Through Feb. 12
The Kennedy Center
At first the idea of remounting the musical “Gigi” might sound a little dusty. But director Eric Schaeffer guarantees that his reimagined production featuring Hollywood starlet Vanessa Hudgens in the title role is anything but.
“It doesn’t feel like a revival and that’s exactly what we wanted,” says the out director. “We want it to feel fresh and alive, a new musical inhabited by familiar characters that the audience knows and loves.”
Collette’s “Gigi” began as a novella about a Parisian girl whose grandmother and aunt are grooming her to become a career courtesan; but when she and rich playboy Gaston fall in love, things work out differently than planned. The story was first adapted as a play for the Broadway stage in 1951 starring then-unknown Audrey Hepburn. Later the famed team of lyricist and librettist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe morphed the source material into a hugely successful MGM 1958 musical directed by Vincente Minnelli. In 1973, a less-popular musical version using the Lerner and Loewe score ran for just a few months on Broadway.
Today, the revamped production playing at the Kennedy Center is written by British screenwriter Heidi Thomas best known for the BBC’s popular post-World War II drama “Call the Midwife.” This “Gigi” is new in many ways, yet features memorable tunes from the movie and stage score including “Paris Is Paris Again,” “She’s Not Thinking of Me” and “The Night They Invented Champagne.”
Thomas’ script puts the focus back on Gigi, says Schaeffer. When not changing costumes, Hudgens is on stage throughout the entire show. Even the scenes when Gaston (here played by handsome Corey Cott) is making the rounds of Paris balls, a jealous Gigi can be seen off to the side scanning the society columns for news of her beloved.
Also, the rewrite eliminates what Schaeffer refers to as “the perv factor.” No longer is Gaston twice Gigi’s age. Now she and he are about 18 and 25 respectively. Also, the play’s “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” a salute to girls’ burgeoning sexuality traditionally sung as an elderly roué, now go to Gigi’s grandmother Mamita (Broadway’s Victoria Clark) and Aunt Alicia (Dee Hoty).
“Heidi is a great collaborator,” he says. “She praises my transitions, and is amazed how I can make a musical flow. And I love her writing. As anyone who has seen Thomas’ television work knows. She is able to write in a way that feels period and contemporary at once, not an easy feat.”
Initially, Schaeffer and the “Gigi” producers wanted to cast an unknown in the leading role and make a star. But it didn’t work out that way.
Toward the end of two weeks of intense auditioning in New York, Amanda Hudgens (famous for Disney’s “High School Musical”) came in, Schaeffer recalls.
“We were impressed from the start because she had learned lines and the songs. Sometimes Hollywood people refuse to audition, much less come so prepared. By the end of the audition I said, ‘That’s our Gigi. Let’s hire her now.’ Vanessa has a certain undefinable quality that makes her perfect for the role.”
Romance and scandal were Collette’s stock and trade. Married several times, she had affairs with men and women. Her early books shocked readers. In her youth she performed a music hall act that included a same sex kiss. But when she wrote “Gigi” at the close of World War II, Collette was aging and things were bleak in France. Perhaps for these reasons, she sets the story in happier a time, the Belle Epoque Paris of her youth.
It’s Schaeffer’s first foray in the era and he strived to totally immerse himself. He and his partner spent some time in the city of light investigating Collette’s haunts. But he credits the production’s design team — Derek McLane (scenic), Natasha Katz (lighting) and Catherine Zuber (costumes) — with creating an exquisite, transporting experience.
“It feels like you’re in Paris. During previews when the curtain went up, audiences instantly applauded. That’s a good feeling. You know they want to go there.”
While Schaeffer is a big fan of the Hollywood musical (he counts “Meet Me in St. Louis” starring Judy Garland and also directed by Minnelli as his favorite), he had never seen “Gigi” when producers asked him to direct the revival two years ago. Once watching, he was immediately charmed by its intimacy and pageantry. He was inspired to bring both quiet and big splashy scenes to the project.
Following the Washington run, “Gigi” moves to Broadway’s Neil Simon Theater. Schaeffer’s extensive directing resume mostly lists Signature Theatre in Arlington where he is artistic director, but also includes the Great White Way (“Follies,” “Million Dollar Quartet”). Does knowing the production is New York-bound raise the stakes?
“Wherever you’re working, you do the best job you can,” he says. “That said, knowing the run show doesn’t end here adds pressure but makes it more exciting. We’ll make changes during the D.C. run. You learn a lot in front of audiences — what works and what doesn’t.”