Cultural Relevance? Not in Paris

If you’re anything like me you’ll browse streaming sites for way too long, trying to find the perfect thing to watch. After skimming many synopses, I settled on An American in Paris, mainly sold by the nostalgia of music by Gershwin from my high school band days, but not knowing much else about it. The musical adaptation from 2015 directed by Christopher Wheeldon and Ross MacGibbon with book by Craig Lucas, is based on the 1951 film of the same name with music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin. Right off the bat I was pleasantly surprised when the three main male characters were introduced, each wanting to pursue the arts. Jerry Mulligan wants to be an artist, Henri Baurel a nightclub performer, and Adam Hochberg a composer. Ballet is the main form of dance in this musical, and the men take part too, doing leaps and pirouettes with fluid movements traditionally seen as feminine. Male characters who aren’t overly masculine and have discussions about the purpose and meaning of art? Yeah, sounded pretty promising to me too. Unfortunately, that ended real fast as soon as Lise Dassin, the love interest came into the picture. Despite its recent adaptation, the gender roles seen in An American in Paris still have traditional and outdated values, making it culturally irrelevant for a modern audience.

Before we get into everything, let’s quickly set up the love triangle. We have Jerry, an American soldier who chose to stay in Paris after the war, who runs into Lise and has a “love at first sight” moment. Adam, also an American soldier who stays in Paris, loves Lise as well. Then there’s Henri, he’s French like Lise, has been dating her, and wants to propose.

The main message I got from this musical: women have little agency in their relationships. Not exactly the first thing I want to be thinking about after watching a musical, but it’s happened more often than I would like. First, let’s discuss Lise as a character. She’s very feminine with her doe eyes, colorful, flowy dresses, and red lipstick. She looks down a lot and speaks quietly. Her feminine characteristics themselves don’t make her weak as a character, but they do emphasize the idea of femininity being weak when she acts with little to no agency in her interactions with Jerry.

From the get-go, Jerry will not take no for an answer. He goes to the department store where Lise works and causes a scene while singing that he has “beginner’s luck” in love because he happened to run into her twice in two days. Lise begs him to stop but he continues singing and disrupting the customers. At one point he picks her up and puts her on a counter while she protests, but once she’s standing on the counter and is looking out at the scene below with everyone in the store dancing, she smiles and laughs for a brief moment. That’s when I knew she was doomed. She was going to fall for Jerry’s obnoxious charms. If someone you saw twice but never talked to came to your workplace and started wreaking havoc at the risk of you being fired while professing their love for you, would you agree to meet them later? The absurdity of the situation makes Lise seem naïve. She also feeds into Jerry’s egotistical confidence. When Jerry asks Lise to meet him by the river, she refuses but he says, “I’ll see you there.” She questions “How can you be so sure?” to which he replies, “’Cause I’ve got beginner’s luck.” And of course, she shows up.

Right before Lise meets Jerry by the river, we see her writing a letter to her parents about her relationship with Henri and debating whether their love is romantic love or not. She starts singing about meeting the man she loves, and the lyrics contain themes of traditional gender roles. Take a look at some of these lines:

“And he’ll be big and strong”

“And when he comes my way, I’ll do my best to make him stay.”

“And so all else above, I’m waiting for the man I love.”

Changes have been made to the original lyrics which included lines about dreaming about the man she loves every night and never leaving the home he’ll build for them, but the original lyrics above still convey a sense of her needing a man in her life. In fact, a lot of the original songs from the film with more obviously problematic lyrics are not included in the musical. The lines above come from another song by Gershwin called “The Man I Love,” which was actually not in the original film. The writers behind this musical recognized the outdated gender roles of the original film, but their efforts to recharacterize Lise fell short, leaving her with little agency.

We start off the river scene with Jerry being Jerry and saying that Lise’s name is “Beautiful. But “sad,” trying to get a reaction out of her to stop her from trying to leave. He goes on saying “How about Lizzie? Or Eliza? Liza.” Lise says she likes her name, but Jerry replies that “Liza’s happier.” Lise keeps trying to leave, but every time she’s about to go he comes up with another way to get her to stay, soon launching into an attempt at a heartfelt moment when he confesses that he wants to forget everything about the war. Lise answers sincerely that she wants to forget too, but instead of empathizing with her Jerry immediately lights up again, having finally found some common ground he can work with. He claims that “With me you don’t have to be that sad girl. You can be Liza,” and bursts into song. He continually uses her emotions to his advantage, describing what their lives would be like together as she looks dreamily off into the distance or smiles to herself, enamored by his words. He keeps calling her Liza while he’s singing and at first, she corrects him every time. But she eventually stops, until by the end when he finally calls her Lise, she corrects him and says Liza. This is also when I remembered that she still barely knows him. Jerry’s been trying to manipulate Lise’s feelings for him, and she still gives up her name for his convenience.

Jerry has control over the situation. He’s the one singing and the one guiding the choreography, leading Lise around and trying to get closer to her. But despite Lise’s discomfort at his advances, she doesn’t do much to stop him. She’ll remove his hand from her shoulder, or edge away from him when they’re sitting on the bench, but she never leaves. Right after Jerry agrees that they can just be friends, he tries to kiss her, and she pushes him away. But even after that, she still leaves smiling as they agree to meet at the river every day as “friends.” Lise physically lacks control during much of their dance numbers together as well. Whenever her and Jerry have a ballet duet, he lifts her a lot, spinning her around and catching her in the air, or supporting her weight as she leans to the side and spins on one foot. She depends on him to perform these moves and he is in control when he lifts her in the air. Everything about their relationship has centered on Jerry having agency in the situation and Lise mildly following along.

Another character I want to talk about is Madame Baurel, Henri’s mother. Throughout the musical, Madame Baurel takes charge. She has a sharp tongue and a stern look and gives orders to those around her. Henri hides the fact that he wants to be a performer, knowing that his parents care a lot about appearance because of how they had to hide Lise during the war and would not approve of his dreams. During one of his performances his parents are there, and they find out his secret. Madame Baurel berates him after the performance, meanwhile Monsieur Baurel surprises everyone by exclaiming that Henri is remarkable and should pursue his dream. The instant he says this Madame Baurel is taken aback and quickly tries to recover by agreeing with him, saying “Oh, er, well yes, yes of course.” I couldn’t believe that she would drop everything she was worried about during the war so suddenly just because of her husband. Why couldn’t she form her own opinion about Henri’s career? Why did she need to wait for her husband’s approval first? For as much agency as she seemed to have, it was all a façade where underneath she was just following her husband’s lead.

Looking at these examples, it becomes clear that the traditional gender roles make An American in Paris culturally irrelevant. Okay, but why does that matter? It was based off a film from the 1950s, of course it might seem old fashioned and not everything needs to be revolutionary after all. But that’s just it. The fact that the story is still culturally irrelevant even after the adaptation, reflects the lingering gender roles that persist in our culture today (or 2015, if you want to be specific). The adaptation is a reflection of modern values, and we see that through the changes that were made to the song choices and lyrics. But the extent to which inequality between men and women is portrayed even in this revised version is problematic because it perpetuates these themes in popular culture. As many classic stories get brought back to life on the Broadway stage, it’s important to recognize and address the issues they may have simply due to the different cultural context they were created in. After all, it’d be nice to have our crème brûlée and eat it too.

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