PARIS -– While Sarah Bernhardt wowed audiences and Molière went so far as to die on stage, a new type of theater is making history in Paris thanks to the likes of Eliza Doolittle and the Von Trapp family. Musical theater, hailing from Broadway and West End traditions, is becoming more popular with one of Paris's most prestigious theaters at the helm.
France does produce its own original musicals occasionally, including the world-renowned Les Misérables, though the genre is not highly regarded, with shows playing in the same venue as the Harlem Globetrotters or the Blue Man Group. The Théâtre du Châtelet, a 19th-century, city-funded theater, is changing that perception. Host to the Caesar awards, France's version of the Oscars, as well as to small-scale operas and concerts, it is also the home to a relatively new type of musical theater in France. The theater just ended a run of the Steven Sondheim musical Sunday in the Park with George, the most recent Broadway staging to make headlines in Paris.
Since the arrival of a new director, Jean-Luc Choplin in 2006, the theater has seen a renaissance of sorts, embracing classic Broadway shows by the likes of Rodgers and Hammerstein or Sondheim. While Parisians might have initially been reticent to accept American musical theater, there has hardly been an empty spot in the 2,500-seat theater since Choplin started introducing the shows.
Choplin spoke to SmartPlanet about bringing very un-French shows to Paris. Having worked at Disneyland Paris, at Disney studios in California, and at various other theaters and opera houses, he has no shortage of artistic and creative experience. At the Théâtre du Châtelet, Choplin said he wanted to bring something new and refreshing to the otherwise classic venue, namely the classic Broadway musical. "For me it's a music that’s missing in France and in Europe," he said.
But with three major opera houses and countless other theaters, this artistic and business endeavor was not an obvious choice for Paris, though as the director, Choplin wanted to reinvent the theater. "I wanted to find originality, a well-defined niche for this theater, so that when people say 'Châtelet,' it resonates with Parisians," he said. And resonate it does, with the The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady and Sweeney Todd among the productions he has offered over the past few years to sold out audiences.
The initiative, however, wasn't an easy one, Choplin confessed. While originally perceived as kitschy, low-brow, and too American prior to his directorship, Broadway shows were hard-pressed to find a home at an elegant and refined theater like the Châtelet. Rapid globalization however, helped stimulate Choplin to try something new when he stepped up as director. "I thought that if we did it in a certain way, with a high quality, we could present the grand classics of musical theater and have the public discover the treasures that come from Steven Sondheim and other big titles from Broadway," he said.
The gamble paid off. "Today, people trust the Châtelet. It's like going to a good restaurant, you trust the chef to deliver a good dish," he said. With two short-running Broadway-style shows a year, the Châtelet's offers are sometimes bigger, more detailed productions than what one finds in New York. For the most recent production, Sunday in the Park with George, for example, Sondheim allowed Choplin to commission a new orchestration with a 46-piece orchestra as opposed to the original music written for just 12 musicians. "We're in an ideal, utopic, dreamlike Broadway," he said.
The theater's shows are in English, helping it stand out from another theater, the Mogador, that has welcomed Broadway shows translated into French, like Mamma Mia! and Cabaret since 2007. Other cities in Europe have also welcomed local translations of big-budget Broadway shows like The Lion King and Wicked on a more commercial level.
But the Châtelet, under Choplin's watch, remains dedicated to the classics. "I try to find original works that we haven't seen yet in Paris, that have a strong message, that are sophisticated," he said. He especially enjoys working on Sondheim's compositions, not only because he is still alive but because he is surprising and unexpected, fitting perfectly into Choplin's vision at the Châtelet.
Following the success of Sunday in the Park with George, Choplin is now working on Sondheim's Into the Woods. The show will reintroduce Perrault's classic French fairy tale characters back like Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella to their original audience, as reworked by the American composer and lyricist.
Photos: Portrait of Jean-Luc Choplin by Denis Lacharme/Théâtre du Châtelet, images from Sound of Music (top) and My Fair Lady (bottom) by Marie-Noelle Robert