The 1951 film “An American in Paris” was a huge hit in its time, garnering multiple Academy Awards, including ones for best picture and best original screenplay. Given the movie’s enormous success, and its panoply of classic Gershwin tunes, it’s almost surprising that it took more than half a century for the inevitable stage adaptation to hit Broadway.
That came in 2014, from director and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, and it is now on a national tour that will be coming to Bass Concert Hall on May 30 from Broadway in Austin. Telling the story of American expatriate Jerry Mulligan’s life in Paris after World War II, the musical focuses on dance as much as it does music and dialogue, culminating in an on-stage ballet set to George Gershwin’s orchestral piece “An American in Paris.”
Given the centrality of the music of the Gershwins (composer George and his brother and lyricist Ira) to “An American in Paris,” the tour’s musical director and conductor, David Andrews Rogers, feels a particular kind of pressure to maintain their sound.
“Because the music is such an integral part of this production, specifically — my gosh, we’re dealing with Gershwin! — my job as musical director, and frankly as conductor, is to look out for the best interests of both George and Ira so that the lyrics and the text are absolutely just as important as the notes on the page,” Rogers says.
Though Rogers’ role as conductor may be the most visible part of his job, his behind-the-scenes work as musical director is every bit as important. Responsible for all the musical aspects of the show, he must do everything from teaching new cast members their musical material to giving notes to the cast and orchestra in order to maintain fidelity to the original vision and intention of director Wheeldon and music supervisor Todd Ellison.
“It’s very important that we have a consistent, beautiful product to offer to audiences both in terms of the storytelling in the dialogue and the storytelling through music and through dance,” Rogers says.
Accomplishing this every night requires Rogers to work closely with the stage management team to make each performance as fresh as if it were opening night: “We’re constantly in communication with one another, whether it’s by the phone, headset, or just watching each other for cues and making sure that it all looks as seamless as possible to the audience. I often say that there’s a whole other show going on backstage that the audience will never and doesn’t need to ever know about.”
“One does try to keep a lot of balls in the air at once,” he says. “It’s tough, but that’s where the joy comes in. That’s where I consider myself the luckiest kid in show business.”
Fortunately, the twin roles of conductor and musical director aren’t too far apart, Rogers says: “I really see those two as almost indivisible in the majority of my work.”
What makes Rogers’ work on “An American in Paris” so unusual, though, is the central role that dance plays in the production. “The fact is,” he says, “the storytelling in this show is as much with the feet and the arms as it is with the dialogue and the notes.”
This requires him to be fluent in not only the show’s music and dialogue cues but also the intricacies of its choreography. A great deal of his work as conductor involves on-the-fly math to make sure that a note hits at the exact same moment as a particular dance move, requiring him to rely as much on each dancer as that performer relies on him.
But this sort of collaboration is not too different from other musicals that Rogers has conducted, he says. “When I’m working with a dance soloist, it’s exactly like working with a soloist who’s singing a song in a show. Sometimes I’m following them, sometimes they’re following me, and sometimes we’re meeting in the middle. I’m always listening to them, I’m always watching them, and they’re always aware of what I’m doing, whether they’re looking directly at me or not.”
Rogers’ ultimate goal with “An American in Paris” is to “create the most magical and the most extraordinary opportunity for our audiences to be transported to another country, another city, another time period. We’re dealing with a time period immediately following the Second World War, and it’s important that we transport our audiences to that era. We want the audience to walk away feeling like they spent a couple of hours in 1945.”
‘AN AMERICAN IN PARIS’
When: 8 p.m. May 30-June 2, 2 p.m. June 2, 1 and 7 p.m. June 3
Where: Bass Concert Hall, 2350 Robert Dedman Drive