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  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 15, No. 1, 2016
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Robert J. Lewis
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Nick Catalano is a TV writer/producer and Professor of Literature and Music at Pace University. He reviews books and music for several journals and is the author of Clifford Brown: The Life and Art of the Legendary Jazz Trumpeter, New York Nights: Performing, Producing and Writing in Gotham and A New Yorker at Sea. His latest book, Tales of a Hamptons Sailor, is now available. For Nick's reviews, visit his website:

An American in Paris: Creation, Authorship and Attribution

In 1928, at the height of his astounding orchestral music career, Brooklyn-born George Gershwin created and scored the iconic tone poem An American in Paris for the standard instruments of a symphony orchestra plus celesta, saxophones and automobile horns. He said “My purpose here is to portray the impression of an American visitor in Paris as he strolls about the city and listens to various street noises and absorbs the French atmosphere.”

Intrigued with the unusual chord structures of Maurice Ravel, Gershwin had come to Paris to study with him and began a lengthy relationship with the French master. During his stay he met often with the legendary teacher Nadia Boulanger who encouraged him to "be himself" and continue with the jazz-inspired approach he had developed in his orchestral compositions. He initially wrote the piece for his Paris hosts Robert and Mabel Shirmer and described it as "a rhapsodic ballet." The 18-minute tour de force introduces 3 haunting melodic strains which have resonated throughout the entire corpus of pop music repertoires, movie themes, cabaret acts, dance recitals and TV commercials for almost 90 years. The piece is a masterpiece for the ages.

For its first 25 years, if you asked most people anywhere to identify An American in Paris they would naturally respond that it was a music written by George Gershwin who had tragically died at age 38 -- about ten years after he wrote the piece. But then in 1951 at the height of the movie musical era, MGM released a film entitled An American in Paris starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron directed by Vincente Minelli with a screenplay by Alan Jay Lerner. The film won the Academy Award for best picture and, at that point, began to replace Gershwin's tone poem in everyone's mind as the work An American in Paris.

Although the film was totally constructed around Gershwin's music (he and his lyricist brother Ira dutifully received credits) the movie took center stage in all the critical commentary. Because of Lerner's successful romantic screenplay, the film enraptured world audiences; the love story of Jerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly) and Lise Bouvier (Leslie Caron), the exciting scenes of Paris, and the amazing Kelly- choreographed dance numbers quickly became the doppelganger of the work An American in Paris.

Jerry Mulligan is an ex-G.I. who decided to remain in Paris after WWII to pursue a career as an artist. He pals around with fellow American Adam Cook (Oscar Levant), a struggling concert pianist, who humorously dreams he is performing Gershwin's Concerto in F for a gala audience in a concert hall. Jerry meets Lise Bouvier working at a parfumerie and instantly falls in love with her. Although betrothed to singer Henri Baurel (George Guetary) in a filial-like relationship stemming from a childhood idol worship, Lise, initially spurning Jerry, finally agrees to meet him for a romantic evening stroll along the Seine. Lise and Jerry instantly bond in a song and dance musical sequence ("Our Love is here to Stay") that unhinges the audience and will become the apotheosis of romance in cinematic history. The obligatory conflict that Lise has because of her betrothal to Henri is resolved and, of course, she and Jerry walk off into the sunset in the end. But not before the film pauses to include a 17- minute dream ballet sequence (unheard of in a commercial film) featuring Kelly and costing some $450,000.

The film, with its spectacular stars, romantic screenplay and lavish dance sequences was a huge success and, in the decades that followed, all but obliterated Gershwin's original tone poem in the collective unconscious. When the title "An American in Paris" came up in sophisticated party conversation, people marveled over Kelly's dancing, Caron's screen presence, and, the wonderful Gershwin songs: “I Got Rhythm,” “S'Wonderful,” “Embraceable You,” etc. Commentary about the genius of his original symphonic tone poem all but disappeared.

Since 1951 this film has enjoyed another life as a TV movie staple receiving new plaudits. On such showcases as Turner Classic Movies, commentators ooh and aah about Gene Kelly and his marvelous choreography, Leslie Caron's film debut (which initiated a hugely successful career) and the MGM geniuses who ran the studio during those golden years. But, once again, hardly a word is uttered in praise of the original Gershwin composition. As a result millions of baby boomers and others have grown up thinking that the film An American in Paris had no former identity and as such the film creators deserve all of the kudos for its existence.

In 2015 Broadway producers announced the arrival of a new show dubbed An American in Paris. The Playbill program for the show states that it is a "new musical" and that its creation was "inspired by the motion picture” (of 1951). This show was heralded by the critics for the ‘classical’ ballet style dance sequences of its director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon who won the Tony award for his efforts.

This new musical has a book by writer Craig Lucas who makes unfortunate changes to Lerner's screenplay. He locates the action back to the 1945 period at the end of the war to facilitate a B story about the horror of Hitler's final solution, he changes Lise's last name to Dassin, and he restructures her relationship with Henri Baurel to include conflicts involving his parents. None of this writing improves upon Lerner's book.

The show deletes five of the tunes that were in the motion picture and actually adds nine new songs that were never in the film. George Gershwin's name appears in the ‘Who's who in the cast’ section of the Playbill with a brief, curious write-up noting some of his compositions and the fact that he died of a brain tumor when not quite 39. One wonders what a young reader not acquainted with the name George Gershwin will think about this hurried insertion. Certainly, no hint of the titanic genius originally associated with the work An American In Paris could be garnered by any such reader.

One critic uses the term "re-imagined" to describe the naissance of this new musical. It is a useful term but it focuses on the relationship between the 1951 film and this 2015 Broadway show while ignoring the original Gershwin composition.

This isn't the first time that Gershwin's creations have been slighted. Some may recall that in 2012 another Gershwin opus, Porgy and Bess, was ‘re-imagined’ and brought to Broadway by director Diane Paulus and playwright Suzan- Lori Parks. In this production, much of the action of the George and Ira Gershwin-DuBose and Dorothy Heyward folk opera was altered. The team of ‘re-imaginers’ added new scenes, invented biographical details, changed dialogue, and even contemplated a new ending. And this production titled The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess was actually sanctioned and approved by the Gershwin and Heyward estates.

Controversy was immediate initially launched by Stephen Sondheim (c.f. New York Times, Aug. 10, 2011) who thankfully raised objections about the ‘re-imagining’ process. In the end, although the show was voted a best revival award, no Tony nominations or awards were given for rewrites or reimaginings.

The process of borrowing the genius of Gershwin by creating work that cannot possibly be accomplished without his opuses and overshadowing his creativity with new ‘re-imaginings’ does injustice to his legacy. It deprives new generations of students accurate access to his accomplishments and distorts the nature of his oeuvre.

The problem of creative attribution, dubious borrowings, re-imaginings, and out-and-out thievery is vast. There will always be those who come along wishing to aggrandize themselves by some kind of association with a great artist. A famous instance occurred when, in the 19th century, so-called scholars, writers and professors began to claim that Shakespeare wasn’t the author of Hamlet, Othello etc. And if the Bard of Avon can be a victim of this attribution deformation habit -- anyone can.



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Very interesting info. Enjoyed reading about America in Paris. I have read all of nick Catalano's books and have never been disappointed.
Once again Nick Catalano's summary is spot on. So much that we have today in the music world has a foundation deeply rooted in the creativity of George Gershwin's music. These strains will live on long after we all have moved on. Thank you NC for setting the record straight.

Bernard Mindich
Insightful review. Sad commentary on our culture.
With -- I'm sure --a nod from Jean-Paul Sartre, my all time favourite existential line in singing: "I've got plenty of nothing, nothing's got plenty of me."

By Nick Catalano:
What We Don't Know about Eastern Culture
Black Earth (book review)
Cuban Jazz
HD Opera - Game Changer
Film Treatment of Stolen Art
Stains and Blemishes in Democracy
Intersteller (film review)
Shakespeare, Shelley & Woody Allen
Mystery and Human Sacrifice at the Parthenon
Carol Fredette (Jazz)
Amsterdam (book review)
Vermeer Nation
The Case for Da Vinci's Demons


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