An American in Paris: Setting the Scene by the Seine
In the opening moments of An American in Paris, a Nazi flag is torn down and replaced by France’s Tricolour. The war is over, and Paris and its inhabitants are tentatively, incrementally coming back to life. As the people move about the city, reconnecting, celebrating, mourning, finding their bearings, the set moves with them, changing and re-configuring to reveal new locales, vividly depicted by ever-shifting projections. By the end of that scene, the audience has not only been introduced to the leading characters – Jerry Mulligan, an American GI and aspiring painter, and French ballerina Lise Dassin – they have also been enveloped by Paris.
It’s not a literal rendering of Paris but a poetic representation, created by some of theater’s most gifted and creative designers: Bob Crowley (sets and costumes) and Natasha Katz (lighting), both multi Tony Award® winners; and Benjamin Pearcy and Leo Warner of 59 Productions (video). All of them were honored for their work on An American in Paris with Tony Awards.
Crowley and Katz have collaborated frequently with each other, and have also worked extensively with Christopher Wheeldon, the show’s director-choreographer. “I really do believe that the three of us can read each other’s minds,” says Katz.
The entire team approached their work from the same starting point: the ravishing music by George Gershwin, which Wheeldon has called “the heart of the show.” Says Crowley, “The music is so lush, so romantic, and so full of color. I see color in music, and in his music I see deep blues and russets. He just paints the scene with music, so some of the colors in the show are my response to what I’m seeing and hearing.”
Katz adds, “The lighting is similar. For instance, if there’s a key change that goes from major to minor, the light might change at the exact same time, because it helps the audience understand emotionally what’s going on.”
Wheeldon has said that “Paris behaves as a character in the show,” and it was up to the designers to find a way to make the city alive, to make it authentic without being realistic.”
Crowley knew from the outset that he would define spaces by using a multitude of screens on wheels, repositioned by cast members, which would allow for fluidity of movement visually and physically. In addition, projections would be utilized to further indicate locations and provide atmosphere. “One of the big conversations I had with Chris at the beginning was about putting Paris onstage and finding a way of not making it too cliché,” he says.
The projections, a combination of photographs, sketches and paintings, have both a practical and aesthetic purpose. “Early on, we decided as a team that we would develop the visuals through the eyes of Jerry, and we’d see how his art evolves,” says Pearcy. “ In the opening, there are things that are overtly sketched, drawn in front of the audience, and that’s a way into his world. By the end, they become more abstract as he grows as a person and an artist.”
Crowley was inspired by numerous artists and paintings, including Piet Mondrian for the contemporary American in Paris ballet, and Gustave Caillebotte’s “Rainy Day, Paris,” for some of the street scenes. “The painting shows a street that bisects, and that became a crucial image. Paris is a planned city with all those amazing avenues, and wherever you go you’re looking down another vista. That was what I wanted to achieve most of all: the beauty of these vistas that open up and take your breath away.”
Both Crowley and Katz walked the city extensively and observed. “One thing you come to realize is the enormity of the Seine,” he says. “So the crucial images were the vistas, the river, and the Morris columns [the iconic French advertising columns]. You put those onstage, and everybody knows where you are. But the idea was to not be heavy-handed about it.”
His approach to the Seine was whimsical. “In Paris, you are really high above the river,” he says. “It’s a working river, with boats and barges. And I loved the idea of suspending boats in the air, so that you change the perspective of the river. Essentially, you’re looking down on the river, but in stage terms you’re looking up at it.”
Katz, not surprisingly, studied the light. “It’s a city with a very limited color palette,” she says. “And it’s a very theatrical city in terms of the way the light plays off the buildings. Our opening number is essentially in black and white; the first time we see color is when the sun rises.”
Pearcy adds, “Our original notion was that we would not introduce color until the end of the opening number. But when we saw the piece in the theater, we realized that there was an earlier moment where emotion was flowing that was begging for color. So while the show was being rehearsed onstage, we made a Paris sunrise animation. It’s based on a very simple photograph of the skyline of Paris that we painted over.”
The black-and-white opening is a way of acknowledging a city emerging from the Occupation. Crowley had been given a book of “astonishing” color photographs, taken by the occupying forces, that further influenced his design. “There was something in the film when they developed it that made the city look grey-green,” he says. “Whenever there was any red, like a red hat or red lips, the red always popped against the beautiful, soft green-grey color. So I sought to capture the popping colors in the muted, post-war palette.”
Crowley acknowledges Christian Dior’s famous New Look in a fantasy scene, and Milo Davenport, a wealthy arts patron, wears clothes that reflect the height of French fashion of the period. But many of the costumes are based on ordinary, vintage clothes, befitting the reality of the time.
The costumes worn by the leading characters help underscore their romance. “Lise is like a flower who grows with love,” says Crowley. “As her relationship with Jerry blossoms, her clothes become spring colors, pinks and pastels. And his clothes become more French.”
The lighting also gives clues to and assists the narrative. “Just like the scenic and costume design, the lighting also has an arc,” says Katz. “The first time Jerry lays his eyes on Lise is the first time there’s warm color. Then they meet in a rehearsal hall, and there’s just normal light. But when they dance together for the first time, the lighting is soft, very romantic, very pinkish.
“It’s a subliminal way of helping the storytelling. That’s what all of us are trying to communicate through the music. It’s all about emotional reality and telling a story.”
An American in Paris will be playing at the SHN Orpheum Theatre from September 12 through October 8. Get your tickets now at shnsf.com.