On Gershwin and Americans in Paris
“Don’t try to improve upon the classics, Mr. Gershwin.”
These nine words, spoken to George Gershwin as played by Robert Alda in Warner Brothers’ 1945 fulsome melodrama Rhapsody in Blue, summarize the film’s refrain of the push-pull of high and low culture that infused Gershwin’s real life genius. “I don’t want you to work in no cheap vaudeville show,” Gershwin’s mother exhorts him when he lands his first paid theatre gig as a backup player for Chico Marx. Gershwin jazzes up Chopin’s Prelude No. 7 in A Major to his mentor Professor Franck’s consternation. He tells his teacher he doesn’t want to be “just” a concert pianist but hopes the piano will be “a stepping stone to composition.”
“For whom will you compose, ragtime dancers or musicians?” Professor Franck asks. “I don’t know, maybe for both” is Gershwin’s measured reply.
In a life spanning less than 40 years, George Gershwin, the son of Ukrainian and Russian immigrants, rose from a childhood in the Lower East Side tenements of Manhattan to become a world-famous composer of orchestral works, operas, and Broadway musicals. Some of his best known songs include the standards “Embraceable You,” “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “Summertime,” and Rhapsody in Blue, from which the Warner Brothers film took its name.
Gershwin is widely considered to be among the most controversial of American composers, because he made music that persistently negotiated, without resolving, all kinds of divides: black/white, highbrow/lowbrow, art music/jazz, Europe/American, upper-class/working-class. He’s also one of the most enduring. As Carol Oja implies in her study of Gershwin’s relationship to American modernism, it’s this irresolvability that enables his longevity.
In Rhapsody in Blue, the European Professor Franck repeatedly invokes the specter of “old” Europe as the ideal toward which the American Gershwin should strive instead of writing “little tunes that jingle like coins in your pocket.” For the professor, bridging the high/low divide becomes key to not just Gershwin’s identity, but seemingly America’s as well:
“I have such high hopes for you, my boy. America is a growing country, a mixture of things very old with more that is new. Your nature has the same contradictions: a lamb and a wolf; ideals and material ambition. If you can make them both serve, George, you can give America her voice.” The character of Franck himself seems to exist to give voice and body to this divide.
This duality is embedded in the title of one of George Gershwin’s best-known compositions, the “Tone Poem for Orchestra” An American in Paris.
Writers from Henry James to James Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi Coates have spun yarns about the American experience in Paris, overwhelmed by potent and contradictory feelings of awe and shame in a landscape where beauty is power. I’ve felt this very American, masochistic sense of wonder myself on more than one occasion, in the art galleries on the Rue du Temple or marvelling at the glittering Eiffel Tower across the Seine, perfectly framed by the massive window inside the Palais de Chaillot.
But these experiences are always mediated by the middlebrow culture that I have spent my American life consuming. When I sit at a café in the 3rd arrondissement (it’s the summer of 2015, my most recent stay in Paris), in my mind I am an Éric Rohmer heroine, elaborating eloquently on the importance of art and literature, and not the frumpy lower-middle class tourist falling off the laughably small café chairs that Parisians seem to love. Walking past Notre Dame on this same trip, a friend and I can’t help but sing “Out There” from Disney’s campy 1996 musical The Hunchback of Notre Dame. To this American, Paris surely asserts itself as an impossible ideal, an expression of the beauty and grace seemingly absent in American culture. More than experiencing wonder at what Paris is, I am struck by all I, and my home, are not.
GERSHWIN’S TONE POEM
The New York Philharmonic premiered An American in Paris at Carnegie Hall in 1928. Gershwin believed the composition, which incorporated taxi horns, xylophone, celesta, and three saxophones, to be his most modern composition yet. The program note written for the premiere by Gershwin’s “friend and brother-composer” Deems Taylor portrays the tensions inherent in the piece in musical terms, dubbing the piece a “Pax Romana” (Roman Peace) between disparate musical forms. He traces the eponymous flâneur’s psychogeographical odyssey across springtime Paris, as indicated by discrete musical themes. Dodging taxis on the Champs Elysées to the “First Walking Theme,” he takes in the sights and sounds with no particular destination in mind, passing an open café where jaunty trombones recall the first decade of the twentieth century. Then, via the “Second Walking Theme,” he passes a church or the Grand Palais, where the music takes a momentary stately turn. The “Third Walking Theme” finds the wanderer across the Seine on the Left Bank, the music leaning more towards the American than the Parisian, perhaps in response to the large congregation of Americans there, where our protagonist stops at a café for a drink. The next section of Taylor’s narration, as the American turns melancholic, is worth quoting in full:
"(O)ur hero becomes homesick. He has the blues; and if the behavior of the orchestra be any criterion, he has them very thoroughly. He realizes suddenly, overwhelmingly, that he does not belong to this place, that he is that most wretched creature in all the world, a foreigner. The cool, blue Paris sky, the distant upward sweep of the Eiffel Tower, the bookstalls on the quay, the pattern of the horse-chestnut leaves on the white, sun-flecked street—what avails all this alien beauty? He is not Baudelaire, longing to be “anywhere out of the world.” The world is just what he longs for, the world that he knows best; a world less lovely—sentimental and a little vulgar perhaps—but for all that, home."
The common signifiers of Parisian fantasy listed by Taylor repeat in each subsequent version of An American in Paris, in the 1951 film and the 2015 Broadway musical, as in fact they do in pretty much every work located in Paris and made by outsiders. These signifiers stand in for Paris but are disembodied and decontextualized through music, camera, and/or mise en scène. In each case, the “Parisian” is privileged at the expense of the “American” or vice versa, though the narratives always manage to achieve a sort of non-binary aesthetic détente. In Gershwin’s original orchestral piece, for example, the flâneur indulges his homesickness with a Charleston before the “Walking Themes” return and he resolves to at least enjoy Paris while he can, just like I did all those years ago.
There are plenty of Americans in the Paris of 1951’s An American in Paris, directed by Vincente Minnelli and starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron, though in an interesting compounding of the Gershwinian high/low Parisian/American problem the film goes to great pains to differentiate between the “right” and “wrong” kinds of Americans.
Minnelli’s film tells the story of ex-GI Jerry Mulligan (Kelly), who decides to stay in Paris after World War II to try to make it as a painter. His piano-playing American neighbor Adam Cook is portrayed by Oscar Levant and modeled on Gershwin himself. The skeletal plot concerns two love triangles, with Jerry at the apex and Lise Bouvier (Caron) opposite him in each one; Lise is the girlfriend of Adam’s French friend Henri Baurel (Georges Guétary), while the American “suntan oil” heiress Milo Roberts (Nina Foch) pursues Jerry. These characters all exist in the Broadway musical adaptation as well, but with wildly different inflections and motivations. The movie culminates in a full-length ballet set to Gershwin’s American in Paris, danced on elaborately stylized sets inspired by well-known French painters.
By 1950, Minnelli had already directed some of his most well-known films, including Cabin in the Sky (1943), Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), and Father of the Bride (1950). However, he had also worked on some notorious flops, such as Yolanda and the Thief (1945) with Fred Astaire and The Pirate (1948), with Gene Kelly and Judy Garland. Astaire blamed the failure of Yolanda and the Thief on Minnelli’s tendency of “inventing up to the arty,” or trying to impose a self-conscious aesthetic on the film instead of allowing artfulness to emerge as the inevitable product of a creative process characterised by intense perfectionism. Once again, we see cultural production considered in binary high/low terms. As biographers Cynthia and Sara Brideson have noted, Kelly fell somewhere in between the two poles, hoping to create art “at a level children, housewives, and highbrows could appreciate,” a sensibility which vibed well with the musical Pax Romana of An American in Paris. He believed The Pirate failed to connect in the American heartland due to the sophistication of its satire, but watching the film today, it’s hard to imagine what it was even supposed to be a satire of, despite the tremendously winning, never-sexier or -funnier turns by Kelly and Garland. Whatever the reasons, the critical and commercial failures of both films motivated Kelly and Minnelli to aim for a more middlebrow product, with just enough clever artistry to appeal to urbane coastal audiences without turning off everyone else. Minnelli especially felt a strong desire to not talk down to the audience, perhaps in part an effect of the intimate understanding of Gershwin’s music gleaned from his personal friendship with George and his brother, Ira.
The film’s high/low tension also manifests as old/young; with the rise of antihero pop idols (James Dean and Elvis were on deck, after all), the MGM Freed Unit musicals were struggling to cultivate a young audience. Casting was a crucial component of the artistic team’s response; Caron (only 19 years old at the time of filming) and Kelly were meant to draw in young audiences, Gershwin to draw in their parents and grandparents.
The film emphasises high style from the opening credits, stylised as embossed invitations with glossy cursive, followed by a series of shots of the usual Paris suspects: the Luxor Obelisk in the Place de la Concorde, the Louvre, the Champs-Elysées, the Paris Opera, Pont Alexandre III, with its flanking gold-plated statues on tall plinths, and the Arc de Triomphe.
The “American” soon elbows into the frame, at least aurally: “This is Paris, and I’m an American who lives here,” Kelly-as-Jerry spells out in voice-over for those in the audience who still don’t quite grasp what’s going on. “I’m a painter. All my life, that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do, and for a painter, the Mecca of the world for study, for inspirations, and for living, is here on this star called Paris. Just look at it—no wonder so many artists have come here and called it home! Brother, if you can’t paint in Paris, you’d better give up and marry the boss’s daughter!”
As if we need reminding, it’s clear that this particular plain-spoken American is in Paris, but decidedly not of it. Later, when a stuffy American undergraduate attempts to discuss Jerry’s paintings, Jerry snaps that he’s from Perth Amboy, New Jersey and complains that such students are “always making profound observations they’ve overheard.” Though this exchange seems to prize low Americanism, it also marks both characters as the ill-fitting wrong kind of Americans in Paris, similar to the midwestern, nouveau riche “ugly American” Edna Mae Benstrom, a loud-mouthed customer who later visits the parfumerie where Lise works.
Milo Roberts, the suntan oil heiress who lives at the Ritz and becomes Jerry’s patron, is very much the right kind of American in Paris, participating in the city’s economic life and easily navigating its different social registers. She’s almost more Parisian than the Parisians, grumbling that “I’ve never seen so many Americans in Paris before. The Champs-Elysées looks like Main Street.” Her interactions with Jerry introduce a gendered inflection to the film’s navigation of class; in opposition to Lise’s obstinate refusal of Jerry’s advances, Jerry perceives Milo’s interest in him in purely sexual terms.
When he accuses Milo of trying to turn him into a gigolo, she responds, “I don’t need a paid escort, and I’m not trying to rob you of your precious male initiative. I’m simply interested in your work and I want to get to know you better. Now is that such a crime?” Later, when Jerry balks at Milo renting a studio space for him, she asks carelessly “Why do you always make such an issue of money?” to which he responds, “Because I ain’t got any. And when you ain’t got any, it takes on a curious significance.” In the "ain’t" we’re reminded of Jerry’s working-class provenance, which these interactions seem to equate with masculinity. Even as Milo threatens that masculinity by turning Jerry into a “kept” man, her dress and demeanor code her as feminine, deepening the contrast of low/male and high/female. And, of course, her interest does eventually prove to be romantic as well as artistic. Later, despite these threats to Jerry’s virility, his masculinity and charm eventually win Lise over; “America” and “Paris” unite, though America maintains the competitive edge through the masculine nature bestowed on it.
It’s not difficult to also see Milo and Jerry’s fraught relationship as a reaction to the rise of middlebrow culture in America. By the 1950s in America, social mobility had increased and high and low culture no longer mapped easily onto class designations, necessitating this new descriptor. Critics of middlebrow culture considered it “a feminized” and/or, rather obscurely, “a homosexualized product,” employed by strivers aiming to improve their class status, as opposed to the purely anti-commercial gestures of high culture or the earthy, natural impulses that characterized low culture.
Interestingly, we find that Parisienne Lise is the character best able to cross the high/low divide. She is introduced secondhand, as the French Henri describes her to American piano player Adam and we see short vignettes of her dancing to illustrate his comically contradictory descriptions. Lise is thus introduced through a quadruple framing device: Henri’s words, which demarcate each section of the ‘Lise-does-Lise’ dance; the camera frame; an ornate picture frame superimposed on the image at the beginning and end of the sequence; and, in each vignette, an element such as a doorway, arch, or curtains. We’re clearly in the realm of fantasy, with Lise as the Everywoman fantasy figure: ethereally beautiful (dancing on pointe in a pink tulle gown in a mock Edwardian setting), sensual (burlesque with chair in a lavender bodysuit against a blush Victorian boudoir), demure (on pointe again in daffodil dress against an emerald drawing room), modern (Charleston in a white flapper dress against a rose-red “modernist” set), bookish (arabesques and splits while reading a book in black leotard and schoolboy cap against a butter yellow library), and “gay” (fouettés on pointe in a cornflower tutu against a pink set combining elements of all the previous settings).
A different arrangement of Gershwin’s “Embraceable You” accompanies each vignette. At whiplash speed and without even breaking a sweat, Fantasy Lise moves from high to low with ease. This sequence is like a map of Lise’s potential, which Jerry will unlock through his dogged pursuit. Lise’s class-traversing potential is a symbol of Gershwin’s music itself.
THE BROADWAY MUSICAL
Given that since the 1920s, the Broadway musical has been arguably a majority middlebrow medium, one might assume that the high/low tension of An American in Paris would find its most apt expression in this form. In actuality, sixty-four years after the premiere of the film, the Broadway musical version of An American in Paris would engage with this same issue by barely engaging with it at all. By contrast, on stage, matters of cultural hierarchy are for the most part subsumed.
As might be expected from a show directed and choreographed by British ballet choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, starring New York City Ballet principal dancer Robert Fairchild as Jerry and Royal Ballet corps member Leanne Cope as Lise, the latest version of An American in Paris leaned heavily into ballet, almost completely eschewing low and characteristically Gershwinian dance forms such as tap. You can see it in the shoes: the performers primarily wear character shoes, ballet slippers, or Oxfords. Christopher Austin’s orchestrations do the heavy lifting of bridging Gershwin’s jazz-inflected tunes and Wheeldon’s ballet choreography, especially in the extended dance numbers that open and close act one. Gershwin is, of course, no stranger to ballet—Fairchild himself had previously danced to Gershwin’s music in Balanchine’s “Who Cares?”—but, in this version, the Gershwin songs often make for an awkward fit.
Though the show takes a few stabs at high-culture pretensions, in the form of the Russian dance company Lise joins and a scene set in an art gallery, the titular America/Paris tension that signified the high/low hierarchy in previous versions is played in the musical for laughs, such as when Jerry says to Lise, “I stayed here in Paris for this. Art is really important,” to which Lise replies “You think I don’t know that? I’m French.” The cultural hierarchy is more a punchline than an ideological organising principle, as in previous iterations.
The musical’s ideological thrust instead hinges on post-war recovery. Craig Lucas’ libretto aims for a grittier realism than in the film, resulting in a dense plot involving anti-Semitism, collaborationists, PTSD, and multiple love triangles. Paris is bombed-out, food is scarce, and people are slow to trust one another. Where the film diffused its subjectivity by using Jerry, Adam, and Henri as narrators, here only Adam (the Gershwin cipher) narrates the action. His direct address is embittered and sardonic; he was wounded in the war and walks with a limp. The story still climaxes in a full ballet set to Gershwin’s concert piece, but this time the narrative twists and turns to motivate it. All these changes have the effect of soothing the immanent high/low tension of Gershwin’s music by somehow eradicating it.
It is with a kind of poigniancy that we see that just as jazz has grown increasingly distant from Broadway in the last ninety years, it has moved further and further from An American in Paris, whose adaptations have traced an arc of increasing darkness, from Gershwin’s original bright spring-day lark, through the mostly-sunny film, to the bombed-out but still ultimately hopeful Broadway musical. Of course, all three versions are easily accessible, allowing the viewer/listener to consider them side-by-side, removing them from time. Cultural hierarchies rise and fall, but the music plays on.
And Americans in Paris keep falling off chairs.
Brideson, Cynthia and Sara Brideson. He’s Got Rhythm: The Life and Career of Gene Kelly. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2017.
Downes, Olin. “Gershwin’s New Score Acclaimed (1928).” In The George Gershwin Reader, edited by Robert Wyatt and John Andrew Johnson, 112-114. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Gershwin, George. “The Composer in the Machine Age.” In The George Gershwin Reader, edited by Robert Wyatt and John Andrew Johnson, 119-122. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Kourlas, Gia. “Opposites Onstage, Opening a Season.” Last modified January 6, 2010. https://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/07/arts/dance/07nycb.html.
Minnelli, Vincente, dir. An American in Paris. 1951; Burbank, CA: Warner Archive, 2009. Blu-ray.
Oja, Carol. “Gershwin and American Modernists of the 1920s.” The Musical Quarterly 78, no. 4 (1994): 646-668.
Paget, Clive. “An American in Paris: Leanne Cope’s Extraordinary Journey from Corps to Broadway.” Last modified May 15, 2018. https://www.limelightmagazine.com.au/features/an-american-in-paris-leanne-copes-extraordinary-journey-from-corps-to-broadway/.
“Program, December 13-14, 1928.” New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives. Accessed November 30, 2019. https://archives.nyphil.org/index.php/artifact/f08aa3f0-c460-4f1e-85ec-4dd6d1bc0d09-0.1/fullview#page/1/mode/2up
Rapper, Irving, dir. Rhapsody in Blue. 1945; Burbank, CA: Warner Archive, 2012. DVD.
Savran, David. Highbrow/Lowdown: Theater, Jazz, and the Making of the New Middle Class. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009.
Savran, David. “Middlebrow Anxiety.” In A Queer Sort of Materialism: Recontextualizing American Theater. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003.
Starr, Larry. “Musings on ‘Nice Gershwin Tunes,’ Form, and Harmony in the Concert Music of Gershwin.” In The Gershwin Style: New Looks at the Music of George Gershwin, edited by Wayne Schneider, 95-110. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
“Vincente Minnelli.” Internet Movie Database. Accessed December 4, 2019. https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0591486/?ref_=nv_sr_srsg_0.
Wheeldon, Christopher and Ross MacGibbon, dirs. An American in Paris. 2018; London: Swonderful Pictures, 2018. Streaming. https://www.amazon.com/American-Paris-Robert-Fairchild/dp/B07JDTVW9B/ref=sr_1_2?crid=2UZTG3SCV11MH&keywords=an+american+in+paris+broadway&qid=1576546772&sprefix=an+american+in+paris%2Caps%2C357&sr=8-2
DOCUMENTA BARBRISM hosts the podcast House of Barbrism, which is actually three queer podcasts in one: Adventures in Gaybysitting, Closet Practice, and Documenta and Son. From relationships to parenting to culture and sex, it’s all in our house! Documenta is a PhD candidate in Theatre and Performance at the Graduate Center, CUNY, writing a dissertation on Broadway musicals about classical Hollywood. He received an MA in Theatre Criticism and Dramaturgy at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London and has taught at City College of New York, Lehman College, College of Staten Island, Drew University, and the University of Utah. A former member of Drama Desk, his writing has appeared in Exeunt, Film and History, Studies in Musical Theatre, PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, and more.
[Image Credits (top to bottom) Documenta Barbrism in Paris, 2015, Nina Foch and Gene Kelley in An American in Paris,1951, An American in Paris 1951 film poster, An American in Paris 2015 Broadway production.]