Kathleen Marshall Reconstructs the Life of Toulouse-Lautrec in My Paris
The Tony-winning director-choreographer breathes new life into Charles Aznavour's French musical.
My Paris, a new musical based on the life of French painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, begins performances May 4 at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven. But it's been over four years since Charles Aznavour's French score landed in front of three-time Tony winner Kathleen Marshall by way of George and Ira Gershwin.
Marshall was working on Nice Work If You Can Get It (the Gershwin musical that earned her Tony nominations for direction and choreography) when she met a man by the name of Michael Sukin — a representative of the Gershwin estate, as well as Aznavour's U.S. attorney. Lawyers aren't often ones to propose new creative projects, but Sukin ended up tapping Marshall and her husband, producer Scott Landis, to repurpose a collection of Aznavour's tunes (taken from a failed musical the famed French singer-songwriter premiered in London in 2000) and build a brand-new show.
Since then, she's brought on Pulitzer Prize winner Alfred Uhry to write the book and three-time Tony winner Jason Robert Brown to pen the translated lyrics. The resurrected musical took to the stage for the first time last August at Goodspeed Musicals (starring Bobby Steggert, who returns as Lautrec for the Long Wharf run) — but with another year of development under her belt, Marshall is ready to give the Belle Époque period piece a fresh audience.
The first incarnation of My Paris debuted about 16 years ago. What has the journey of the piece been since then?
Charles Aznavour did a production in London in 2000 that was not successful and he was not happy with. There's nothing of that production that remains except for a handful of songs, although the lyrics have been completely reworked by Jason Robert Brown. Jason had to basically turn French poetry into English poetry because he's got to write lyrics that have the same rhythm and meter as the French lyrics do.
How have you and the creative team approached telling this story?
At one point it was a celebration of Lautrec's life — like a farewell party as if his story was being told by other people. Now he sort of tells his own story — his own memory as he's about to leave Paris for the last time. The whole show is basically told in the summer of 1901 when Lautrec left Paris never to return. So we start as he's saying goodbye to Paris and we go back and tell his journey of how he got there from when he was a boy. You're starting with the facts of somebody's life and you have the visual art, so it's not a complete blank page in that way. But also, as we like to say, this is not a documentary. This is a theatrical imagining of the life and times of Toulouse-Lautrec.
What made you decide that this was a project you wanted to work on?
The first thing I did is I listened to the music. I don't think the English lyrics from that London production were very strong, so I listened to his songs in French and the melodies are so beautiful. There are a lot of shows that have ersatz French music — Jerry Herman's version of French music or Cole Porter's version of French music. This simply is French music. It's written by Charles Aznavour, one of the greatest singer-songwriters of the twentieth century in France. So it just puts you in that time and place. I've always been fascinated by Belle Époque Paris and Toulouse-Lautrec's art. It's a very theatrical opportunity to put that world onstage and specifically his very interesting and complicated life. He had physical challenges that he had since birth. He also had become an alcoholic and developed syphilis. [When] he left Paris for the last time…he was very ill.
Are you incorporating the aesthetic of Toulouse-Lautrec's art into the design of the production?
Very much so. We have a projection designer, Olivia Sebesky, so we'll be able to see some of the images. We're also re-creating some of his posters and some of his paintings. His art is a major character in the show. We get to see the volume of what he achieved in his very short life. He died at the age of thirty-six, and what he accomplished in that time and what he left behind is amazing. When we think about turn-of-the-century Paris and Belle Époque Paris, his paintings are what give us the sense of what that world was.
Why did Lautrec's art have such a significant cultural impact?
He chose as his subject matter not elevated subjects, even though he was an aristocrat. He chose as his subject matter prostitutes and laundresses and drunks and street performers, and he took these people who were not usually the subject of fine art and made them beautiful. He exaggerated their eccentricities and celebrated their oddness or whatever was unusual about them. He had a unique perspective, literally and figuratively. He looked up at everything. You see in his art his perspective is from a very different angle. And there was no such thing as poster art in those days. There were advertisements, but they weren't art. You walk through Shubert Alley now and we see this beautiful poster art. It's a whole profession now. He sort of created that.
Artists' lives make for some of the most fascinating stories. Why do you think that is?
There's always [the question of] why does creation come about? Whether it's Shakespeare writing The Tempest or Sunday in the Park With George, what inspires art and how does it come about? I think that's always fascinating — the process of creation.