It is a common observation (and one I’ve earlier made myself in these pages) that most of the shows on Broadway, especially the musicals, are reiterations of earlier works.
A flippant and occasionally true explanation for the persistence of all these Broadway revenants is that brand-new work frightens producers. More often, though, I think, the blame or credit goes to the fact that, both as artists and as audiences, we are seldom through with anything we ever found worthwhile. If it intrigued us before, we want to play with it again. We want to see different facets of the jewel. It is an honorable impulse, not a cowardly one.
We could see that impulse at work in three very different revivals Broadway witnessed this last year: the migration of the movie An American in Paris to the stage, an archival revival of The King and I, and a new production of the recent hit Spring Awakening, this time by a troupe called Deaf West Theatre that puts non-hearing and non-speaking actors front and center.
Having not quite started my movie-going years in 1951 when Vincente Minelli and Gene Kelly gave us the cinematic original of An American in [End Page 273] Paris, this MGM musical wasn’t something I’d experienced personally, at least not before readying myself to write this piece. But of course it’s a landmark of popular culture, something cineastes and theater buffs are all aware of. Being one myself, I know how many people with taste treat the movie as a classic. But honestly, on finally watching the movie, I wasn’t feeling it, and I suspect that director and choreographer Wheeldon, and book author Craig Lucas weren’t feeling it either. I was surprised at all the things that looked wrong to the modern eye in this movie, and it was clear to me, when I saw this last year’s stage adaptation, that Wheeldon and Lucas were fixing many of those very things I spotted—from which I infer they were seeing them too.
Clearly, Minelli and his collaborators had set out to capture some of the exuberance that infected Americans in postwar Europe, and I think that those who love the movie are partly responding to that sense of glamor. As it happens, I myself enjoyed a bit of the life of postwar Americans in Europe, albeit as a small child. In 1951 my father moved our family to Vienna, where he ran a successor to the Marshall Plan for Austria for a couple of years. We lived like the viceroys we were, in a requisitioned house that had reputedly belonged to a wartime munitions magnate. And yes, there certainly was a glamor to it.
This gives me just enough experience to state that what the movie presents is more false than true. While the moviemakers obviously had some sense of what they were trying to depict, they missed the way Europe was still reeling, trying to clear away rubble, restart industry, and resettle various diasporas, all amid massive poverty. Americans living there were uneasy beneficiaries of the ruin their military might had partly inflicted. In France, as Mary Louise Roberts has recently revealed in her book What Soldiers Do, Americans during what amounted to an occupation had drawn much resentment for their debaucheries and rapes of Frenchwomen. The Third Man, with its profiteering, corruption, and strong suggestions of prostitution, is a much more accurate cinematic snapshot of the mood of that period than An American in Paris. The Americans were still overlords, economic and military. There might have been a few penniless bohemians among them, like Jerry, the character Gene Kelly portrayed in the movie (one of my father’s childhood friends, most likely gay, had run away to Paris to live like that), but it would have been hard to disassociate the Americans in Europe from the spoils of victory.
Thus the notion one would get from the movie, that to be American in that Europe was to be adored and easily accepted, was an oversimplification. The movie did not do well in France (to MGM’s...