By Laura Latzko
Some shows have a way of transporting viewers to another time and place and bringing them into characters’ lives. An American in Paris, a musical inspired by a 1951 film starring Gene Kelly, touches audiences with an engaging story, realistic period costumes and sets and melodic Gershwin music.
The traveling U.S. tour for An American in Paris will visit ASU Gammage from April 18 to 23.
The show originally opened on Broadway in April 2015 and ran for 623 performances. In 2015, it won Tony Awards for Best Lighting Design of a Musical, Set, Orchestrations and Choreography.
An American in Paris follows Jerry Mulligan, an American who moves to Paris following World War II to pursue a career as a painter. In France, he meets Adam Hochberg, a fellow veteran and composer; Henri Baurel, the son of French industrialists and an aspiring performer and a ballerina named Lise Dassin.
Jerry falls for Lise but soon becomes entangled in a love triangle with her and Henri, who she has already promised to marry.
The musical features a number of songs by George Gershwin, including “I Got Rhythm,” “S Wonderful,” “An American in Paris” and “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise.”
During the ASU Gammage engagement, McGee Maddox and Ryan Steele will play Jerry Mulligan, and Sara Esty and her sister Leigh-Ann Esty will take on the role of Lise Dassin.
The show also stars Etai Benson as Adam Hochberg; Emily Ferranti, as Milo Davenport and Nick Spangler, as Henri Baurel.
Spangler originated the role of Greg Madison in the Broadway musical It Shoulda Been You. He has also been in Broadway productions of The Book of Mormon and Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella and off-Broadway productions of The Fantasticks.
Spangler talked about being in the cast of An American in Paris for the last six months during a phone interview.
Q: Does the show have a pretty big cast? I know there’s a lot of big dance numbers in the show.
A: We have 25 people onstage. Then we have 10 swings offstage, which in my opinion is completely unheard of for a Broadway show to have 10 swings. That means there are five men and five women who are in the theater every night backstage, ready to go on if someone gets sick or injured. That’s happened multiple times because it is such a dance-heavy show… We travel with our own orchestra as well, just 13 pieces. Then, we’ve got the crew, stage managers. I think when all is said and done, we travel from city to city with 74 people.
Q: Is this show unlike any other you’ve ever done, especially with the amount of dancing involved?
A: It really is. I told people when I saw it On Broadway that it is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Christopher Wheeldon, our director and choreographer, is this god of the ballet world, and he’s really conceived this whole show. It is really, really dance-heavy. It opens with this 10-minute ballet that really shows the city of Paris coming out of the darkness of this Nazi occupation for four years. The first ten minutes, there’s no dialogue, but you really see an incredible story unfold in front of you… To start off with such strong imagery and storytelling really sets people off on the right foot to be watching the show. What’s so cool about it is it really is this perfect marriage between ballet and musical theater. It really does have show-stopping numbers that make you want to jump to your feet… Then, it also has these beautiful ballets, performed by these incredible dancers, who have basically been training their entire lives to do exactly what they are doing.
We have cast members who danced with Miami City Ballet or San Francisco Ballet for 10 years and now they are onstage with us. People, I think, are just blown away by what every cast member can do…The fact that they found these people who are not only completely accomplished ballet dancers but can sing and act just as well is mind-boggling.
Q: Have you had very much ballet training in your career?
A: My whole life, I’ve been doing musical theater. So, jazz and musical theater dance and movement is what I’m more comfortable with. I went to New York University, and I took three years of ballet there. I definitely have a good understanding of it and a good base, but I wouldn’t say it is a forte of mine.
Q: Is your part dance heavy-heavy in a different way or more challenging vocally?
A: Out of the entire company, I have the largest singing role. I sing the most songs, and I actually sing the first song in the show. There’s that opening ballet sequence, and my character is introduced, and right away, we’re launched into I’ve Got Rhythm.
My big second-act, show-stopping number is the song Stairway to Paradise. It turns into this Radio City Music Hall fantasy sequence with 10 women and 10 guys in tuxedos, top hats and feathered headdress. I’m right at the center.
Q: It sounds like that number has a 1940s/1950s style.
A: My character, as you get to know him, he’s the son of wealthy textile merchants in Paris. He’s poised to take over the business, but he secretly wants to be a song-and-dance performer, but he’s afraid his parents will look down on it. He’s terrified of them finding out. So, he rehearses in secret without them knowing.
Q: Is this character similar to others you have played or is he very different in personality?
A: I’m actually happy to say that he’s one of the most complex characters that I’ve ever played. There’s a face value to him that the audience sees, but then by the second act, a lot of secrets and history are revealed about him. I think the audience starts to see him in a new light.
Q: What has it been like traveling around with such a large cast for the last six months?
A: It’s such an intense experience putting up a show and then traveling with each other to every city. It’s really incredible. It’s like nothing else I’ve ever done.
Q: Do you get to experience the cities together?
A: We’re in Las Vegas right now. Tomorrow, there’s a group of us going to Caesar’s Palace, and we’re doing a spa day together. In Los Angeles, we put on a benefit for the ACLU. We created the entire thing by ourselves on one of our nights off…It’s not like we just show up for the show together, perform at night and that’s it. We really do spend all of our time together…I’m actually traveling with my wife and my son, so I’m a little bit separated from the group because I have the family obligations…It’s been amazing. I can’t imagine doing this show and having them in New York, away from me.
Q: I’m curious. Is the show very similar to the film?
A: It’s considerably different. A lot of the songs are the same. There’s actually a couple of additional Gershwin songs that aren’t in the movie. But the script is 100 percent rewritten. They really expanded a lot of characters. My character in the movie is a much smaller role. In the movie, he’s already an established cabaret performer. So, that whole storyline of me with all of these hopes and dreams of performing doesn’t exist. There’s more backstory as far as what I was doing during the war and my family as well. The relationship with Lise and my character is much richer than it was in the movie.
Another character Milo, who is this sort of wealthy debutant from America, her role is much more expanded. She gets a great number called Shall We Dance in the show…The choreography is all completely original, all completely different from the movie. But what’s great is the basic story is still there, all the music is still there. People who are long-time fans of the movie come and see the show in a new light, and people who aren’t familiar with it are introduced to it and go, “Oh man, I really want to see this Gene Kelly version.”
Q: Did you see the movie before you started in the show?
A: I saw it for the first time before I auditioned. I wanted to hear the French accent. Especially singing with the French accent, that was a little daunting for me. So, I watched it then, and I’ve watched it once since then. Because I’d fallen in love with the stage version, I wanted to be reminded of where it came from.
Q: Is this the first time you’ve had to sing in French?
A: It was actually really funny because right before this show, I was doing a production of Cabaret, and I was playing Cliff, the American in Cabaret. So, I had just spent six weeks with everyone speaking in German accents and me not speaking in an accent. Now, I came to this show, and I’m speaking in French. So, it was really confusing. I had all the German in my head, and I had to make the French work. When I started, the director kept telling me, “It’s way too thick. You’re doing too much of an accent. You need to back it off…” The singing is actually the hardest part because certain syllables change the sound.
Q: When you think about the two shows you did before this [Cabaret and The Book of Mormon], they have very different tones from An American in Paris. What was it like doing such different shows in succession?
A: [The Book of Mormon] is so silly, outrageous. It’s from the creators of South Park, and it’s so fun, and the audience has a blast the whole time. Cabaret, while there’s these sexy jazz numbers, and it’s really entertaining music, the message behind it is so heavy. The show ends on such a heavy note…It’s interesting coming to An American in Paris from that because our show starts, and the Nazi flags are one of the first symbols you see because as I said, the show starts at the end of the Nazi occupation. So, it starts from that dark place, but really the story of the show is coming out of the darkness and into the light.
Q: It sounds like this character is one you can really relate to as a performer.
A: That’s been one of the cool things. With a lot of the twists in his story and his journey, I’ve been able to find moments from my life that relate to it.
Q: Does your character have an air of being wealthy about him?
A: You get to see him in different settings. The world that he comes from is that buttoned-up, presentational family. So, there are scenes with my family, my mother in particular, where you do get to see that they’ve got a stick up their butts. But there’s also been a reason why. During the occupation, wealthy families like mine had to entertain Nazi officers. Just for our own survival, we had to put up with it and wine and dine them…You see that side of me and my family, but you also see me hanging out with the starving artists in Paris and really relishing it and loving that freedom.
Q: It sounds like the Nazi occupation is a major part of the story.
A: It’s the backdrop for the entire show. With all of the storylines, it all boils down to what’s been going on for the past few years. The story takes place in the year after it happens. It’s still very fresh for all of the characters. That’s one of the things that the woman who plays my mother that her character is going through. She’s spent these four years covering up and having to whisper in shadows.
Q: I’m sensing that even with smaller roles, the characters are pretty complex.
A: The script that our book writer, Craig Lucas, wrote has really complex characters. There’s so much nuance and so many interesting facets to all of them.
Q: Is the Gershwin music in the show challenging?
A: For me personally, no. It’s quite the opposite. I spent my college years learning how to sing classical musical theater. So, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Rodgers and Hart, Gershwin, Lerner and Loewe, that’s really what I love to sing and what my voice is really suited for. I can, of course, branch out and sing more contemporary stuff like The Book of Mormon…But I just love the simplicity of the melodies. The lyrics are simple and beautiful. It’s a nice, warm tone in my voice, so I just love singing them.
Q: Was that what drew you to the show, that it was so up your alley musically?
A: That was one of the first things that I realized. I actually auditioned for the original Broadway production and ended up not getting it. When they announced the national tour, I immediately called my agent and said, “Look, they are sending out this national tour. I still love this role. I would really love to do it.”
Q: Did you do anything different during the second audition process?
A: Some of the audition material had changed a little bit because the show had changed, while they were creating it on Broadway. The director just worked with me as far as bringing it slightly more down-to-earth, rather than being showy and musical-theatery.
Q: I can imagine it’s difficult to do in a show with such big musical numbers.
A: Especially you are singing a number, and in the middle of the number, there’s a little scene with dialogue. Everything is so heightened because you are singing, and speech becomes heightened as well. A couple times during the rehearsal process, our director would be like, “All right Nick, just remember that even though you are in the middle of a song, you are still a real person, and you have to say these lines like a real person would.”
Q: What have you found to be the biggest challenges with this show?
A: The other aspect of that is my character is the first voice of hope and light in the show. There’s a lot of darkness at the beginning, and then my character sweeps onstage…There’s a lot of argument about life and art and beauty and happiness in the show. Because I am this sort of beacon of positivity, it’s hard to bottle that appropriately, still let it shine through just enough but not become too over-the-top.
Q: Along with singing in French, was there anything new you had to do with this show?
A: I guess leading my Radio City number, being the center of the kick-line for that, having these professional dancers back me up…I’ve done stuff where I’m singing a big song, but I’m off on the side with the microphone singing, and then the dancers are going crazy. Being right in the thick of it, that was a little daunting.
Q: What else do you feel like I should know about the show?
A: I really think that it’s the perfect show for just about anybody. I think there’s very few people who would come to the show and not enjoy it. The audience goes on this journey of darkness to light with us and then leaves with that still resonating with them. It’s a beautiful show. It’s the best job I’ve ever had.
An American in Paris U.S. Tour
7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, April 18-21; 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 19; 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, April 23.
ASU Gammage, 1200 S. Forest Ave., Tempe
Tickets starting at $40