‘An American in Paris’ Owes Its Broadway Success to a Frenchman

Jean-Luc Choplin
Chatelet theatre director Jean-Luc Choplin. Photographer: Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty Images

For Jean-Luc Choplin, it is fitting that the Tony-awards winning Broadway hit “An American in Paris” was made in France.

The 64-year-old award-winning director of the Chatelet Theater in Paris last year produced the musical -- in English with French subtitles -- with a view to eventually taking the theater version of Vincente Minnelli’s 1951 feel-good movie to the Big Apple. Choplin’s plan has paid off, bringing with it the promise of future projects.

“It makes me happy that a show created here is re-boosting Broadway’s pride,” Choplin said during an interview in his Parisian office overlooking the Seine river.

The play about a young American soldier, Jerry Mulligan, played by Gene Kelly in the film, falling in love with a French girl, Lise Bouvier, in a much-romanticized Paris just after World War II has been running in New York’s Palace Theater since March. It garnered four Tony Awards this month and was the fifth most sold show on Broadway last week, fetching $1.44 million since it opened there.

For Choplin, the play’s success is a vindication of his efforts to hoist Paris onto the musical theater scene dominated by New York and London. The City of Light, better known for its bare-breasted cancan-dancing sound-and-light cabarets staged by the Moulin Rouge or the Lido, can get a bigger piece of the theater pie with shows of “exceptional quality,” Choplin says.

Of the “American in Paris,” reviewer Nancy Salz wrote in New York Arts on April 13, “It could have been created during the Golden Age of Broadway, so seamlessly integrated is the extraordinary, ballet-driven musical.”

Business Savvy

In his 10 years at the helm of the Parisian venue, Choplin has produced more than 20 musicals, overcoming French audiences’ traditional indifference to the American art form. Along with classics such as “My Fair Lady,” “West Side Story,” “Singin’ in the Rain” and “The Sound of Music,” he has produced musical theater icon Stephen J. Sondheim’s plays “Sweeney Todd” and “A Little Night Music.”

A former Walt Disney employee, Choplin routinely cites Michael Eisner as one of the people who’ve influenced him. The theater man, who hails from Anjou, in northwestern France, has degrees in economics and music and has always been associated with the arts, including as the general administrator of dance at the Ballet de l’Opera de Paris, working with Rudolf Nureyev.

To his current role, he has brought a rare mix of artistic sensibility and business savvy. He sold his production of “Sweeney Todd” to the Houston Grand Opera and the Chicago Opera. The latter also took his “My Fair Lady” and “The King and I.”

New Recipe

With “An American in Paris,” Choplin says he has found a new recipe for investment.

The Chatelet footed only half the bill. Following the Gershwin’s family’s advice, Choplin teamed with U.S. producers. The Americans funded a part of the rights, booklets, rehearsals and artists’ contracts, while the scenery, costumes and props were on Paris. A four million-euro ($4.47 million) investment was paid off in 40 full houses. Further royalties are pure profit.

The play won Tony awards for choreography, lighting and scenic design as well as orchestration.

“Before An American, no one even thought about Paris, it was considered a place where musicals didn’t exist and could have no success,” Choplin said.

He’s now in talks with Broadway producers on another big project that he declined to elaborate on. His dream is for a U.S. success for his next creations, ‘’Passion’’ -- one of Sondheim’s less known works -- and ‘’Carmencita’’ -- a Cuban version of Bizet’s opera.

For Choplin, that would ensure Chatelet a “happily ever after” life like the endings of some of his productions.

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