What is it about the musical?
People argue about it, talk about it, disdain it, embrace it with a fanatic’s fervor. But there’s no question that musicals are here to stay. It just often depends on answering the question: What kind of musical?
Of late, there’s been plenty of examples of seeing and experiencing the kind of transformation the American musical has gone through right here on local stages.
Local audiences have just experienced Arena Stage’s production of the classic 1950s musical “Pajama Game” with its dance-heavy, jazzy style that had connections to other electric shows like “Guys and Dolls.” At Signature Theater, you could go back to the 1930s as Ken Ludwig explored the classic style of Broadway shows of that period — boy meets girl, they fall in love, they sing, they dance, there are plenty of chorus girls and boys, there’s comedians and romance, and mostly there’s song and dance and exuberance and gotta-sing, gotta dance with the help of George Gershwin.
Musicals have made gigantic swings and strides. The great, moving, narrative and theme-rich works of Rodgers and Hammerstein were a dramatic (literally) departure from their predecessors. Classic shows like “Oklahoma” (Agnes DeMille’s genius choreography), “Carousel,” “The King and I” and “South Pacific explored such themes as American expansion, racial bigotry and the clash of culture to set a standard of seriousness.
Other thing happened. The popularity of English-style operatic musicals like “Evita,” “Jesus Christ Super Star,” “Les Miserables” and “The Phantom of the Opera” or contemporary narrative driven musical takes on the angst and foibles of modern society like The Falsetto series, and the more recent “Dear Evan Hansen,” a hit Broadway musical (it started at Arena Stage) that takes on teen suicide.
So, where does that leave “An American in Paris”, whose road company is winding down its stay at the Kennedy Center (it closes out Jan. 7, moving on to Florida)?
For that you might want to talk to actress, dancer and all-around performer Allison Walsh, who has been involved in this musical production of a classic American MGM musical “from its inception.”
Walsh has done many turns in “American,” including being dance captain. Now, she’s one of the captains of the ship, starring as Lise Dassin, the Parisian ballerina who’s the object of affections for no less than three swains in this spectacular production set in post World War II Paris. “I was part of the original readings and auditions for the show, way back, it seems,” she said, and “was part of the production which performed in Paris, which was one of the most remarkable, rich experiences of my live as well as on Broadway. To be part of this production and to actually be in Paris, that’s remarkable, to say the least.”
To some extent, if you’re a fan of old MGM musicals (see “Showboat” and “Singing in the Rain”), if you’ve seen the movie (which won an Academy Ward for best picture), “An American in Paris” is lurking in your consciousness, somewhere, as much as the spectacular, enduring music by George and Ira Gershwin.
“Actually, I hadn’t seen the movie, although I’ve seen films like ‘Gigi’ and ‘Lili,’ which had Leslie Caron as their stars. She’s a wonderful, sweet lady, we met her when she came to one of the Broadway productions.
The film version starred uber-American dancer and musical star Gene Kelly as a struggling American painter who meets a Parisian waif (Leslie Caron) and ballerina and falls in her love with her.”
“It’s a different in a lot of ways,” Walsh says of the stage musical versus the film. “The movie setting was in the 1950 when things were much better. This is much darker. Paris had just come out of years of occupation, the people are struggling to gain confidence, things are hard for everyone, the war was like a cloud over the city.
For Walsh, every time she comes to Washington, D.C., it’s like a homecoming. Her roots — as a dancer and performer — run deep here. Her first teacher was the mother of Julie Kent, now the Artistic Director of Washington Ballet, where Walsh danced for a time. Welch also spent six years with the acclaimed Joffrey Ballet. She was nine years old, when she came to perform at the Kennedy Center with the Joffrey.
She was and is a trained ballerina, but for her and for the show there’s more to it than that.
The show is directed and choreographed by the much admired Christopher Wheeldon, who’s given a cutting-edge touch to the proceedings, with a distinctive stylish choreography that includes performers taking part in changing the sets so that everything seems seamless.
While there have been a few murmurs of critical dissent, the show opening on Broadway to large acclaim and popularity in April 2015 after the Paris debut at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris. On Broadway, it won four 2015 Tony Awards, four Drama Desk Awards, four Outer Critics Circle Awards, the Drama League Award for Best Musical, among many other awards.
“This is different for me because it embraces and throws out many challenges,” Walsh said. “I was trained as a dancer, but here you really are stretching your acting (and singing ) muscles. It’s not just about any one thing. You are always learning, about yourself and what you can do, about the character, about the whole show. It’s just been an amazing experience.”
And let’s not forget that “An American in Paris” is a musical, but of a kind that puts it in the classical canon with the Gershwin touch and songs and numbers like “ ‘S Wonderful,” “But Not For Me,” the spectacular “Stairway to Paradise” and “I Got Rhythm,” among others, as well as iconic orchestral music.