45° Good Morning
45° Good Morning
EntertainmentColumnistsLinda Winer

'Gigi' updated for Broadway, plus more modern views

Vanessa Hudgens as Gigi in the new Broadway

Vanessa Hudgens as Gigi in the new Broadway production of GIGI, book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, music by Frederick Loewe, adaptation by Heidi Thomas, choreographed by Joshua Bergasse and directed by Eric Schaeffer, at the Neil Simon Theatre (250 West 52nd Street). Credit: Margot Schulman

In 1958, "Gigi" won nine Oscars, including best picture, and has earned a respected -- if not exactly revered -- place on lists of iconic movie musicals.

So I guess we shouldn't be surprised that Broadway, which can't resist a brand-name Hollywood adaptation, is preparing a new version of one of the last big MGM song and dance extravaganzas.

And yet, it is hard not initially to think, "Gigi"? Really? The romantic comedy in which the lovely young heroine is raised by her granny to be sold as a high-price French prostitute? The one in which Maurice Chevalier plays an aging roue who leers at youngsters while singing, "Thank Heaven for Little Girls"? That "Gigi"?

Well, not quite that one. The "Gigi" that begins previews Thursday for an April 8 opening still has that romantic score by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, plus a few songs they wrote for their own failed 1973 attempt to adapt their hit film for the stage. The new version is still set in turn-of-the-last-century Paris.

But the musical, budgeted at $12 million to include lavish sets and costumes, has been rethought for modern sensibilities by two women with a lifelong love for the movie and no experience on Broadway. Vanessa Hudgens, late of the "High School Musical" franchise, makes her Broadway debut in the role made forever adorable by Leslie Caron.

Jenna Segal, lead producer, has been crazy for the movie since she was 6 years old and has been working on the refashioning for seven years. "Bringing 'Gigi' to the stage was something I have always wanted to do," she told me in a recent phone interview. "I grew up in New Jersey with a theater-loving mother. I went into development, but always had this in the back of my head."

Also on the conference call was Heidi Thomas, the British creator and writer of BBC series "Call the Midwife." Her attachment to the film happened even earlier. "My parents went to it on their first date," she said. "When I was a child, whenever it was on TV, they would say, 'Quick! Quick! "Gigi" is on!'

"But I fell in love with it on my own, drawn back again and again by the story, the costumes, the music, everything," she added.

Segal had interviewed several American writers for her dream production, but felt they didn't understand the limited options for women in 1900. She watched several episodes that Thomas had written for "Cranford," a BBC series set in the mid-18th century, and was struck by Thomas' knowing representation of the women.

So these two strangers from different countries, neither one from the theater world, forged this bond over a story that hasn't exactly worn well with women of independent spirit, not to mention people for whom the slightest suggestion of pedophilia is, at the very least, creepy.

They went back to the original 1944 novella by Colette for more insight on Gigi and her relationship with Gaston (Louis Jourdan in the film), the dashing sugar baron she has known and adored since childhood.

Looking again at the movie and the 1973 Broadway script, Thomas began to think "they could have called it 'Gaston.' He makes the decisions. We had to redress the balance. Gigi is a young woman with a life that's her own. Decisions she makes, questions she asks, choices she makes. We restored it to her story . . . to make sure her voice was heard loud and clear."

In fact, Honore (the Chevalier character) didn't even exist in the novella. In the new version directed by Eric Schaeffer, he no longer gets to admire little girls while singing "Thank Heaven." Instead, it is a duet for Gigi's grandmother and her aging courtesan aunt, who are played by two Broadway treasures, Victoria Clark and Dee Hoty.

Segal is still a little shocked that anyone considered that song "tawdry in any way. But I came to realize more people thought that way than we had imagined." Taking the song away from Honore, Thomas added, "wasn't a decision we took lightly."

The age difference between Gigi and Gaston has been greatly reduced. In the movie, he was in his 30s, she was 15. Hudgens plays her as 18 and her Gaston (Corey Cott) is not a generation older.

Then there is the whole issue of Gigi's training to be a courtesan. As Segal explains it, patiently but firmly, women at that time, especially in France, didn't have the option of just working hard and getting ahead.

"She wasn't going to go to the bank and get a small-business loan to open a store," Segal half-joked. A privileged courtesan was a prized position for a girl of her class.

The estate of Lerner and Loewe has given them the freedom to reimagine Gigi's character. "They knew I was going to keep the period, I wasn't looking to modernize it," said Segal. "But we wanted to make a story that would work for today."

Thomas added, "I wanted to share this gorgeous show with a new audience." Tween girls can't keep buying seats to "Wicked" forever.


We're revamping our Comments section. Learn more and share your input.

More Entertainment