Gigi, “What Miracle Has Made You the Way You Are?”

When the Broadway revival of Gigi opened last April, the reviews seemed united in their contempt for a perceived Disney-fication of the musical. The New York Times complained that the show “has been scrubbed of anything even remotely naughty or distasteful…no parent chaperoning a tween fan of the show’s star, Vanessa Hudgens, of High School Musical renown, will have much explaining to do after the curtain has fallen.” The Huffington Post reserved its most scathing criticisms for the textual revisions by Heidi Thomas, which “will likely both infuriate and amuse fans of the film.”

Vanessa Hudgens posing with a decorative storage chest
Vanessa Hudgens as Gigi. Photo by Katherine Frey/The Washington Post.

Reading the 2015 reviews, one is left with the impression that the stage musical of Gigi was a classic that was ruined by bowdlerization, script changes, and an actress whose primary credit had been a Disney television musical. Actually, the 1958 film had already removed much of the novella’s sexuality, librettist/lyricist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe themselves had made changes for the stage, and Karin Wolfe had been a television actress before performing the title role on Broadway in 1973.

Reading these reviews, one is left with the impression that the stage musical of Gigi was a classic that was ruined by bowdlerization, script changes, and an actress whose primary credit had been a Disney television musical. Actually, the 1958 film had already removed much of the novella’s sexuality, librettist/lyricist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe themselves had made changes for the stage, and Karin Wolfe had been a television actress before performing the title role on Broadway in 1973, although she appeared in Bye Bye Birdie thirteen years earlier. Gigi did not enjoy a long run in 2015, but neither did the original production.

Caron leaning on a table
Leslie Caron in the 1958 film. Photo Courtesy Everett Collection/REX.

The idea of adapting Collette’s novella into a musical was that of Arthur Freed, one of the foremost producers at MGM, who had collaborated with Lerner on An American in Paris and Brigadoon. Lerner agreed; Loewe, who was disinterested in composing for films, declined until he read Lerner’s script. It is unsurprising that he relented, as the setting permitted the Viennese-born composer to write in an operetta idiom.

Lerner and Loewe biographer Gene Lees observed that Gigi

is about a young girl being trained…in the social graces [by Aunt Alicia, her grandmother’s sister] so that she may become a courtesan. A rich young man falls in love with her and transforms her life.

Gaston, a world-weary friend of Gigi and her grandmother “Mamita,” similarly is taught—by his Uncle Honore—to fulfill the role of a Man About Town. To Mamita’s relief, Gigi and Gaston get married, effectively rejecting the lives for which they have been groomed.

Lerner and Loewe wrote seven original songs for the film: “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” which was sung by Honore in the film and 1973 stage show; “It’s a Bore; “The Parisians,” a number for Gigi to express her own boredom with society’s obsession with love—particularly the materialistic aspects espoused by Aunt Alicia; “She’s Not Thinking of Me;” “The Night They Invented Champagne;” the title song; and “I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore.” Lerner and Loewe interpolated “Say a Prayer,” a song cut from My Fair Lady, and “I Remember It Well,” derived from a similar song from the Lerner-Kurt Weill musical Love Life.

Wolfe and Massey posing together
Karin Wolfe as Gigi, and Daniel Massey as Gaston, in 1973. Photo by Nick Sangiamo.

The film met with mostly favorable reviews. The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther quipped that the film "bears such a basic resemblance to My Fair Lady that the authors may want to sue themselves,” though he added that the movie “is not only a charming comprehension of the spicy confection of Colette, but it is also a lovely and lyrical enlargement upon that story's flavored mood and atmosphere.” Time magazine, however, was the first to complain that the musical was too wholesome for its source material: “if all the French finery impresses the customers, it also smothers the story…the physical exuberance of the production flusters the pensive sensuality of Colette’s mood.”

In the process of adapting the film into a stage show, there were changes to the score. “The Parisians” was replaced by a ballad, “The Earth and Other Minor Things,” which made Gigi less feisty. “Say a Prayer” again was cut. Honore was given the scene-setting “Paris is Paris Again.” Gigi was given two new solos: the exuberant “I Never Want to Go Home Again,” and the wistful “In This Wide, Wide World.” “The Contract,” in which Gaston’s lawyers negotiate with Aunt Alicia, is a complex, almost operatic musical scene rather than a traditional song.

Gingold, Jourdon, and Caron and in a living room
Hermione Gingold as Mamita, Louis Jourdon as Gaston, and Leslie Caron as Gigi, away from Paris society, in the 1958 film.

Whereas Lerner and Loewe were at their zenith when the film opened, in 1973 their style of musical seemed old-fashioned, having been replaced by that of Sondheim and Lloyd Webber. Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, another turn-of-the-century operetta that featured Hermione Gingold (the film’s Mamita) as a grandmother, outran Gigi. Theatre historians are divided as to the production’s merits. Gerald Bordman wrote, “Gigi was simply Lerner and Loewe’s enchanting film musical lifted off the screen and set down a little uncomfortably on a legitimate stage.” Steven Suskin defended the production, observing that “Loewe’s roots were deep within the Viennese operetta tradition; his work, naturally, sounds best emanating from a pit orchestra.” Gigi won the Tony for Best Score.

Jenna Segal, a Viacom executive who loved the film, spearheaded the 2015 production. “For me, Gigi shows the triumph of women over circumstance: that if you held onto your ideals, the ideal was achievable,” Segal wrote. Heidi Thomas, whose credits include the television show Call the Midwife, was commissioned to revise Lerner’s book, which an investor found inferior to the score. Thomas told Entertainment Weekly, “In my original contract…there was a phrase that I copied out and stuck above my desk. It said, ‘to capture the spirit of the original movie.’” However, she saw the role of Gigi as one that had diminished as the musical evolved, in contrast to being at the center of the novella.

Hudgens in a white dress
Vanessa Hudgens in Gigi. Photo by Boneau Bryan Brown.

Thomas restored songs from the film that had been cut or replaced in 1973. These included “The Parisians” and “Say a Prayer.” In the film, Gigi sang both numbers; in the updated version, “Say a Prayer” was given additional lyrics [by Thomas] and reassigned to Mamita to sing about Gigi. Because Thomas and the producers were concerned that “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” would not be well received by modern audiences if sung by an older man, the song was repurposed as a duet for Mamita and Aunt Alicia (Thomas observed that “one of them wants her to grow up more quickly, and the other wants to keep her as a child”). It also was moved to a later spot in the show; “Paris is Paris Again” was used as the opening number. “I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore,” a solo for Honore in the film and the 1973 stage version, became a duet for Honore and Mamita.

When the production opened at the Kennedy Center in January, critics were moderately encouraging. Variety remarked, “Performances on the whole are sturdy. Hudgens delivers a solid performance in a challenging role that requires a transition from impetuous brat to mature young woman.” The Washington Post added that Thomas’ revised libretto

is well thought out and well handled…but the production is also a reminder that Gigi is not a great musical, nothing really special. It's forever very okay—no matter how much the song assignments and gender politics are fiddled with.

As noted above, the critical reception was more lacerating when the show reached Broadway.

Despite the condescension toward her performance, Vanessa Hudgens acquitted herself well. She synthesized the best aspects of the performances by Leslie Caron and Karin Wolfe. A singer with an attractive voice, Hudgens was equally competent in projecting Gigi’s contempt for society in “The Parisians,” and her vulnerability-turned-determination in “In This Wide, Wide World.”

Heidi Thomas’ revisions weave in and out of the original script as seamlessly as possible, retaining Lerner’s elegant wit. “The Parisians” is a more character-driven song than “The Earth and Other Minor Things,” and its restoration benefits the show. “Say a Prayer” was sung exquisitely by Victoria Clark, and its reinstatement, too, is welcome (though on a dramatic level, I wish that it had remained a song for Gigi). Thomas may not be in Lerner’s league as a lyricist, but she understands how to use musical numbers to define a character’s motivation. The new lyrics for “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” underline the difference in motivation between Mamita and Aunt Alicia. Elsewhere, the alterations are less effective. In “It’s a Bore,” Thomas makes Gaston excited about new inventions, while Honore objects. This seems to undercut the song’s intent to establish Gaston’s apathy.

In 1973, Gigi faced competition from A Little Night Music; in 2015 the show had to contend with another adaptation of a Lerner film. An American in Paris opened four days after Gigi, won six Tony awards, and still is running as of this writing. Gigi closed on June 21; Variety reported, “a national tour is in the works for the 2016-17 season, and the new version of the show will also be made available for licensing.”

Three actors around a camera oscura
Victoria Clark as Mamita, Corey Cott as Gaston, and Vanessa Hudgens as Gigi in the 2015 Broadway production. Photo by Margot Schulman.  

For Gigi, Lerner and Loewe combined their traditional song form with a more operatic idiom. It suggests what might have been had the collaboration continued.

Perhaps Lerner and Loewe should have given greater consideration to Gigi’s similarities to My Fair Lady and left it as a film, but the stage show is a development in the progression of their works. For My Fair Lady, Lerner and Loewe found a style of musical number—that was both spoken and sung—for Rex Harrison. For Gigi, they combined their traditional song form with a more operatic idiom. It suggests what might have been had the collaboration continued.

Loewe and Lerner posing with a piano
Composer Frederick Loewe (seated) and lyricist Alan Jay Lerner. Photo from the Songwriters Hall of Fame archives.

The limited run of both Broadway productions requires us to ask: who is the audience for Gigi? One of Heidi Thomas’ previous credits had been the updated Upstairs Downstairs, and the musical seems well suited to audiences of such period dramas. Broadway, which always must be concerned with the current cultural sensitivities of its audience, may be wrong for the show. An off-Broadway or regional theatre might be a better home for the musical.

Of the three incarnations of Gigi, which is the definitive one? The 2015 version could be crafted into an apt synthesis of the film and the 1973 production, if certain songs or lines were restored to their original characters. With its unique evolution, Gigi still could prove to have benefited from having creative teams that were willing, in Steven Suskin’s words, to “reinvent champagne.”

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