An American in Paris and Gigi Cast Recordings: Are They “Magnifique”?
Two Broadway musicals opened this spring, each one set in Paris and each one based on a film directed by Vincenete Minnelli. An American in Paris and Gigi both won Academy Awards for Best Picture, and both boasted the involvement of Alan Jay Lerner as screenwriter (Lerner also provided the lyrics for Gigi). One of these musicals bowled critics and audiences over, receiving awards and ticket sales. The other limped along with mediocre attendance, disappointed critics, and was mostly ignored by the Tony nominating committee.
Now, An American in Paris and Gigi have each been given an original cast recording. Though I am always grateful for any record producer who brings us a new cast album, it seems as though two are as contrasting in appeal as their stage productions. An American in Paris is a sumptuous record of the stage production and an expert capturing of the unforgettable George and Ira Gershwin score. Gigi is a frantic, uneven cast recording that helps to underline why the musical was better suited to the intimacies of the film.
An American in Paris
One can easily wonder if the Gershwin brothers ever wrote a bad song in their entire career. Indeed, so many of their songs have been the highlights of their original musicals and have become commonplace standards used to populate musicals build around their work (Crazy for You, My One and Only, Nice Work If You Can Get It), so listeners already know they are going to enjoy a list of great music. A few of the songs that made their way into the 1951 film (“I Got Rhythm”, “S’Wonderful” and “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise”) are joined by the likes of “Shall We Dance?” and “They Can’t Take That Away from Me?”, rounding out a pleasing score.
The best part of this cast recording is executed by the vocally powerful (and very handsome) Max Von Essen as the singer "Henri." Von Essen gives a breathtaking rendition of "I’ll Build Stairway to Paradise" which, in itself, more than justifies his Supporting Actor Tony nomination. He knows how to deliver a song, avoiding the trappings of belters delivering power ballads (a la Wicked), and savors the ins and outs of storytelling that a touch of subtlety can allow.
Much of the cast recording is dance music, and in many situations that can feel a bit “ho-hum”, great for background music but not always engaging. That is not true here. In fact, the orchestrations by Christopher Austin are so electric and full of life, they are an event unto themselves. The music bursts with unmitigated joy one moment and slides into something contemplative or edgy the next. Each moment is emotionally nuanced by Austin’s work. A good orchestrator makes the songs sound great, but a great orchestrator strives to use instrumentation, tempo and rhythm to tell a story. This is truly an asset to An American in Paris, which relies on music to support the storytelling through dance.
An American in Paris may not be the “definitive” Gershwin album, nor does it aspire or need to be. It is, however, a sparkling cast recording with a lovely performances and expert orchestrations that captures, with aplomb, the show currently dazzling Broadway audiences. As cast recordings go, “who could ask for anything more?”
Gigi on Broadway has now, twice, proven to be a difficult beast on Broadway. The 1973 revival lasted for 103 performances and was mostly forgotten about until the recent revival in the spring of 2015. That production received mixed reviews and closed after 86 performances. Even the 1958 film, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture, hasn’t held up with contemporary audiences, most-likely due to its uncomfortable plot centered on prostituting a teenage girl to a wealthy playboy. Other than its sublime Lerner and Loewe score, it baffles to think anyone thought a new version of Gigi would fly on Broadway.
The cast recording of Gigi features a very starry cast, with the likes of Broadway stalwarts Howard McGilllin, Victoria Clark and Dee Hoty. They are all in fine voice here, but the score feels strident and leaves one wondering if the production ever slowed down enough for the actors to breathe. What was intimate and understated onstage, has become musically overblown in an attempt to “open the show up.” The best part of the film is its understated intimacy. There are five central characters to Gigi, and the story really does not need to step outside of them. It is a disservice to do so.
One of the films’ most delightful moments is “The Night They Invented Champagne”, which is a festive character ditty of celebration for Gigi, her Grandmother, and the lothario Gaston. In the revival (and subsequently the cast recording), the number opens up for the entire city of Paris to weigh-in on their private celebration. The song stops being about anything, because these overexcited Parisians have no knowledge of or investment in the fact that this teenage girl has just won a bet. A three-person private moment suddenly morphs into “Be Our Guest”. It’s easy to understand why those involved in this revisal felt the need to open things up and take little moments and try to make them have big Broadway flashiness, but some stories just don’t require that. In fact, Gigi is hurt by this logic. Little musicals like Fun Home and Avenue Q understand this need for intimacy.
What is good here are the voices and the Gigi recording, though rushed, does have nice moments in fits and starts. Victoria Clark sounds ethereal as usual singing “Say a Prayer for Me Tonight”, though why this song was taken out of the hands of the title character is a mystery to me. Howard McGillin croons with his usual creaminess, and is especially fun on “Paris Is Paris Again.” Corey Cott, who was ever-so-wonderful in Newsies, is fine here, but the making of Gaston more palatably younger doesn’t justify what is done to Gigi. Cott, and his youngish, just post-pubescent tenor, makes the character come across as milquetoast.
Of course, I saved TV musical star Vanessa Hudgens for last. I really wanted her to succeed in the title role because I do think she has a charm that could have brought something to Gigi. Her singing is technically fine, but even on this cast recording there is no depth of character or variety. Songs are delivered in a rote fashion, and wonderful musical numbers like “The Parisians” are void of any comedic flair. I feel like it is poised to come out of her, but reticent to do so. I haven’t given up on this young actress, and wish her all the best as she steps into the role of “Rizzo” for the live television production of Grease.
Would I dissuade anyone from purchasing this recording of Gigi? No. It has its moments. I would caution them that it’s not as wonderful as you hoped it would be, but it is an accurate depiction of the show that played the Neil Simon Theatre.