A Review and Backgrounder on "Gigi"
by Myles A. Garcia
Initially, I wasn’t too eager to see the new “Gigi” since I had seen the first staging in 1973, when lyricist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe were still alive to personally supervise that production; and what with present Broadway ticket prices, it seemed a waste of time. However, it is a show rarely revived, and the new version stars Vanessa Hudgens with the promise of a more scintillating production. My resolve weakened and my defenses crumbled. So I went to see it.
“Gigi,” of course, is based on the classic MGM film musical, which starred Leslie Caron, Louis Jourdan and Maurice Chevalier. The movie won a record nine Oscars including Best Picture of 1958. It was originally based on a novella by French writer Colette before being turned into the film version with a score by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe. With the earlier triumph of “My Fair Lady” on their resume, “Gigi” became L&L’s Gallic stab at the same Pygmalion-type story.
“Gigi” tells the story of a special young Parisian girl at the turn of the 20th century, who comes from a line of professional courtesans (mistresses to rich and influential men). She is being groomed to follow in the family’s footsteps. But in a turn-about from her pre-ordained destiny, Gigi rejects the unusual family profession and opts to become a traditional, boring, bourgeois wife instead. A line from the show sums it up: “It’s not will the Alvarez women finally marry -- but will they marry at last?”
Vanessa Hudgens is best known for her role in the “High School Musical” series, other Disney productions and the relationship with her “High School” costar, teen heartthrob Zac Efron. Vanessa, for those of you who don’t already know, hails from Salinas, California. Her mother is Gina Guangco, originally of Manila; and her father is Gregory Hudgens, a local firefighter. Now, she has taken on this breakout stage role, starting with the show’s initial engagement at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC earlier this year with the show moving to Broadway in March.
Vanessa had big shoes to fill in taking on the singing, dancing Gigi. A little known fact: Audrey Hepburn played the first non-singing stage incarnation of “Gigi”in Anita Loos’ version on Broadway in 1951 (after which Hepburn then took Hollywood by storm in the film “Roman Holiday”). When the same straight-play version opened in London in 1955, Leslie Caron actually played it there, albeit briefly.
Then when MGM started casting its movie in 1957, it was Hepburn they first approached to star in the film; but she declined. Caron then got the role and the filmmakers inherited an authentic French woman in the bargain.
Changes – some significant, others cosmetic – have been effected for this new treatment. The most noteworthy is that Gigi is now 17-18 years old and her beau, Gaston, has similarly been “youthened” to around 25 years (from Louis Jourdan’s middle-aged 35ish in the film) – thus bringing the couple closer in age to each other, and making their innocent friendship and eventual adult attraction more credible and palatable. Hudgens handles the slight aging with great aplomb – after all, Leslie Caron wasn’t an all too convincing 15-year-old in the film. (Vanessa, of course, is a ripe 26-year-old playing a 17-18 year-old mademoiselle).
Some of the familiar songs have undergone major reassignment. Due to the more prudish and belated PC sensibilities today, the biggest change has been to “Thank Heavens for Little Girls.” This was the signature song of the aging roué, Honoré Lachailles (Chevalier), which was sung very innocently in the film. It has now been reassigned to the two old ladies raising Gigi, her grandmother, Mamita, and grand aunt Alicia.
The reassignment supposedly removes the stain of what has now been misconstrued as a “dirty old man’s” paean to an underage girl but which is pure bunk since Honoré and the pubescent Gigi NEVER even spoke to each other in the movie. While the change accomplishes a puritanical cleansing, it deflates the whole effect of Lerner’s lyrics
“… those little eyes so helpless and appealing
One day will flash
And send me crashing through the ceiling…”
(which he wrote specifically for Chevalier) and now makes little sense as sung by the two old grande dames.
All the songs from the film have been restored in this version, including the four new songs added in the 1973 treatment. “Say a Prayer for Me,” which Gigi sang in the film but was dropped in 1973, returns as “Say a Prayer (for Her)” and becomes Mamita’s (Victoria Clark) eleventh-hour, soul-wrenching solo as her beloved ward embarks into the world as her own woman. The number itself was an original discard from the “My Fair Lady” score.
The sentimental pre-Alzheimer’s duet between the two old lovers, Mamita and Honoré, “I Remember it Well” (“…Am I getting old?” “Oh no, not you…”) is now sung in the first act. And by splitting Honoré’s “I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore” between the two old paramours, it serves as a sort of reprise in the second act, giving added poignancy to their long-ago romance while making way to the new one between Gigi and Gaston.
The new changes make for a fresh telling that still stays faithful to the original intent and spirit of Colette and Lerner.
They say that the proof is in the pudding. In this case, Vanessa Hudgens rises to the occasion like a perfectly baked soufflé. One could argue that her diction is more California than Left Bank compared with her more theatrically seasoned costars, but that is a minor quibble. Overall, our gal Hudgens delivers the perfect embodiment of Collette’s innocent, irrepressible Parisian gamin who turns her back on the back-door way of life of her elders for the more staid but conventional choice of married respectability.
If you like your musicals tuneful, elegant and old-fashioned, with no four-letter words or nudity but only gorgeous sets, knock-out costumes and sublime music, and if you like cheering on a part-compatriot who’s made it to the big time, then run to the Neil Simon Theatre on West 48th Street in New York City as soon as you can.
It was great to be back in the Big Apple after a ten-year absence and falling in love all over again with New York and “Gigi.”
The Street Where I Live, Alan Jay Lerner, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, NY © 1978, 1980
Lyrics © Chappell & Co., Inc.,New York, NY ©1957-58; used with permission.
Myles Garcia is a retired San Francisco Bay Area-based author/writer. His proudest work to date is the book "Secrets of the Olympic Ceremonies" which begat the Plaridel Award-winning article (Honorable Mention), "Ten Best Kept-Secrets of Olympic Ceremonies" (this publication, January 15, 2014). Myles has also written for the Journal of the ISOH (International Society of Olympic Historians) of which he is also a member. Presently, Myles is also stretching his wings as a playwright, finishing a play, "Love, Art and Murder" which he would eventually like to see produced on Broadway.
Vanessa Hudgens, from ‘High School’ to Broadway
By Ella Puno Garcia
Vanessa admits to having to work harder to be on a live show every night and loving every minute of it. As she told Jimmy Fallon in an interview last month, “I love theater since I started in community theater when I was young.” She recalled being excited to audition for a production of the “Hunchback of Notre Dame,” expecting to be cast as Esmeralda only to land the part of the Hunchback. Her adoring fans will take her in however she’s suited up, as they line up three-deep near the backstage door to catch a glimpse of the peppy actress.
She grew up in Salinas, California, the daughter of a Filipina mother (Gina Guangco of Ozamiz City) and an Irish-Native American father, Greg Hudgens. Her favorite foods include such Filipino staples as halo-halo, pancit and adobo, and she eats rice every day.
Here’s Vanessa in her own words:
How different is the Broadway musical experience from the movies that you've made in the past?
It's such a roller coaster. It's so different in so many ways. The obvious being a live audience and only being able to do it once without a second take…but then some nights you'll feel wonderful and other nights feel absolutely horrible. You’re always your worst critic, but it is such a thrill doing live theater. I absolutely adore it.
Any advice for those young dreamers wishing for a spot on a Broadway or "High School," the musical?
Work hard. Always continue to improve yourself and don't quit. Keep pushing through difficulties and rejection. When your time’s right, it will happen.
Happy To Be Part of The Tsuwariwap
By Ella Puno Garcia
Getting to play a Parisienne in the 1900s in the beloved Lerner and Loewe romantic musical is a fun outing for Karla. “Three wigs and five costume changes, a twirl with the can-can and providing harmonizing vocals is something I look forward to eight times a week,” says the avowed New Yorker.
Karla had a typical Filipino upbringing in the Washington, DC area -- 12 years in parochial schools and a little tension with wanting to major in an occupation that had nothing to do with medicine or law. While visiting family in Quezon City after high school, she was hard-pressed to explain to her Lolo how dancing would be a good and productive career. Thankfully, her parents were understanding and supportive, seeing her through ballet schools and dance studios and weaving their vacations into the dance competition circuit. Despite scholarship offers from several colleges, Karla chose to go to NYU since she wanted to live in the center of the dance world. She has never looked back.
In her off-hours and off-days, Karla teaches in major studios around the country. She is also a sought-after judge in dance competitions and has choreographed music videos for major artists. Visit her website karlagarciadance.com for a look-see at her latest endeavors.
Ella Puno Garcia is a Comm Arts graduate of the Ateneo de Manila University, who studied for her MA in Journalism at the University of Maryland College Park. She wrote for Sunburst Publications and was Public Relations Officer of the Philippine Basketball Association before moving to Washington, D.C. where she raised three fine children and was Assistant to the President of The National Academy of Sciences for 20 years. She now lives in San Francisco, reveling in her children's accomplishments, and planning for more of her own.