the Alley is preoccupied with getting American in Paris launched successfully. As with any such project, the talents behind the show say it's all about making it the best it can be for audiences here. Yes, they'd love for it to go on, but that's in the hands of others — potential producers who will weigh its prospects, and finally, the Gershwin estate.

Just days ago, another new Gershwin project was confirmed for Broadway next spring: Harry Connick, Jr. will star in Nice Work If You Can Get It, with a new script by Joe DiPietro. That would seem to make a Broadway run for American in Paris less likely. But who says there couldn't be two Gershwin shows in one season? There used to be, when the brothers were alive. Anyway, none of that precludes an afterlife for American in Paris on regional stages. While none of Ludwig's recent Alley premieres have played New York (yet), Leading Ladies has been produced in regional venues and Treasure Island is slated for London next season.

After attending a preview, theater historian Robert Kimball, artistic adviser to the Gershwin and Cole Porter estates, declared himself "pleased" with the show at that stage. "Ken's done a good job creating new contexts to work around each song. We'll have (producers) coming in to look at it. I think it will have a future life beyond the run here. I think it deserves it."

"I'm just trying to write a real American musical in the old sense," Ludwig says, "one that gives people a really good time. Where they're transported out of themselves to a world they love being part of; where they laugh a lot, maybe shed a tear, and when it's finished, they feel exhilarated, that their lives have been changed in some way. That's what all great musicals do."

Regardless of how well American in Paris achieves Ludwig's goal, it's very clear that the songs of George and Ira Gershwin are here to stay.

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