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Merde! American Broadway with a French Touch at the Théâtre du Châtelet

If you’re in Paris this week, you’ve still got a chance to buy tickets for an award-winning Broadway musical in one of the city’s most beautiful historic theatres: Stephen Sondheim’s Passion is at the Théâtre du Châtelet, in English.

Sondheim is one of the greats of the musical theatre genre (with eight Tony awards, an Oscar, eight Grammy awards, and a Pulitzer, among others), and creator of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, A Little Night MusicSweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods. He also wrote the lyrics for West Side Story. After 280 performances on Broadway in 1994-1995, Passion became the shortest-running show to win a Tony Award for Best Musical. At least that’s what I read online.

Before we go any further, a confession: I’m not usually a fan of Broadway musicals. Or any musicals, for that matter. I grew up on Disney movies, but I always felt the songs were just long interruptions of the story. I only sat through the latest film version of Les Miserables because I’ll watch Hugh Jackman and Russel Crowe do anything, even sing (although I considered skipping out early when Anne Hathaway came back from the dead to sing again). Needless to say, my gay friends barely tolerate my musical theatre ignorance. It hasn’t put a damper on my journalistic curiosity, though.

Fosca, Giorgio and Clara in Passion.
Photo courtesy Théâtre du Châtelet, copyright Marie-Noëlle Robert

A few years ago the British theatre production of Les Miserables, which is one of the longest running musicals in history, was being performed in Paris for its 25th anniversary, in English with French surtitles. “Why isn’t it playing all of the time in Paris, like Cats on Broadway?” I asked some of my French friends. It’s Victor Hugo, after all! They seemed to think it wasn’t a very interesting idea. Maybe because they had been traumatized from having to read the enormous book as school kids. Well, surely the tourists would go, right?

But it seems it’s not a question of whether or not people would go, but a question of reputation. According to an article written by avid musical fanatic Bryan Pirolli, the French theatre world didn’t historically think too highly of the Broadway musical genre, with productions “playing in the same venue as the Harlem Globetrotters or the Blue Man Group”. The Théâtre Mogador in Paris has shown productions of popular commercial musicals such as The Lion King and Sister Act, but only in French. And none of my readers or tour clients ever asked me about getting tickets to those shows. It seemed Paris just wasn’t the place to go for theatre. At least not for English-speaking tourists.  

Photo courtesy Théâtre du Châtelet, copyright Gilles Alonso.

But over the course of the last decade, the prestigious Théâtre du Châtelet has changed that. Bryan’s article explains how in 2006 the new general director Jean-Luc Choplin made it his mission to introduce the grand Broadway classics to skeptical Parisian audiences, in English with French surtitles. The daring gamble paid off. Even for someone without musical theatre on my radar, I couldn’t help but notice the buzz around the sold-out performances of The Sound of MusicMy Fair Lady and Sweeney Todd. I even tried – in vain – to get tickets to the world premier musical production of An American in Paris, based on the classic film starring Gene Kelly. Like the French, I have to admit I was only willing to take a chance on the musical because it was being performed at the Châtelet.

There are many illustrious theatres and opera houses in Paris, but the Théâtre du Châtelet is one of the most beautiful, something you’d never guess from the rather sedate Second Empire exterior that blends in with the surrounding Haussmann-style buildings. Opened in 1862, the 2,500-seat theatre has a stage measuring 24m x 35m (79ft x 155ft), the largest venue of its kind in Paris at that time. It’s renowned for its exceptional sound quality because of the wooden floors, wood-framed seats, and glass domed roof. In addition to plays by Alexandre Dumas and Emile Zola, composers such as Tchaikovsky, Richard Strauss and Debussy conducted their own work in Châtelet, film maker Méliès shot scenes for “The Four Hundred Pranks of the Devil” in 1906, and the Ballet Russes of Monte-Carlo performed in the 1930s. Today the Théâtre du Châtelet continues to offer a packed program of opera, musical, concerts and dance.

I finally got inside last week during rehearsals for the upcoming show Passion, a Châtelet production directed by the French film star Fanny Ardant. This is the fifth Stephen Sondheim musical to be produced at the Châtelet. It’s a dark, tragic musical set in a remote, 19th-century military outpost in Italy where the handsome young captain Giorgio, missing his beautiful (but married) mistress Clara, becomes the object of the obsessive passion of his commanding officer’s homely and sickly cousin, Fosca. There are no dance numbers and – spoiler alert – there is no happy ending.

But I wasn’t there to review the musical. We’ve already firmly established this author as a non-expert in the realm of musical theatre. I was there to interview one of the cast members, Canadian opera singer Roger Honeywell. Roger is an acclaimed tenor in many American and Canadian companies, recently performing with the Boston Lyric Opera as Danilo in The Merry Widow and with the Santa Fe Opera for the world premiere of Jennifer Higdon’s Cold Mountain, in the role of Veasey.

Roger Honeywell (the curly-haired redhead who resembles Will Ferrell) with the cast of Passion. Photo courtesy Théâtre du Châtelet, copyright Marie-Noëlle Robert

In Passion he plays one of the officers, Lieutenant Torasso. “It’s just a small role, so I have a bit of free time before rehearsals begin,” he said when we first met last month just after he arrived in Paris. He is staying with an uncle who happens to be my friend and neighbor, just off the Rue Mouffetard. So I offered the usual neighborhood tips over tea at the Mosquée de Paris, and since he’s a runner and I was still training for the Paris Half-Marathon, we agreed to meet up for a short 5k around the Jardin des Plantes the following week.

I admitted my total musical theatre ignorance upfront, then proceeded to ask a ton of dumb questions, like “What’s the difference between opera and musical theatre?” (Basically, in opera every word is sung to music, while musical theatre has talking interspersed with musical numbers) What intrigued me the most, of course, was when he explained how certain things are done differently in France. At one point the subject of intermittents du spectacle (or theatre technicians) came up and Roger made a face. The last time he performed in France was in 2014 for a production of Daphne in Toulouse. Unfortunately a strike demonstration by the intermittents’ union blocked the press from attending opening night. “Err..yeah, that’s practically a tradition in France,” I said, trying not to laugh at the predictability of it. “The rest of the show went well, but the press only comes once,” he said, laughing it off.

A 5k run goes by pretty fast when you’re chattering along, but I still had questions about Passion. He suggested I come by during the rehearsals and put me in contact with the press agent to get permission. “No photos of the stage or backstage,” I repeated in the briefing of the rules. Which is why the photo of the chairs (which are also quite lovely) is the only one inside the theatre that’s mine.

Roger met me at the stage door and walked me through the maze of corridors behind the stage until we popped out to the auditorium where a handful of cast and crew were seated or walking around before the rehearsal got started. Fanny Ardant came down from her director’s perch in the balcony to say hello to her friend watching from the wings, the French actor Gerard Depardieu.

That Thursday’s rehearsal, less than a week before the opening, was with the full orchestra (the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France) under the musical direction of Andy Einhorn. “Today is what’s called an orchestra staging, so there’s a weird power shift,” explains Roger. “When it’s just the piano, Fanny’s in charge, so she can stop anytime she wants and say what she wants fixed. When the orchestra’s in the pit, everything changes. If Fanny wants to stop, they’ll be a huge fight because it’s Andy’s rehearsal.” Although I witness nothing but calm professionalism, he says it’s totally normal for some fireworks to fly during rehearsals. “Then everyone kisses each other at the end of the night. It’s a boxing match then we all hug.” He laughs when I ask if they’re all in an unusually good mood because Paris Saint-Germain (the local soccer team) won their match against Chelsea the night before. “That’s right! We were actually in a sitzprobe, so we’re all sitting on chairs on the stage singing through it with the orchestra, and the guys were all on their iPads watching the game.”

I was hoping to get a peek at the costumes, which Roger excitedly informed me were designed by Milena Canonero (who has won three Oscars for costume design in the films Barry Lyndon, Chariots of Fire and Marie-Antoinette), but it wasn’t a dress rehearsal day, so the actors were all in jeans. One exception was Natalie Dessay, who plays Fosca, wearing a hooped skirt over her casual clothes. I almost didn’t recognize her from the Passion press images, where the pretty blond opera star has been transformed into an unattractive brunette for the role. When they begin the opening scene Ryan Silverman (as Giorgio) mimes holding Clara in his arms while an understudy sings her role just off-stage until Erica Spyres returns from an errand and quickly takes her place.  

Natalie is French, Ryan is Canadian and Erica is American. The director is French and the musical director is American. Roger explains that it’s not rare to have mixes of English, Italian, German and French in opera or musical theatre productions. “I can understand stage directions in French,” he says. It’s fun listening to the mix, like being at a typical expat dinner party. And languages aren’t the only things woven together in this Châtelet production.

Apparently the once very distinct worlds of opera and musical theatre are now overlapping. “Their casting is different at Châtelet,” says Roger during the break. “They’re doing musical theatre, but they’re still hiring opera singers.” Ryan and Erica are the only performers who come from the world of Broadway, while Natalie and the rest of the cast are from the opera. “It’s a fusion of opera and musical theatre, which is happening more and more because audiences for opera are dying, so they’re trying to make it more popular,” he explains. As the only place that does American-style musicals in Paris, the Théâtre du Châtelet has really carved out a niche for themselves, and now some of these productions are being bought by other opera companies in North America. “That’s a double-edged sword,” admits Roger. “It’s good for musical theatre, but not so good for opera.”

Fosca, Giorgio and Clara in Passion. 
Photo courtesy Théâtre du Châtelet, copyright Marie-Noëlle Robert

Knowing very little about musical theatre or opera means I also have no expectations or preconceived ideas about how things are “supposed” to be. Take the minimalist set design for Passion. I wouldn’t have noticed it at all if Roger hadn’t pointed it out.  “We have these amazing costumes, but those flies – the backdrops – are just black and grey abstract paintings. In the opera we tend to have more elaborate décor.” I tell him I think they match the mood of the production (you can see one of them behind Ryan in this interview). “Maybe I’ve just been looking at them too long,” he replies.

And that would be because they’ve been in rehearsals for just over five weeks, something that – like the amount of paid vacation French employees get – is more than he’s accustomed to. “The process in France is much slower because they have two weeks more preparation time than they do in North America,” he says. The extra time just means they have to iron out the final wrinkles without the benefit of instant audience feedback.

Because in the opera – and therefore at Châtelet – there are no previews. “The press don’t get to see productions in advance,” says Roger as he escorts me through the back stage exit at the end of rehearsal. “In opera we do a dress rehearsal for the public, usually school students, but in musical theatre they’ll do two or three weeks of previews so they can make changes, try things out and see what audiences like. It’s almost market research. But in opera they don’t do that. So this schedule is much more like opera.”

In America we say “Break a leg!” to wish someone luck before going onstage, but in the French ballet they say “Merde!”, which sounds more like the expletive resulting from breaking a leg after slipping in the aforementioned merde. In any case, here’s hoping it translates for musical-theatre-opera fusions, as well: Merde, Roger!

Passion opens at the Théâtre du Châtelet Wednesday night March 16th with seven performances through March 24th (including a Sunday 4pm show). Tickets €16-€89. 

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  • Thank you, Dale! I was really out of my comfort zone as a journalist on this one, so I really learned a lot. Am going to see the full show (in costume!) on Saturday night. I have this sneaking suspicion musical theatre could become a new habit. 😉

  • I thoroughly enjoyed your write-up of "Passion". Beautifully written. I vote you preview all operas, ballets, musical theatre, concerts. Congratulations for this really interesting, well-written piece.