Musical Theater Takes The Stage In Paris

Broadway musicals are seen in France as a strictly Anglo-Saxon form of entertainment. For a long time, French cultural elites considered them lowbrow and not serious culture. That perception is changing, though, as one of Paris' most revered theatres is presenting musical hit after musical hit. Parisians are now discovering and falling in love with high-quality entertainment that everyone can enjoy.

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To see a musical, you might travel to New York or even to London, but Paris? Aside from the language barrier, musicals have always been considered silly by French standards and not widely embraced, but that is changing. As NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports, Parisians have been enjoying a string of musical theater performances at one of the city's venerable theaters.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: "My Fair Lady" played to sold-out audiences in Paris this Christmas. Jean Claude and Marie Claude Lefebvre(ph) came to the ornate 19th century Chatelet Theatre and were bowled over by what they saw so much so that they saw it twice.

MARIE CLAUD LEFEBVRE: (Through interpreter) We love it. We come see every musical here at the Chatelet. It's wonderful. So American and active. The performance gets you moving and there's no dead time. The actors are fantastic, too.

BEARDSLEY: Never mind that probably half the audience can't understand what's being said. As subtitles are flashed upon the walls, the Parisians laugh at all the right times and appear to eat it up, Cockney accents and all. That's music to the ears of Jean Luc Choplin, director of the Chatelet Theatre. Choplin took a chance bringing the genre to Paris seven years ago.

JEAN LUC CHOPLIN: I was surprised when I came to Chatelet as director that major musicals hadn't been done in France. I was told it will never work. People are not really in a sense of this kind of American culture, but I decided today I have to do it.

BEARDSLEY: Choplin says in the past, Broadway musicals have been considered by the elite as a sort of subcategory of culture, as lowbrow operetta. Even the name for a musical in French, (foreign language spoken) , sounds less serious. But after the success of "The Sound of Music," "Showboat," "West Side Story," and other productions, that's beginning to change, says Choplin.

CHOPLIN: Now, since they are discovering that it's a very sophisticated score of, for example, Stephan Sondheim or Bernstein, that it is very well-produced and performed with great singers or actors or music directors, you know, people are now starting to consider that sound like opera, the same thing.

BEARDSLEY: Choplin says he always produces a show in its original language, a translation betrays it, he says. Even though that counts out French performers for some of the leading roles, still 90 percent of the cast and crew is French. Backstage at the Chatelet, British opera singer Katherine Manley(ph) is being made up to play Eliza Doolittle.

Manley also played Maria in Choplin's production of "The Sound of Music" two years ago.

KATHERINE MANLEY: I find the Parisian audience to be absolutely delightful to play for.

BEARDSLEY: In the middle of our dressing room interview, Manley is brought a bouquet of flowers from some of her adoring fans. They love you, says the stage hand who delivers them.

MANLEY: We've had this consistent clapping going on afterwards and people want encore after encore and the curtain comes down and the orchestra continues to play for the audience to exit to and actually they stay put in their seats and ask for more. So it's just joyful.

BEARDSLEY: Laurence Beurdains(ph) brought her three children to "My Fair Lady." She says the quality of the show is extraordinary and it's so different from French theater, which she describes as small and intellectual. This is a big show for everyone, she says.

LAURENCE BEURDAINS: Even if you don't understand the - all the words or the songs, it doesn't matter. I think you can just appreciate the very nice costumes, very nice songs.

BEARDSLEY: In June, the Chatelet production team will present "The King and I" and next Christmas, they'll create an entirely new musical based on the film "An American in Paris." After opening in Paris, they'll take it to Broadway. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

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